The future of iPhone games

New technologies and innovative uses of existing tools will enable a series of new features for one of the most popular genres of iPhone apps.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

With the release of "2012," the iPhone app tied to the forthcoming Sony Pictures film of the same name, a group of developers may have kicked off the future of games on the hit smartphone.

While the game itself is fairly simple and lasts just minutes, it incorporates features that may never have been tried before, and as such, could be among the small number of titles that are showcasing what will soon be considered par for the course.

In the minds of many industry observers, thanks to its integration of a functional operating system, an accelerometer, GPS and a camera, and the fact that thousands of developers, big and small, have released games for the iPhone, the Apple device has already surpassed Sony's PSP and Nintendo's DS as the most important, or at least most adaptable, portable gaming platform.

But as developers get more creative and as its technology improves, it's likely that the iPhone will only get more impressive as a gaming machine.

The new iPhone game, 2012, features an innovative ability to call out to people on a user's contact list for help with answering tough questions. This is one example of where features in iPhone games are heading. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

With "2012," the developers at augmented reality entertainment production studio Trigger seem to have broken new ground with a couple of features. In the game, players are tasked with making their way--virtually, of course--from their real-world location to a digital Tibet. They do so by answering trivia questions related to survival, and with each correct response, they are credited with hundreds of miles of forward progress.

But sometimes the questions can be difficult, and since players get only three "lives" with which to get to Tibet, the game borrows a page from the TV game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"--players are able to cash in "lifelines," and reach out to real-world friends for help with tough questions.

To do so, players can call people from their iPhone contacts list, directly from within the game, a feature that, according to Trigger president and executive creative director Jason Yim, had never been implemented in an iPhone game before.

And while from a user experience perspective, the procedure seems very simple and well-integrated, Yim said that from a technology perspective, successfully integrating phone calling from within the game was "quite complex."

By itself, the feature may not come across as that impressive, and it has some serious flaws--for example, each time someone plays the game, they must re-enter the three people they wish to call for lifelines, something that can be time-consuming for someone with a lengthy contacts list. But as a technological innovation that will eventually make its way into any number of games, the feat is both impressive and important.

Just the beginning
To Yim, however, tools like this are just the beginning of what will soon be a new wave of feature innovation, many of which will happen as developers clue in to how to take things to the next level, and others which will come as a result of new developments in the iPhone operating system itself.

For example, he pointed to the fact that Apple is now allowing Flash programmers to bring their applications to the iPhone, a move that will make it possible for many games to now be ported onto the device, and which will make it "simpler to create basic content for the iPhone."

And new innovation, exciting especially to a company like Yim's Trigger, is the emergence of new augmented reality games that double as marketing vehicles for large companies. Already, some apps for the iPhone 3GS--which, unlike the two earlier versions of the iPhone, has a built-in compass--have implemented AR, such as a secret feature in the Yelp app that lets users shake their phone three times and see restaurant names and reviews appear on the screen over the video they're watching.

But Yim suggested things will soon go beyond that. For instance, he said that an iPhone user might be able to walk up to an AR-enabled poster, point their device at it and automatically unlock some sort of prize. Similarly, a user could take their iPhone into a McDonald's, or some other partner restaurant, and get a free french fries, all because the device knows where it is, and syncs that awareness to some sort of marketing campaign. And if that was built into a game of some sort, it would give players an incentive to participate.

One-point-five Life
To Ge Wang, the chief creative officer and co-founder of hit iPhone apps Ocarina and Leaf Trombone developer Smule, augmented reality is exactly the direction that the next generation of iPhone games will take.

Wang said that the iPhone, as a device, is moving people's sense of computing into a new age, taking them away from their monitors and letting them go anywhere they want. As a result, games will be able to leverage that newfound computing freedom and blur the lines between the virtual world and the physical world.

"I think maybe for the first time, with the iPhone and all these supersmart phones," Wang said, "you have (the convergence of a couple of) things you need for augmented reality."

First, he said, is a ubiquitous computer in the hands of millions of people. And second is that that device, always in users' possession, provides consistent network connectivity and location awareness.

Add that to the fact that the iPhone, especially the 3GS, is rich in sensors, and you have the ability, more than ever, to bring connected gaming out into the open world.

"The time's never been better or more ripe for...this kind of mixed virtual reality," Wang said. "It is kind of this alternate reality, and augmented reality. It's not quite Second Life, and it's not first life. It's almost 1.5 Life."

Wang also pointed to the push notifications feature of the iPhone's OS 3.0. He suggested that game developers would be able to change the dynamic of how people play games together, and that with push, "people don't have to be proactive, they can be reactive."

In other words, multiplayer iPhone games could offer each participant the ability to take turns, regardless of where that person is, because the device can send a notification when it's time to take action. And that's just one example. It's hard to prognosticate the endless ways that this kind of tool could be implemented in games, but to Wang, this kind of feature means players can having passive relationships with the games they play to more active ones.

Smart micro-transactions
Another future game innovation is likely to be what Seth Gerson, CEO of iPhone app developer LastLegion Games, which built the official iPhone game for the film "Watchmen" called personalized in-app purchases.

Already, some iPhone games and other applications allow in-app purchases--but to Gerson, those tend to be a bland set of offerings that pay no mind to the personal preferences of users.

But that will change, he suggested, as developers get ahold of and mine new behavior data that allow them to offer players the specific kind of virtual items they want. "You can give the consumer a voice in what they're purchasing," Gerson said, "and give them better experiences."

That means, essentially, that iPhone games will be set up to determine, based on how people play, or on preferences they've asserted during play, the kinds of items the might want to buy. In a first-person shooter, that could mean offering specific kinds of weapons or armor, or different kinds of outfits in a fantasy game. The sky, really, is the limit, so long as developers think about what the data they collect mean and use it to enhance players' experiences.

Gerson also thinks there is a future for iPhone game features based on cloud computing. He said it's too early to say exactly how that will evolve, but the upshot is that developers will be learning how to automatically transform multiplayer games into solo play if someone's network connectivity is lost. Further, he said, technological advances in data distribution will mean that multiplayer games will work better even on AT&T's EDGE network and won't require 3G for seamless across-the-network play.

Given that Apple always plays its cards close to its vest, there's no way to know for sure what kinds of technological innovations are coming for forthcoming versions of the iPhone or its operating system. Much can be guessed, of course, and developers are going to have to stay a step ahead if they want their games to be relevant and exciting to players faced with nearly limitless choices.

It also matters, of course, how new innovations are implemented. It doesn't do anyone any good when new features are rolled out if the way they're done makes for a mediocre user experience. But when done right, a new feature can be disruptive and force everyone in the field to stand up and take notice.

Because the iPhone environment is so adaptable, as it should be given that it is a functional, albeit limited, computer, it is certain that there is no limit to the kinds of innovations that are coming down the line, both for games and for other kinds of apps. But given that games are one of the most popular genres of apps for the device, you can be sure that if there is one area certain to highlight the evolution of new kinds of features, games will be where the action is hottest.