iPhone Gaming: Aye or Nay?


Let’s get something straight: the iPhone is not just a phone, a media player or an internet browser. Whether you like it or not, the iPhone is an extremely powerful device capable of running applications. It’s also very stable, very simple, and anyone who is willing to buy one can figure out how to use any program within seconds.

Gaming is the typical question that comes to many the minds of a few elite modders who want to test the capabilities of any device. Generally, handhelds aren’t very powerful, so they turn to the most popular game ever released: Doom, by id Software. Since the advent of Doom on the Game Boy Advance in 2001, Quake, another id game, became the go-to title to hack onto machines. Such upward momentum has continued using id Software’s famous titles.

The iPhone, or rather iPod Touch, had its share of gaming software specially imbued sometime in March or April of this year. Details are sketchy, but a video playtest shows Quake 3 Team Arena being played using the accelerometer, a Wi-Fi connection and taping on the screen to initiate commands. The point is that it ran, and if a game like Quake 3 Team Arena can run on the iPhone (the basic technology of the iPod Touch and iPhone are identical), what else can run on it?

Indeed, many different forms of entertainment will grow out of the iPhone, but it doesn’t take a few good hackers to take an existing game and put it on the iPhone. It requires game developers to put time, effort and money into a brand new and highly unique market. So far, nearly everyone has had some say on the iPhone’s gaming prowess, how it may change the gaming world completely or do nothing to it at all. So the question is simple: iPhone gaming? Aye or nay?

What the Gaming Community Says

The gaming community, consisting of game modders (who create level, character and weapon designs for games), indie developers, generally obsessed gamers and all the regular folk, all agree that the iPhone is an excellent platform for gaming in all ways, with the exception of the interface. With every single game to date requiring some button interface, the utter lack of buttons is a unique dilemma for programmers, but that hasn’t stopped the gaming community from finding a way to get their favorite games on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

As mentioned earlier, the first true game was Quake 3 Team Arena, which showed a new look at how games could be played, using relatively good graphics on a handheld device and specialized hardware, in this case a multi-touch sensitive screen and a set of accelerometers, all without sacrificing the frame rate. But what else can be done with the iPhone to make developers and consumers more interested in it?

Emulation. As always, emulating older consoles is the way to go with any new technology. Outdated consoles from the early 90’s may be relics of the past, but their games live on, played by the most elite “old-school” gamers, on their mint condition consoles. For the rest of us, emulation software is freely, though sometimes illegally available for download with thousands of different games to choose from. Titles like the original Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog are easy to find in a Google search, and can be played within minutes.

This means that for anyone who wants to bring their gaming collection with them, the iPhone is an excellent option. The large flash drive makes it very easy to have thousands of games literally in the palm of anyone’s hand. Currently, the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super NES, Sega Genesis and Sony PlayStation have all been successfully emulated for the iPhone, and we’re sure even more have yet to be confirmed.

Through emulation, the gaming community is visibly yelling to Apple and game developers and publishers that they are seriously interested in games on the iPhone. And who in their right mind wouldn’t be?

What the Media Says

As always for high profile things or people, the media has swamped over the iPhone since its release in 2007, and every few weeks something new is published in one of many giant publications. But what do they actually say about the iPhone in terms of gaming?

The main belief is that it’s popularity in the cellphone market, processing power and new application store will thrust it beyond even Nintendo’s beloved DS handheld console. Considering the iPhone’s sales are expected to grossly exceed that of both the DS and Sony’s PlayStation Portable device, this speculation may not be far off.

Forbes recently described how Apple created the iPhone to mimic both the DS and Nintendo’s home console, the Wii, utilizing both touch and motion sensitivity as a feasible user interface. However, the few attempts at motion sensitive phones which companies like Sony Ericsson have researched have all shown minimal results.

Time Magazine was quick to point out recently that a fourth of all applications in the App Store are games, and seven of the top ten are games too. They point out that the Gartner Group research firm expects a huge increase in cellphone game spending, from $842 million to $1.2 billion by 2011, fueled mainly by the iPhone.

The big change expected from the iPhone, as opposed to other cellphone games and platforms such as Nokia’s N-Gage, is that titles will be unique and not simply rehashes of games on the PC, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Reports have come out that many game publishers are working to reach iPhone clients desperately, and are pouring funds into research and development of games for the iPhone.

