Apple's Game Center playing nice with others

Game Center is the new kid on the block when it comes to social gaming networks on the iOS platform, but there are already signs it could crowd out others.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
5 min read

One question that was raised almost immediately when Apple announced Game Center, the company's first-party social gaming service, in April was what would happen to existing social game networks on the platform? The early answer, surprisingly, is comfortable cohabitation.

Game Center has cropped up in a very, very small percentage of games on the App Store, though in the coming months it's likely to be found in just about every new game that comes out from major publishers. It adds a number of social features to games including achievements, leaderboards, and game challenges--all things developers can build into their titles through Apple's iOS software development kit.

The problem then was that many of these features were already available on existing social game networks, including names like OpenFeint, Plus+, ScoreLoop, and Geocade. So what are developers to do? And more importantly, what are they doing?

There are already some signs that the cohabitation of more than one game network within games (old and new) isn't just possible, it's something designers are actively working on.

One of the companies on the front line of this is OpenFeint, which can stake its claim as being the first social gaming network, and also one of the first that's been able to adapt to Apple's incoming presence.

OpenFeint and its parent company Aurora Feint grew out of necessity when the App Store was introduced in mid-2008. Developers Jason Citron and Danielle Cassley co-created the self-titled Aurora Feint game series for the iPhone and eventually the iPad, and offered it up as an example of what social features could be built into an iPhone game. Aurora Feint itself was a puzzle game, requiring that players stack up falling pieces to solve puzzles. During its run, Citron and Cassley added things like leaderboards and friending features, and in later iterations included real-time chat, multiplayer gaming, a news feed, and community forums--all accessible in-game.

These features were broken out of the Aurora Feint game title and offered up as a platform developers could build into their games to have something that players would be familiar with from title to title. It also took the onus off the developer to build up this infrastructure themselves.

OpenFeint's interface within the popular iOS title Fruit Ninja Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

OpenFeint has since gone on to include things like geo-location, Facebook and Twitter integration, 16-user multiplayer, voice chat, and network game save storage. The company also has a variation of its main service that's currently in beta, called OpenFeint X, that adds things like virtual goods and micropayments, and an iPhone app that highlights OpenFeint-enabled games.

To date, the service can be found in more than 3,000 iOS titles, and has some 37 million registered users.

So what has OpenFeint done to play well with Game Center? "The simple answer is that we've released a bunch of tools to easily integrate Game Center and OpenFeint together," said Citron in a phone interview with CNET earlier this week. "When you post a high score both your Game Center and OpenFeint friends see it. You also get Game Center points and OpenFeint points."

Citron explained that to post things like achievements or high scores to both networks at once, developers have to program it in. "Developers will use OpenFeint 2.7--the latest version--and whenever they submit a high score, it gets submitted to both OpenFeint and Game Center." The new integration does a few other tricks as well, like highlighting leaderboard scores that were also posted to Game Center so people can connect there too.

Such a system has not yet been rolled out to some games, though it's just around the corner. Citron said that some high-profile OpenFeint-enabled games that have adopted various Game Center features, while keeping OpenFeint on board, shipped out before the company had made its tools available. "They'll be updated in the next week or two," he said.

One such title is Halfbrick's Fruit Ninja. It's one of the best-selling titles on the App Store, and makes use of both social game networks. What's interesting in Fruit Ninja's case is that there is some crossover in features between the two game networks, though Halfbrick has chosen to only go with certain ones from each.

As a result, if you want to actively track these in-game elements, you need to be members of both networks. Take, for instance, achievements--a feature that's available on both networks--but you'll only find them on OpenFeint. Thus, if you earn, or have earned an achievement, it only shows up in OpenFeint. The game was also updated earlier this week to include live multiplayer, which uses Game Center's matchmaking, then posts your scores to OpenFeint.

It's the same story for Star Dunk, a game from developer Godzilab. Unlike Fruit Ninja, it makes use of another social game network called Plus+, which was created by developer and publisher Ngmoco. Like OpenFeint, it too offers things like achievements, leaderboards, and network game saves.

What Godzilab did though, was to mix and match some of the features from both of these networks--at least in the current version of Star Dunk. There are, for instance, two sets of identical achievements, both on Game Center and Plus+. If you have earned any in Plus+ they get carried over, and vice versa. As for leaderboards and multiplayer gameplay, those features still utilize the Plus+ network, and require membership there.

Game Center leaderboards
Game Center's leaderboards look a little different from OpenFeint's, but provide the same general service. Some developers are trying to include both, but many are going with one or the other. Screenshots by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

So what are these companies doing to entice developers to go exclusively with them? Or is that even an issue? When I posed the same question to Citron regarding games coming out in the next few months he explained that it was difficult to imagine. "My gut feeling is that Game Center will be in every game, and OpenFeint will be significant," he said.

The plan for now, Citron explained, was to continue building in features that Game Center did not have, and that would push the platform forward. "Game Center has obviously changed the way my company is both perceived and how we act. When [Apple] announced it, everything changed overnight," Citron said.

But that doesn't mean it was a bad thing for OpenFeint's business. "It's ended up helping us more than anything else," he explained. "What Apple has done has validated what my company has done on a mobile platform. Now everything on the planet has a social gaming network."

OpenFeint's answer during this period of Game Center's baby steps is what some of its competitors like Scoreloop and Geocade were doing from the get-go, which is to push cross-platform. "Android is a rising star," Citron said. "As it continues to grow, the focus of the market will shift, and cross-platform will be more important."

Eventually Citron and his company envision a time where you can pick up and play a game, and get the same social features on any device. He likened it to the PC world, and how players with machines from different companies are still able to play against each other using cross-platform networks like social games in the browser. "Game Center is never going to solve the need of bridging those platforms," he said. "But in the long term, the market forces will push and change these things."

The question in the interim then is which route developers decide to invest in as Game Center grows up: Apple's walled garden, or a product like OpenFeint that aims to work on every platform. The two may be playing nice right now, but when push comes to shove, Apple's got all the control.