March 14, 2009

Right now I have three posts which are epically long and that I’ve never completed. And it’s been over seven months since I posted and some amount of the information in those posts is now out of date so I’m taking that as a sign and starting fresh.

I am now one of the many people who own an iPhone. My wife and I both got one back in November.

The phone blows me away, though part of that may be due to the fact that this is my first smartphone (and yes I know some people don’t consider it a smartphone because it doesn’t have copy and paste – whatever). Previously, I had an attitude of “I want my phone to just be a phone, I don’t want it to do everything for me.” But after dealing with this phone for a few months now, I start to understand why it’s such a big deal and how useful having a portable computing device in my pocket is.

One of the things that still boggles my mind is how many apps there are for the thing. As of the time I’m writing this, the only way to write an app for it is to use the official SDK. The official SDK only runs on Mac OS X 10.5, which in turn requires a Macintosh. I figured the mere fact that there are not that many Macintoshes in the world, much less Macintosh developers, would limit the number of apps on this thing. I guess I’m wrong. When I look at the fact that the guy who wrote the iFart application was clearing $10K a day near Christmastime, I start to curse the idea that I didn’t drop the $599 on an Mac Mini.

Of course something I’ve learned in the meantime is that a lot of the “best” games on the device started their life somewhere else. Sally’s Salon – which is a really fun game, even if you’re a macho man – started out as a Flash game, so the gameplay elements and all the graphics and so forth were already done. A fairly good GTA clone, Payback, started out its life on the homebrew handheld platform GP32. And SimCity on the iPhone is more a less a port of SimCity 3000 for the PC (with iPhone-specific controls).

Probably the best game on the device, Rolando, is indeed an original game but clearly inspired by the PSP’s Loco Roco, though it does have the advantage of actually being able to use the tilt controls of the iPhone itself, something Loco Roco had to emulate using the PSP’s shoulder buttons.

There’s another offering from Apple, the iPod Touch. Essentially it’s the iPhone without the phone part. I know I’m in the minority here but I think the iPod Touch is the most pointless device ever. It’s an iPhone without the phone. It’s an iPod without much space. It doesn’t have 3G or a camera or GPS, and it can only get online when you’re near a Wi-Fi hotspot. And maybe this is just familiarity talking but I think the iPod functionality of the iPhone and the iPod Touch is very weak – sure it’s prettier but it’s harder to use and is missing functionality. But at least the iPod Touch is really expensive – space-wise, the iPod Touch is as expensive or more expensive than the iPhone subsidized by AT&T. Sure, you don’t have the two years of monthly bills from AT&T but I just don’t see why anyone would want one of these things instead of an iPod Nano or a real iPod.

Of course, it does play games. And I like it as a gaming device. But it’s got nothing on real portable gaming devices like the Nintendo DS. Forbes thinks the iPhone could kill the DS. Forbes is good in their area but they’re clueless when it comes to gaming.

First you can make the argument that the iPod Touch/iPhone cannot hope to compete with the DS (and I’m going to keep saying “DS” but really I’m lumping the PSP in there as well, so please just assume I’m saying both) at the price it is. The Nintendo DS is $130 (the PSP is $170) and the cheapest iPod Touch on the market is $230 (the cheapest iPhone is $200 layout but costs $70/month for two years). It is indeed impressive that Apple has sold over 13 million iPhones (and some number of the iPod Touch) but Nintendo has sold 100 million DS units. Literally. Like, last week they sold the 100 millionth unit. And while the PSP is no DS, they’re no slouch either at 50 million units. Sure, some of that is momentum – the DS has been out since 2005 and saw one major must have hardware revision and the iPhone/iPod Touch have only had affordable apps for about a year now, but the fact is that more people are going to buy a $130 gaming device instead of an overpriced iPod or an expensive phone. Even Sony didn’t quite get this – they figured an initially $250 portable PS2 would sell like hotcakes and it didn’t make any real traction until they lowered the price to Gillette Razor levels of uptake.

Second, you can make the controls argument. Rolando works on the iPhone (and since I’m no longer talking price, just assume when I say iPhone that I’m also talking about the iPod Touch) because all it needs is tilting and the occasional light touch on the screen to play. A number of people thought Nintendo was crazy for making the DS have a touchscreen. They proved that there was indeed an entire genre of games which would benefit from a touch screen (though to be fair, it was similar or identical to the kinds of things which could be accomplished on a PC game with a mouse in most cases). So the touchscreen of the iPhone is not the problem. In the right sorts of games, the iPhone’s touch screen makes for some very interesting gameplay.