Finally, the New York Post wrote an article about how Apple would start competing for the casual gaming market with Nintendo, claiming that a recent patent Nintendo took for a tilt function means war between the two hardware giants. They go so far as to say that many of Apple’s products, including Apple TV, have the ability to play games on them and that we will be hearing a rather large announcement soon about gaming on the iPhone.

With high hopes and speculation that, without competition, the iPhone can easily outpace both Nintendo’s and Sony’s portable games consoles, the media is behind it all the way as a gaming device.

What Game Developers/Publishers Say

Game developers and publishers are the most important part of this whole process. Without their years of expertise in making games, all the titles in the App Store would be 10-minute titles with no depth. Sure, it’s in their best interest to exploit the iPhone to the best of their extent, but what do they actually say about the phone?

Game developers and publishers are in love with the iPhone. Some developers have a love-hate relationship, mainly because working with the unique interface is more of a challenge than they think it’s worth, but game publishers are flocking to the iPhone. The list of games coming to the iPhone is huge: Galaga, Bejeweled, Spore, Need for Speed, Tiger Woods, Dexter (based on the Showtime hit series), Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Doom 2, Wolfenstein (RPG’s?), and many, many more.

Many companies have a huge interest in the iPhone because of its unique qualities. Games can make use of the camera, voice functions, multi-touch, tilt, and it’s all on a beautiful screen that can display 3D images exceptionally well. Production costs are also minimal because there is no physical media that needs to be published; all games are downloaded through the App Store and stored directly on the iPhone. Big names like BioWare, id Software, THQ, Sega, and EA are just some of the few who have been publicly stating their acceptance of the iPhone as a gaming platform.

With so much support, it’s hard to believe any skepticism can remain in the industry, but both Sony and Nintendo have both clearly stated that they aren’t threatened by the iPhone. With the number of developers and publishers backing it today alone, perhaps they should be. Both clearly stated that customers buying iPhones are primarily doing so for the phone and not for the portable application device, which may or may not be true, though we suspect that while anyone who buys a PSP can use the internet browser, they don’t. iPhone owners, on the other hand, can and do play the available games.

Developers also have had some issue with developing for the platform, in the form of NDA’s (non disclosure agreements) and severe limitations to what can and cannot be done for applications. Currently, many limitations exist that force some developers away from getting their applications onto the App Store, though they have been releasing them freely for owners who jailbreak their phones. Roughly three times the number of programs exists for jailbroken iPhones than do on the app store currently.

But with big names like id Software and Sega saying that the iPhone is more powerful than the Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo DS and even the Sony PSP, the few disparaging remarks are lost in the sea of praise.


The results are in, 3-0 for gaming on the iPhone. Nearly everyone loves it, with the exception of possible competitors to Apple’s gaming platform. Yet one snag remains, and just as we started with a creation of John Carmack’s, so too must we finish with Mr. Carmack’s thoughts.

"The truth is Steve Jobs doesn't care about games.” Carmack stated in his keynote at this year’s QuakeCon. "It's difficult to ask somebody to get behind something they don't really believe in.” While these statements are all Carmack’s opinion, the recent debacle with Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ health and the highly-questioned alliance with cellphone giant AT&T does bring it into question. So far, Apple’s MobileMe service has been a partial failure, not working as planned and Jobs released an employee memo stating the unsatisfactory performance on the highly anticipated email client.

Whatever the reason for Jobs’ decision, the financial benefits of pushing the iPhone towards gaming highly outweigh any potential risks, so it seems unlikely that the company will stay clear of gaming, regardless of Jobs’ feelings on it.

Carmack, however, remains adamant about his work on the iPhone. “I think the iPhone is a potentially extremely important platform for a lot of reasons…it certainly should be in there in the running there as a device that you can get modern, quality games for something, and I think it's a great platform for content and new talent on there.”

iPhone gaming? Aye, it’s good to go.

Crave More Apps? Subscribe to the Newsletter or grab the RSS feed.

  • Jack Krietzfield

    Aye. The games are actually pretty decent, but i bet they improve a lot by the end of the year. You still can't really play somebody outside your wifi network