The Search for Satisfaction
Nobody really expected the App Store to be such an enormous success. There are currently over 41,000 apps in the store, and more than 12,000 publishers. (These stats come from our sister site, 148apps.biz.) Since its debut, the App Store has produced games that scorn typical expectations of "mobile gaming" and present polished, cheap entertainment in an easily accessible form. Apple has taken advantage of the iPod Touch and iPhone's gaming abilities, and is pushing gaming apps in its ads. By all accounts, the iPhone is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the world of handheld gaming.
But while the App Store is booming, there's a sad lack of real games in the App Store. I'm talking about games that draw you in with knotted narratives, games that you can really sink your teeth into. I'm talking about games that could make the folks over at Nintendo and Sony fret over the futures of their precious handheld consoles.
Just look at the Top 100, and you'll see what's missing. At the time of writing, the #1 game is Stick Wars—a "good" game, perhaps, but hardly an overwhelming demonstration of the iPhone's capabilities. The #1 free app is the "Urinal Test," which speaks for itself; the #1 paid app overall is the Moron Test—that's high-quality stuff right there. Two more examples: Doodle Jump and Flight Control are bestsellers that have met with both popular and critical acclaim, and for good reason; they're wonderful casual titles. But their success is a testament to a marketplace that craves casual play, a marketplace where the cheapest often wins. iPod Touch and iPhone owners tend to buy games as if they were candy: sugary snacks that can be consumed mindlessly, and thrown away once the sweetness has been sapped. Those aren't the kinds of games that will catapult the iPhone to true greatness as a gaming platform.
And that's what we gamers would love, really. The diversionary games are wonderful, but serious gamers are still lusting after real games. Imagine a world where your PSP or DS has been made obsolete by your phone. That's the world I want to be in; why carry two devices when you can have one? I want quality titles that will last more than a few hours. As a New York Times article lamented, "Those searching for a deep, meaningful, narrative-driven experience will generally have to look elsewhere." Don't get me wrong; I like my casual games. I'm still addicted to Lock 'n' Roll. But sometimes I just want more.
High-Quality Games: Is Change on its Way?
There have been signs, however, that the App Store bias towards casual, simple games is slowing. Roughly 30% of the games in the Top 100 today are priced over $2.99. This might not seem like a huge deal, but if memory serves me right, this is a significant increase. Big-name publishers are taking note, and many of the high-priced successes are games like Sim City, Need for Speed, Cooking Mama, and Oregon Trail from publishers like Gameloft, EA Games, and Taito Corp. Some of them, such as Cooking Mama, have received less than favorable reviews; Sim City came out with plenty of nasty bugs. But some games have strived for depth. Take a look at Need for Speed, which received a glowing review by our current editor-in-chief, Chris. Need for Speed, he said, was a complete game that "would be welcome on any portable console" and was well worth its $10 price of admission. Many others seemed to share his sentiments; a month after its release, there's been no price drop from EA, and the game is tenaciously maintaining its popularity. Need for Speed is currently holding position #41, a remarkable feat for a game with a $10 price tag. Apparently, people are still willing to pay for quality, and Need for Speed brought the iPod Touch and iPhone closer to being considered "true" handheld consoles.
I recently had the pleasure of playing and reviewing Zenonia, an RPG that claims to provide 40+ hours of gameplay. Unlike Need for Speed, Zenonia comes from a much smaller developer team by the name of Gamevil. They've enjoyed considerable success in Korea, where Zenonia has racked up over 600,000 downloads, and it's looking like Zenonia could be a success abroad, too. Zenonia shocked me, not because of its groundbreaking plot or innovative characteristics—it's a classic, epic RPG with ordinary genre elements—but because of its completeness. Zenonia's gameplay has depth that's rarely seen on the iPhone. On the DS--or even in the days of the GBA--it would retail for at least $20, and probably more. Instead, it's priced at a mere six dollars, which is expensive by App Store standards but a steal for a game of this caliber. To survive in a high-quality, high-price tier without a brand name behind you requires an excellent game, a solid fan base, and a good amount of hype; so far, Zenonia seems to have all three.
I asked the developers of Zenonia why they had chosen to make not just an RPG, but a high-quality RPG. "We 'had' to make good RPG games in order to survive through the tough competition," Gamevil USA's president, Kyu Lee, said. He cited the popularity of RPGs in the Korean App Store and an "extremely competitive" environment. (The rest of this interview will be coming shortly!)
