Apple's Game Center isn't worrying game networks

Apple intends to get into the social-networking aspect of iPhone games with a new initiative. What does that mean for existing social-gaming networks?

Gamers who use Apple's iPhone, iPod Touch, and now the iPad are likely to be looking forward to Apple's "Game Center" network, which was announced among the other updates as part of iPhone OS 4.0 . But what about the companies that are running existing social networks for the platform?

It's not the end of the world, apparently.

Ngmoco, maker of popular game titles such as Rolando, We Rule, and Touch Pets, also created the Plus+ social network. It's built in to all of its own titles, as well as a select group of games from other developers. Ngmoco's chief publishing officer, Simon Jeffrey, told CNET that the company "has anticipated this move from Apple for some time," and that it should bring a "cleaner developer and consumer experience."

But what does that mean for the Plus+ implementation that has been built into more than 75 titles? "Plus+ took a strategic shift in direction a few months ago toward being a service, and less about being a set of social-gaming features," Jeffery said in a statement. "Plus+ is all about empowering monetization and discoverability mechanisms for the development community, and we have clearly demonstrated with games like We Rule that these mechanisms work."

Discoverability was, in fact, one of the biggest benefits of using services like Plus+, but it's also something Apple plans to offer within its Game Center. Plus+'s implementation was to show you what your friends were playing, as well as show off games that had just been launched. According to the very few details mentioned by Scott Forstall, Apple's senior vice president of iPhone software, during Thursday's press event, both of these things will be a part of the Game Center framework.

So does that mean that Plus+ is going to be more focused on advertising and the metrics of what users are doing within apps? If so, that's another area where Apple has delved into with its iAds platform . Apple CEO Steve Jobs went into great depths to show off what iAds would look like during Thursday's event, but he did not go into depth about the kind of information (if any) that would be passed back to the developer, besides their chunk of the clicks.

Ngmoco may not be the best barometer of the industry, through. OpenFeint, which just launched its fourth major iteration of its social-gaming platform with its iPad game Aurora Feint 3, is in more games than any other network. It is installed in 1,500 App Store games, and it has more than 19 million registered users, a million of which use those apps every day. Like Ngmoco's Plus+, it, too, offers ways to see what your friends are up to, along with tracking in-game achievements and storing game-save data.

According to Eros Resmini, OpenFeint's vice president of marketing and developer relations, whom CNET spoke with late Thursday, the company plans to continue development on the platform. "We have built out a few features that are the next level of these services," Resmini said. "Things like server-side support for games is where [OpenFeint] was headed in any case." Resmini said he anticipates Apple allowing existing networks like OpenFeint to peacefully co-exist with Game Center, continuing to offer features it does not yet offer on its own platform.

As for whether Apple ever offered to buy OpenFeint, or its technology, Resmini would not comment.

One thing is quite clear, though. Both of these companies have a commanding presence on the App Store. It's hard to have downloaded a popular game in recent months that does not use either system, or one of the many others in this space .

The lack of details about the Game Center in Thursday's keynote speech was likely not just due to time constraints, but to test the waters and gauge the reaction of developers. If the outlook from Ngmoco and OpenFeint are any indication, the Game Center was simply long overdue.

Update 8:35 p.m. PST: Social gaming network Geocade's founder James Caralis told CNET that Apple's Game Center was expected, but noted that "Geocade has been designed from it's inception with support for Android, Blackberry, Palm, iPhone, iPad and any other device capable of displaying a web page within in a game." Caralis also said there's been notable increase in Android game development, and that "while this is certainly a challenge, we did not put all our eggs in the iPhone basket." Competitor Scoreloop is in a similar situation; it too has a social network that runs on both platforms.

 

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