Game Center for the iPhone: An early hands-on

An early hands on with Apple's Game Center feature in iOS 4.1.

Game Center hands-on.
Nice interface, but we'd love friend adding to be easier. Scott Stein/CNET

Apple's iOS 4.1 update brought many tweaks to the operating system, but none higher-profile than the long-awaited Game Center . Touted as a feature of iOS 4.0, Apple's attempt to create a hub for iOS gaming could be seen as a way to take on Sony and Nintendo, or to demonstrate gaming legitimacy over Android. In reality, it's really an idea born of convenience: there are thousands of games in the App Store, and no great way to tie them all together via a single launch pad.

Does the iPhone even need a Game Center? Not really, but it's become increasingly annoying to sign up for and sync with various services like OpenFeint that aren't compatible across all games, and Game Center seems like it's trying to take on these annoyances.

In terms of function and appearance, Game Center looks like a spiritual cousin of Xbox Live's social dashboard. It functions as a launch pad for games, as well as a centralized source of high scores/achievements, a social discovery tool for browsing friends' games, and a conduit for connecting and playing with others online.

That last function--online play and invites--will require a larger library of compatible games to take off. One day in, the list of Game Center-ready games is still quite small, and only a fraction of them are online-playable.

Game Center appears on the iPhone automatically once it's updated to OS 4.1--there's no app to download. Users are invited to create an account name, which is verified via e-mail. Adding friends is accomplished via username entry or browsing contacts on the iDevice piecemeal. Unlike FaceBook Connect, Game Center won't browse your contact directory and tell you who's out there to friend. This process gets tedious, especially for those weaned on Gmail or Facebook. However, once a friend is added, you can immediately browse their collection of Game Center-compatible games, check out their achievements and high scores, or invite them to play.

A few hours after Game Center went live, my iPhone showed five App Store updates for games in my library, adding Game Center support. Real Racing and Farmville were two of the notable early entries. Unfortunately, once these updates were downloaded, Game Center failed to autorecognize these games as being Game Center-ready. Each game had to be launched individually to connect with Game Center, after which Game Center finally added the game to the list on its dashboard. This will get trying once dozens of other games update their support; Game Center needs to be able to help users find games that are compatible, not the other way around.

Achievements appear for every game that's Game Center enabled, with a finite set of scored achievements very similar to what players get on Xbox Live or PSN. The achievements feel a little arbitrary, and they also don't seem to get triggered by past game progress in the same way that the PS3's Trophy system triggered trophies from old save game info. We found the porting-over of older game info to be hit-or-miss.

Inviting friends to play has its own complications. Few Game Center games currently support online play, and unlike the Xbox 360 or PS3, there's no Halo or Killzone 2 (other than Farmville) that's a clear online killer app--and Farmville already uses Facebook Connect as its social support. The odds that you'll even have the same games as a friend are statistically slim.

It's nice, though, that games launch directly from Game Center. Hitting the "play" button on a game's Game Center page launches the game directly. Once there are more games supported, it could be a great first destination for gamers.

Yes, Game Center is ahead of its time, and offers a more advanced centralized interface than what's available on either the PSP, Nintendo DS, or any Android phone. In that sense, it's a welcome concept that could change the face of handheld gaming. But, until game support reaches critical mass and friend invites become more intuitive, Game Center won't feel like it's second-nature to any iPhone or iPod Touch owners.

 

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