Lee sees the App Store as a merit-based economy, despite the power of elements such as branding. "Even with a great brand, if the title isn't good, I don't see them succeeding on the App Store long term," he said. "The App Store does have a huge amount of original titles in the Top 100, compared to where there used to almost none on the traditional carrier deck." Gamevil is apparently determined to have at least a few of those original Top 100 titles. Their two games in the US App Store—Zenonia and Baseball Superstars 2009—have both been heavily praised for their quality and are currently #1 and #2 in the Paid RPG category.
The App Store and Full-Length Games
The idea that one has to make high-quality games in order to survive, and that the best games rise to the top, is what fuels the ambitions of so many App Store developers. It hasn't always been true so far; remember fart apps? But I believe that the App Store is reaching a point where novelty and gag apps simply won't last. There are too many developers, too many knock-offs, and simple apps are easily copied. Apple doesn't play the policeman. Complex apps, on the other hand, are rarely mimicked; as a result, these are the apps that should theoretically survive. This becomes more and more crucial as more developers flood the store. The balance just might be shifting in favor of creative, original developers—a development that's long overdue.
So why aren't other publishers making epic, lengthy games?
The number-one problem, I think, is fear. It takes a lot of investment to produce a major title, and that time and that money could be spent churning out quicker novelty apps. Also, iPhone and iPod Touch owners are a tricky group. Sure, we download more apps than other smartphone users combined, but hardcore gamers are a minority. There simply aren't enough of them to compensate for the App Store's severely depressed prices, and creating full-length titles is too big of a risk.
Some publishers are certainly taking the risks, though. Look at the Sims 3, one of EA Games' upcoming titles. While it will probably be a different game than the PC and console versions, pre-release videos suggest that it's still going to be a very rich Sims experience. The Sims 3 is slated to include the typical Sims elements: decorating, relationships, goals, and so on. I doubt that it will retail below $4.99—heck, it'll probably go higher—and EA seems determined to up the ante when it comes to iPhone ports. The game will also support in-app purchases, which is another important point.
On to the Future
I believe that OS 3.0 will bring about some significant changes to the App Store. Because consumers can be cajoled into spending after an app has already been purchased, it opens up an entirely new revenue stream; this, in turn, makes development less of a risky prospect given a compelling game. In-app purchases will essentially allow developers to charge for updates, which will hopefully lead to longer, more fulfilling gameplay. Will some of the purchases be rip-offs? Of course. But others might actually deliver valuable content.
But side effects stemming from OS changes aren't quite enough; Apple needs to simply make it easier to find good games. The iPhone is a growing platform, and newcomers often don't know about famous hits like Rolando. There should be an option to sort apps by rating, or a showcase of all-time highest-rated popular apps or just a showcase of Apple's own favorite apps. I know that we have featured sections now, but they're arbitrary, and the games often aren't up to snuff. Finally, a limited return policy, or app "trials," would be excellent. 3.0 could have brought time-limited trials into the app store, but free apps can't charge for in-app purchases, thus killing off the possibility of a free trial. It's a shame, because I think that many consumers are unwilling to spend money because there's no easy way to take a lousy or bug-ridden product back to a brick-and-mortar store.
We can't forget the limitations of the iPhone hardware itself, either. The iPhone's battery power isn't what I'd call overwhelming. The iPod Touch fares better thanks to the absence of always-on connectivity, but it still won't last a whole day of intensive gaming like my DS can. These problems, of course, will be addressed in future iPhone and iPod models (are we going to see a new one announced in a few days?) but as it stands, the iPod Touch and iPhone simply don't have enough endurance to be serious gaming systems.
I do believe that the outlook is improving for the iPhone and iPod Touch as true handheld gaming platforms. The public release of OS 3.0, as well as the tantalizing possibility of a new, more powerful iPhone, will help. The explosion of the App Store will force quality upwards if developers want to stand out. And, most importantly, I think that consumers are beginning to look for games beyond the ninety-nine cent "app snacks."
It's impossible to know what the future will hold for iPhone gaming, but with developers like EA Games, Gameloft, and even smaller outfits like Gamevil taking the lead, we gamers should at least have more full-fledged options in the future. Who knows? With E3, WWDC, and OS 3.0 coming shortly, the App Store ecosystem might completely change. Here's to hoping that that change is for the better—and that lugging around my DS will eventually become a thing of the past.