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Opinion: Why GTA: Chinatown Wars on iPhone matters

More than just a port, Rockstar's game says something significant about Apple's device

Opinion: Why GTA: Chinatown Wars on iPhone matters

The revelation that Rockstar has decided to bring Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars to iPhone means more than just a great game hitting another portable platform. For a franchise that has dominated gaming for nearly eight years with the release of Grand Theft Auto III on PlayStation 2, its iPhone debut holds greater significance: it shows that Apple's young device is maturing.

Since 2001's blockbuster release of GTA III, proceeding instalments of the series have essentially anointed the designated platform with legitimacy. For a publisher like Rockstar, choosy about the systems for which it develops, the arrival of a GTA game signals acknowledgement that the platform is to be taken seriously.

When Sony introduced PlayStation Portable to the western world in 2005, Rockstar immediately provided it with its first major hit in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. It rocketed the notoriety of the handheld, granting it enormous appeal for having entertained a new instalment of this massive franchise.

The same can be said of the Nintendo DS debut of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. There's no question of the handheld's widespread success before the announcement of the game, but it was important in combating the perception that the portable was unattractive to publishers with mature games.

Nintendo's device had been pigeonholed as a family-friendly toy, mature games standing like an adult in a sea of preteens at a Jonas Brothers concert. Shocking news of the series reaching the dual-screen handheld gave it a fresh appeal that resonated with a core audience.

Of course, the game's floundering proved the initial assumption correct, but poor sales do not negate the attention lavished on the platform as a result of the game.

Which brings us to iPhone. Put aside the fact that GTA: Chinatown Wars is a port, because that matters little in comparison to the idea of Rockstar taking the device seriously enough to commit resources to developing for it. It took five years for Rockstar to release a game for DS following its 2004 launch. A year has passed since the launch of the App Store and Rockstar is responding with GTA: Chinatown Wars.

This comes partly as a result of pure business. More than 45 million iPhone and iPod touch models sit in hands worldwide, making it the fastest-selling portable platform. When compared to sales of DS and PSP in the first two years at market, iPhone and iPod touch easily outpace both. Releasing a game to the App Store makes business sense.

Yet it's more than just a matter of money for Rockstar. If it were only about numbers, GTA: Liberty City Stories would have been a DS game, not a PSP release. Instead, this is a publisher driven by cache, by cool. PSP became the portable of choice for the franchise because it engendered sophistication and maturity in handheld gaming. That mantle, however, has been passed, in part to iPhone.

It's to this precise point that GTA: Chinatown Wars is so important. Rockstar is telling us something. The decision to bring this phenomenal game to iPhone instructs us to take the platform seriously, and that big, epic games have a place here.

No doubt questions of pricing and updates need to be grappled with, but the time for wondering if iPhone will reach critical mass has ended.