Apple’s Game Center Tilts the Playing Field

Gaming enthusiasts who gobble up every tidbit of news they can about consoles, gadgets and titles didn’t have a lot to digest Thursday when Apple revealed that the new iPhone OS 4 would include Game Center, a social gaming network. The news was just one feature mentioned in the overall update for the smartphone operating system; Steve Jobs’ company certainly didn’t unlock any new levels in the “details” category.

We know that it’s going to enable online game matchmaking, much like Xbox Live. There will be leaderboards and achievements, much like Xbox Live. We know that’s it a pre-emptive strike of sorts against Microsoft, whose forthcoming Windows Phone Series 7 smartphones will feature integration with (wait for it) Xbox Live.

And that’s about it. Will Apple charge a yearly fee for Game Center, much like Xbox Live? No word yet. Developers get an early peek so they can work it into their gaming apps if they want to, but the rest of us who want to actually test-play its features won’t get that chance until sometime later this year. However, the rest of iPhone OS 4 will be ready by summer. So we don’t even know if it will be included in the overall software update.

So while gamers with iPhones, iPod touches or even iPads ponder the scarcity of details, some third-party app developers who already provide similar kinds of services as Game Center may be wondering, what do we do now? And while the gaming press licks its chops at the thought of a Game Center vs. Xbox Live steelcage death match, the shadow of Nintendo and its Little Plumber That Could stretches over the landscape: Should the far-and-away leader in portable gaming be worried about what connected iPhone/iPod touch users could do to its supremacy?

Will the iPhone OS trump the DS?

Third Parties, Online Parties

The issue of third-party developers who already stock the App Store with their titles — and those that specifically provide social gaming platforms for iPhone users — was explored at length in much of the tech media and gaming coverage of Apple’s iPhone OS 4 event. There’s a lot of talk from those company executives about their expectations that Apple would build its own platform, and hopes that both products can be offered to users. But some are still pessimistic.

“I have to feel bad for companies like Aurora Feint (makers of OpenFeint) and Ngmoco (makers of Plus+), two companies that make existing social networking systems for the iPhone,” independent gaming consultant Mark DeLoura told TechNewsWorld. “I hope that Apple reached out to them and is helping them find a way to make their systems continue to be valuable to the developer community. Otherwise, Game Center seems to effectively squash those two systems.”

Indeed, some developers would not comment to other online media outlets when asked if they were notified by Apple of the company’s intentions prior to Thursday’s announcement. An Ngmoco official did tell Cnet that its strategy was already shifting toward services and other aspects that would help developers. However, that company and OpenFeint were about letting users know if their friends were online and helping them record achievements and level-busting.

In any case, Apple’s consideration and possible integration of A-list social networks in Game Center would serve them well, DeLoura said. “More than having another social network to think about and connect my friends to, I’d rather have games on the Apple platfoms leverage my existing social networks, like QRANK does. Perhaps Game Center will have a way to import and synchronize existing social network graphs. I can hope.”

Who’s Playing Which Network on What Device?

As for all the talk about Nintendo and a potential Apple shot across the bow at the DS, don’t count your Koopa Troopas before they break out of their shells. “I would caution against seeing the AGC as targeting Nintendo,” Brenton Lyle, senor strategist at Interpret told TechNewsWorld. “As a leader in handheld gaming for as long as anyone can remember, Nintendo is automatically a target for anyone with a portable gaming platform in a general sense, but this announcement is pointed squarely at Windows Phone 7 and the threat of substantive Xbox Live integration. Yes, everyone is saying this, but I’m afraid they’re right — the similar features are not a coincidence.”

Lyle points to Interpret demographic research data that shows most iPhone and Xbox Live users are in the 18-44 age categories, and most are males — 54 percent for iPhones, a whopping 70 percent for Xbox Live. Fifty-six percent of DS/DSi owners are women.

“Social networking, the ability to invite and track friends, matchmaking, leaderboards and achievements — these features are currently the domain of Xbox Live, and soon Windows Phone 7. The threat is valid enough that Apple decided to act pre-emptively in order to shore up iPhone OS’s capabilities to better withstand a side-by-side comparison with the Microsoft product,” Lyle said.

So why not mimic what Xbox Live is doing? “Xbox Live is fantastic, so who can fault them for copying it?” asked DeLoura. “I can only hope that Apple won’t decide to charge us an annual fee for it in a year or two.”

It can also mean that Apple will set its sights on the slightly older player, leaving Nintendo to continue sweeping up kids playing their DS Lites in restaurants and airports around the world. Plus, Nintendo likes to tout its network capabilities as safe for kids, with all the vetting that goes along with that, while Game Center will probably allow more anonymous hookups, much like traditional social networks do, DeLoura added.

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