iPhone call for help
March 13, 2009
I had a nutty idea a couple of weeks ago. I thought it would be fun to devote part of my vacation to "catching up" on the iPhone gaming scene. I play lots of games, but I've pretty much ignored iPhone titles, partly due to time constraints - heck, I can't even keep up with all the console and PC games I want to play - but mainly because the first bunch of games I tried (Enigmo, Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart, Trism, Monkey Ball) simply didn't hold my interest.
My initial "Wow, I can play games on this thing?!" soon gave way to "Wow, why would anyone want to play games on this thing?"
To be sure, the first wave of games on any new system tends to be dominated by franchise ports, less than stellar launch window releases, and proof-of-concept titles. The iPhone has seen more than its share of such games, and by "more than its share" I'm saying the percentage of truly awful iPhone games is extraordinarily high relative to other systems.
I should note this observation is based on an unscientific sampling of 50 or so iPhone games played (some for only a few minutes) over the course of the last two weeks. It's entirely possible I simply picked the wrong batch of games. The problem is that it's very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff...and, as I've discovered, the iTunes App Store's definition of wheat (based on sales and user reviews) is usually my idea of chaff. More on that in a moment, but first some dizzying data:
The ongoing avalanche of iPhone games is unparalleled in the history of gaming. In the 20 months since its release, 6439 games have been released for the device, accounting for 23% of all iPhone apps, and nearly doubling the nearest category (entertainment).
Compare these numbers to those of the Nintendo DS, the device on track to become the most successful game system in history. In the 4 years and 4 months since it appeared, approximately 800 games have been released for the system worldwide. That's 15 new DS games per month versus 322 new iPhone games per month, and the iPhone numbers continue to accelerate.
So the reasons behind the wheat/chaff problem are fairly obvious, and while I initially applauded Apple's decision to avoid playing application gatekeeper, I've begun to wonder if somebody ought to at least be playing quality control officer. Letting the market sort things out makes sense under some circumstances, but the abysmal system of perusing games and reviews via iTunes makes this nearly impossible.
And does Apple really want a game as broken and awful as Air Hockey on its shiny trendy gadget? When it was submitted for review, why didn't someone in Cupertino play this game for 5 minutes, raise a mallet high in the air, and bang a gong to the tune of "Rejected"?
Plenty of good games are available for the iPhone, such as Edge, Eliss, Fieldrunners, and Zen Bound. But of these, only Eliss and Zen Bound seem to have been conceived as iPhone-specific games. While it's terrific and well-designed, Fieldrunner's main selling point is that it's a tower defense game I can carry in my pocket. Aside from that, it's basically just another solid tower defense game. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I think it's been over-praised mostly because it exists on the iPhone.
Edge strikes me as a different sort of animal. It's fun and challenging, and I admire the art style and overall vibe of the game. But I find it hard to overlook the fact that its primary gameplay mechanic is managing the iPhone's touchscreen or accelerometer. In other words, the real challenge Edge presents the player is doing things on the iPhone that would otherwise be child's play with a gamepad or mouse. Lots of iPhone games fall into this trap, as did the first wave of Wiimote-obsessed Wii games.
Hugely popular games like iDracula also suggest that we're still swimming in a sea of adulation for this tricked out uber-iPod. Described by the developer as "The Most intense game ever! Not for the nervous!" iDracula is routinely hailed by one reviewer after another for its amazing graphics. And they do look impressive on the iPhone's screen. It's also rather amazing to play a 3rd-person shooter on a device with no hard controls.
Unfortunately, as a shooter iDracula is brain-dead and repetitive with a control scheme that has carpal tunnel written all over it. The only possible explanation I can offer for why this game is so popular: it's currently the best we can do for an action shooter on the iPhone.
Despite the 6000+ games currently available, I guess I still have my doubts about the iPhone as a gaming platform. When your primary input device (your finger) obscures your view of the screen and field of play (a problem in most of the games I've tried), it's hard for me to see that system as optimized for gaming. I also find holding the iPhone uncomfortable after 15 minutes or so of gaming. Despite its superlative graphics and sound capabilities, the device simply doesn't feel like a game system to me. Tapping or dragging my finger across its screen feels like a compromise, not a feature.
Clever game designers will surely make me eat my words, and I welcome that day. I'll happily keep trying new iPhone games (next up for me is WordFu), but for now I'm sticking with my DS and PSP. Retro Game Challenge and Crisis Core are both making me very happy. More on each of them soon.