Remember when people talked excitedly of convergent multimedia devices? Sony still does – but the problems that hamstrung the Philips CD-I et al haven't gone away.

What is the PlayStation 3 delay if not a classic case of a manufacturing hold-up caused by technological over-reach due to the push for Blu-Ray? And hasn't the PSP suffered from a fruitless and confusing early over-emphasis on UMD movies and other multimedia functions?

Perhaps of more concern today though is convergent game distribution and branding. While the ability to play games has migrated over the past few years onto a host of new devices, from interactive TVs and cellphones to PDAs and the back of airplane seats, you'd barely know from the games we're offered.

Revolutionary, or going around in circles?
Consider Apple's new games line-up for the iPod. Long suspected, and announced with Steve Jobs' typical aplomb (one minute it was a bullet point in a speech, within an hour or two you could download the games and play them on the latest iPods), five years ago you'd wonder if the iPod was now going to bring games to a whole new demographic, or even lead to new kinds of experiences.

After all, Apple has sold 60 million iPods in just four years, and while only the latest fifth-generation models are capable of playing the new games, in the 2006 alone it's so far sold some 30 million. Within 12 months, the game-capable iPod installed base will almost certainly be much greater than that of the DS or the PSP.

But we've come a long way from the convergent device projections of the early 1990s – we know better.

Most new mobile phones play games, which means there's a theoretical market of hundreds of millions of devices out there ready to receive mobile game downloads.

And yet research firm M:Metrics reported at E3 that in March 2006, only 4.2 per cent of UK phone subscribers and 2.7 per cent of US subscribers had done so, a figure it described as relatively constant from month-to-month. Most phone users couldn't care less.

Looking at the iPod launch software, it's easy to expect the same. The first games play well enough, and just as importantly the integration with the iTunes Store is more attractive than a typical phone operator's portal.

But initial titles – Bejeweled, Cubis, Mahjong, Pac-man, Mini Golf, Tetris, Texas Hold 'em, Vortex and Zuma – are almost the definition of video gaming déjà vu, casual gaming comfort food. You've got your arcade classic from the '70s, your '80s portable wunderkind, your mass-market PC smash hits from the last few years and a Mahjong, a game which may be many things but 'new' is not among them.

iPod castaways
It may seem churlish to moan. I've certainly no complaint about Zuma or Tetris: classic games that won't ever die. It's more a question about whether this is how we'd ideally like to see the future of 'mass-market gaming'.

The praise getting heaped upon Nintendo at the moment is getting tiresome in its almost knee-jerk ubiquity (and, incidentally, is surely about to hit the buffers when the first of the less-than-intuitive Wii-controlled games inevitably arrive alongside the good uns).

Nevertheless, what Nintendo has done with the DS – create a new category of games that exploit the particular capabilities of its new hardware, and so entice a new demographic – is exactly what Sony has failed to do with the PSP. And it's what Apple might have done with the iPod.

Look at what the iPod and its marketing stand for. Is that replicated in the launch games? Hardly.

Where, for starters, is the music? Wouldn't it have been heartening if alongside the inevitable Tetris and Bejeweled there'd been a DJ-mixing game that used your own album collection? Or a rhythm action game, visually styled with Apple's silhouetted marketing mannequins? Or some sort of pass-the-iPod party game? Or even a port of the DS' Electroplankton?

Maybe these are coming, though I wouldn't hold your breath. Safe and simple is now the mantra of format holders, who face new threats every day from rival devices, shifting business models or a sudden distracting phenomenon like YouTube that makes their vision of the future look myopic overnight. There's enough risk to be going on with.

The physicist John von Neumann leant his name to the von Neumann probe – a self-replicating machine that spreads throughout the galaxy intent on seeding every planet it encounters and converting available matter into copies of itself.

One wonders if gaming for the masses faces a similar future? Two thousand devices to play games on, but just the same games you first played as a kid.


This article also appears in the latest issue of Develop, the European games development monthly, which is available for free download as a PDF (registration required). We've reviewed all the initial iPod games on Pocket Gamer.