A mere ten days out from the launch of Apple's Application Store and the question on everyone's mind is: where are all the games? Even now, just over a week from the long-awaited debut, Apple is still keeping quiet on the suite of games preparing to hit its innovative device.
Given the immense hype surrounding iPhone gaming, there have been few actual games announced to justify the anticipation. Electronic Arts's Spore and Sega's Super Monkey Ball have received the lion's share of attention, drumming up interest with their utilization of the device's touchscreen and accelerometer. Dig deeper and you'll find a few mobile titles are slated for re-release on iPhone with new touch controls.
Franchise extensions, sequels, and ports hardly conjure excitement for any platform, let alone one as unique and full of potential as iPhone. Certainly there's more to be had on this inventive device.
As a matter of fact, we know there's compelling content out there because Apple has revealed as much. Footage of Kroll, an original action-adventure game from lauded mobile developer Digital Legends was revealed to much fanfare at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in early June. With what little information gleaned from the demonstration, the game looks incredibly promising and is amongst only a few officially revealed original titles in the works for the device.
Apple's silent treatment
In the days leading up to the iPhone App Store launch, big titles like Kroll could easily boost the platform's appeal by showing that rich gaming experiences are possible on iPhone. Such a promising-looking title screams for more of a push, yet the exact opposite is happening. Instead of shouting from the rooftops about the wave of inventive games set to hit iPhone, Apple is telling its partners to keep their mouths shut.
The secretive treatment both titles are receiving illustrates something endemic to Apple's corporate culture. Throughout the company's history, its strategy has been to secretly develop products and unveil them only when they are close to release. That Apple would somehow depart from this successful strategy would be an errant assumption; on the contrary, the company sees this as a formula for success that ought to work again with regards to iPhone.
However, while this certainly appears to work for the release of new hardware, the opposite is true for software. Encouraging sales of software – in this case, iPhone games – demands pre-release publicity.
Examples backing this notion are clear and compelling; in fact, Apple's iPod stands as a serious lesson for the company in how not to handle games. Millions of iPods in consumer hands should be a point of attraction for game developers. The opportunity to sell a game on such a well-established platform could yield massive returns, yet few have bitten. Look for yourself at the small number of games available on the iTunes Store.
The problem lies in the degree of Apple's control over content developed for the platform, not to mention the company's lack of appreciation for gaming. While the latter clearly is changing with the iPhone, the former remains a prohibitive issue for game developers.
Unlike titles created for mobile or handheld platforms like PSP and DS, Apple exerts stringent control over every aspect of games developed for iPhone and iPod. Everything from official announcements to demonstrations to screenshots must be approved by Apple as outlined by non-disclosure agreements with developers.
This offers a stark contrast from the freedom afforded by mobile and handheld development where certification is required, but publishers are essentially left to determine when to announce their titles and exactly how they wish to market them.
Apple's approach seems authoritarian, and it is. The control being exerted over third-party partners is unprecedented. Game makers have expressed frustration – mostly privately – regarding how Apple has proverbially tied their hands behind their back. Many publishers are unwilling to publicly state their frustration with Apple's process, fearing retribution in the form of having their games held back from release.
Several prominent mobile game publishers that wished to remain anonymous expressed fear in divulging any information regarding their upcoming iPhone games. The potential for having their games pulled from the forthcoming launch is all too real.
Long time Mac development house Freeverse was refused the right to showcase its upcoming racing game Wingnuts: Motoracer by Apple. As the developer states on its website, "Our NDA prohibits us from showing all the cool stuff we've been working on."
Screenshots accompanying a first look of the title couldn't even be pulled from the actual game; instead, artwork was published from its internal Mac level building tool.
Dangers of the Apple masterplan
As outrageous as it may seem, there are reasons justifying Apple's careful control over content developed for its emerging platform. Remember that iPhone, for all its enthusiasm and cutting-edge glory, has built but a small base that numbers six million worldwide. While that may sound impressive, it's important to note that handset heavyweight Nokia sells that many phones in a matter of weeks, whereas it took Apple a year.
Boosting acceptance of its iPhone means that Apple plans on a coordinated assault that requires working in concert with its partners to offer a unified marketing push. From a business perspective, it enables Apple to move forward with a single identity when it comes to iPhone games – everything is unified and makes sense.
Additionally, Apple believes that exerting such control ensures certain standards of quality are met. It was a similar controlling initiative by Nintendo, the Seal of Quality, that rescued the video game industry from recession in the 1980s. Clearly it works.
As a gamer, however, it's entirely frustrating. Information on upcoming titles is non-existent, handicapping your ability to gauge whether titles are worth your attention. Forbidding demonstrations of new games may directly translate to diminishing anticipation.
In other words, how are gamers supposed to get excited about iPhone games when Apple restricts hard access to any information on these titles?
Ironically, in its approach the company runs the risk of restricting the potential for iPhone gaming. Apple has taken great measures to create a brilliant infrastructure for developers to design compelling content; however, it now needs to support these efforts by loosening the reigns and allowing partners to promote their games.
Right now, there's simply little for us to justify our rabid excitement. What has us intrigued isn't so much the games we know exist (yet can't tell you about), but rather the potential that we see in the device. That drives iPhone hype more than anything else because, quite frankly, we're still waiting to take a real bite out of Apple's game line-up.