A Look at the Future of iPhone Gaming

It’s Game Week here at iPhone.AppStorm, and all this week we’re going to have tons of reviews, giveaways and other good stuff, all centered around the gaming world!

iPhone gaming has taken off in the past few years. While there are still plenty of casual games that allow you to kill a few minutes with a shallow-yet-enjoyable experience while you’ve got a few minutes to kill, there have also been games that push the hardware and software to their limits.

What will the future of iPhone gaming look like? I’d like to explore that today, talking my way through what the future might hold based on a few observations in the present. Now, more than ever, we’re staring at a turning point in gaming not only on the iPhone, but the concept as a whole.

Going Buttonless

One of the main draws for the iPhone is the multi-touch (Retina) display. While there’s a general lack of real, physical buttons on the screen, the ability to manipulate whatever’s on the screen with a finger or thumb (or multiple numbers of each) is something that we’re still grappling with. Right now we’re learning how to create games with this interface that feel natural and intuitive.

I would love to see the death of virtual buttons for the majority of games. They’re a visual representation of something that is necessary and inherent with console gaming, but they offer no tactile feedback or any sort of benefit. Indeed, without the ability to actually touch a virtual button, I’ve found them to be a hindrance; I’ve lost many a game from forgetting where a button is located and tapping frantically as my character is killed.

The Last Rocket is fun (and challenging) without a single button to be found.

The Last Rocket is fun (and challenging) without a single button to be found.

Instead, we need to look at games like The Last Rocket and (to a lesser extent) Mage Gauntlet. While Mage Gauntlet still includes buttons for some actions, the most important interaction that you can have with the character–movement–is handled via the entire left-hand side of the screen. While I was playing I felt that the screen was as responsive to a roll of my thumb as any physical analog stick, allowing me to move with accuracy without confining the touchable area to a small, tiny representation of the physical thing.

Mage Gauntlet includes buttons, but its movement controls are done accurately and completely via a roll of the thumb.

Mage Gauntlet includes buttons, but its movement controls are done accurately and completely via a roll of the thumb.

In the future we’re going to have less throwbacks to the physical controller and more acceptance of the fact that the iPhone is, essentially, one large piece of glass.

Play Your Games for a Minute, or an Hour

Right now, games tend to fall into two categories: casual games that can be played for five minutes at a time, or large, blockbuster titles that require a more significant investment. Most games on consoles require that you spend a good chunk of your day working on them in order to progress, while Angry Birds has taught us that iPhone games need only be entertaining for short spurts.

Battleheart is fun for short little bursts and marathon gaming sessions.

Battleheart is fun for short little bursts and marathon gaming sessions.

Instead, we’re going to find more games that allow us to play for as long — or as little — as we would like. Through features like auto-save, we’ll be able to play a game for five minutes at a time and have our progress saved whereever we find ourselves interrupted. Longer battery life will allow us to play those games for as long as we would like, so if you find yourself playing a game for a significant amount of time you won’t need to worry about your cell phone being rendered unusable from an over-taxed battery.

Developers will no doubt figure out how to accomodate this in a way that gives us the best of both worlds; a game that can be entertaining for five minutes and one that can keep you engrossed for hours on end. It will be a hard balance to find, but if it’s going to happen on any platform it will be the one that you always have with you: your iPhone.

AirPlay: the Biggest Wild Card of All

Now, all of these are fine if you’re content with using your iPhone as controller, console, and screen all in one device. This works out great, and leads to an enjoyable experience, but AirPlay can allow you to use the iPhone as a controller and console, or even just a controller.

The "no virtual buttons" rule is lifted when they're the only thing on-screen.

The "no virtual buttons" rule is lifted when they're the only thing on-screen.

Being able to play a game of quality on the road is a fantastic thing, but sometimes the 3.5 inch screen starts to feel cramped, no matter how densely the pixels happen to be packed. I have a 43-inch TV, and I’ve found that there are more games coming out that I would like to play that use the larger screen.

Some titles already take advantage of this, like Burnout HD and Modern Combat 3. I think that if (or when) Apple releases an updated Apple TV — or a real, genuine Apple television — developers will flock to the ecosystem. The opportunities to play on the go and at home, with experiences optimized for each, will truly turn the iPhone into a powerful contender in the gaming space.

The Past, Present, and Future

The future for the iPhone is closely tied to the past. We’re in the process of experiencing games that can not only emulate console experiences, but also games that you can play guilt-free and then throw back into your pocket at a moment’s notice.

That’s where the beauty of the iPhone lies. Trying to emulate the physical world of analog sticks and buttons isn’t the right way to go; we’re working with a new control scheme, one that is challenging but rewarding at the same time. As we learn this we can create games that are different from anything that has been done before. By looking at our present iPhones, we can see how to make future models work even better.

We can’t let go of the past, though. Not only can the iPhone provide a home for some classic games, but there’s decades of level design, of character development and game creation that we can learn from. The iPhone’s glass interface presents a new problem, so why should we choose not to learn from solutions to old mistakes?

Conclusion

I’m excited for the future of iPhone gaming. In the short time that I’ve owned an iPhone, I’ve watched more and more games come out that take advantage of the form-factor and ecosystem, watched games mature from simple affairs to deeply engrossing titles.

In the future, the iPhone will become the everyman’s console, capable of mobile gaming and console gaming, of solo play and multiplayer, of being the controller, console and screen all at once and separately.

I can’t wait.


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