No, the problem is that that’s all the iPhone has. It has no buttons or control pad (the one button the iPhone does have closes the app). This severely limits what kinds of games it can play. Tilt controls are frustrating – the We Love Katamari game on the device requires the iPhone be level and then tilted from that position in order to control the on-screen character. Fine, unless you wanted to play a game while laying on the couch. Every single Nintendo DS game works fine on the couch. You can put buttons or a control pad on the screen, and some games do, but that kills screen real estate, and in my opinion kills the point. Plus you miss all tactile sensation, which is one of the reasons I don’t like the iPhone as an iPod – with my 5.5 Generation iPod, I can move to the next track by just feeling for the device and clicking. Can’t do that with the iPhone. Heck, some of my favorite games for the DS use the control pad and buttons exclusively. Some even ignore the second screen. This is why FPS games like Brothers in Arms and the forthcoming Prey just don’t work well on the iPhone – they’re cramming a square peg into a round hole.

But the real deal breaker for the iPhone is battery life.

Nintendo came out with the Game Boy in 1989 it had no light on the screen. And neither did any Game Boy unit until the Game Boy Advance SP came out in 2003, some 14 years later. And it’s not like Nintendo didn’t know people wanted a light – people had been begging and pissing and moaning about it for years and years.

Why did Nintendo hold off on the lighted screen? Battery life. People kept telling Nintendo that they didn’t care about battery life but Nintendo knew better – ask anyone who owned a Sega Game Gear, which came in 1991, what they remember about the system and to a one everyone will say first and foremost how they had to buy six AA batteries to use the thing and even then they got at most 2-3 hours of life out of the thing, tops. Sure, it had better graphics than the Game Boy and the lighted screen everyone said they wanted, but who cares when the thing couldn’t play games for very long and was enormous as a result of the batteries to boot?

When Nintendo finally did put a light in the Game Boy it only did so when they could put a rechargable non-standard battery in there. Ironically this put the Game Boy and Nintendo DS in the same category as cell phones in that now they were these devices where instead of buying standard batteries you plugged them into the wall overnight.

I’ve noticed that my favorite games on the iPhone, like Rolando and Fieldrunners, drain the battery like popcorn. And with the iPhone in particular, this is a big problem. The 3G already drains it fast (much moreso than edge or wifi). Besides just the battery argument, the other big problem with the iPhone losing battery power is that it leaves you without a phone. When your DS dies, you curse a bit and move on. When your phone dies and you’re not near a charger you could be in trouble.

The iPhone does have some advantages as a gaming platform – unlike your DS, you will carry your iPhone with you everywhere you go. My wife and I have actually cut off our land line and just use our iPhones exclusively now (the only people, we noticed, who called us on our land line were our parents and telemarketers, and we can just have our parents call our new number). Playing with your DS in public as an adult could make you look silly – using your iPhone looks completely normal. Plus, the Nintendo DS is a platform whose development is expensive and exlcusive – you have to invest in pricey development kids, and your game has to be manufactured on physical cartidges. Anyone who can afford a Mac, a $99 fee, and can set their own price can develop for the iPhone. iPhone games tend to cost $10 at the most, DS games tend to cost $20 at the least (usually at least $30 new).

But the real irony is how the DS is starting to head the other way in applications. A game was released over Christmas Personal Trainer: Cooking. It’s literally a “game” where you play along and cook. My wife has told me she’s going to get me that game so I’ll cook something other than Hamburger Helper, the IKEA furniture of cooking. There’s games that teach you how to speak foreign languages like Spanish. There’s a game that’s designed to help you quit smoking.

All of these “games” fall under the category of applications where you’re doing something which can be aided by a computing platform, and in some cases a portable one. Strictly speaking, you don’t need to have your Spanish coach be portable, but since normal people don’t want to be in front of a PC after their work day is done, it makes sense to place these programs on a different device.

But if you have an app which would be best on a portable device then where do you put it? The iPhone is attractive for a lot of people but it doesn’t cover all of the people without an iPhone. The PDA market is dead. The rest of the smartphone market is fragmented amongst Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Android, etc.

To say nothing of the fact that most people don’t have smartphones and putting out a game for normal phones, even with Java, is a nightmare. John Carmack, in a QuakeCon keynote, relayed his experiences getting DOOM RPG onto phones. He had to write it in two languages, Java and BREW. He had to make a “High” and “Low” version of each (for the different capabilities in cell phones). And then he had to hand it to EA’s mobile division where they made 40+ different iterations for all the different cell phones out there. Write once run anywhere my ass.

But 100 million people own a DS. If you could convince 15% of them to buy your app then you’ll sell more copies than if you convinced every iPhone owner in the world to buy your app. Of course, that’s just number of copies – if you account for manufacturing and distribution costs you might come ahead charing $5 for your app and keeping 70% of that (which is your cut, Apple takes the other 30% which given that they’re facilitating the whole process, is pretty fair) and not losing any money on “copies” you don’t sell.

The iPhone is a great device, and a great gaming platform. It’s just not the be-all, end-all that analysts say it is. Still, it’s great.

Except for that time that the Google Maps application sent me to Grand Prarie by mistake. But that’s another story…