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What's next for social gaming on the iPhone?

We take a look at the development of social-gaming platforms on the iPhone. Believe it or not, there are more than seven of them vying for your pocket's attention.

Until now, Apple has held an odd place in the gaming industry. Many of the hottest games for the PC have never sold as well on the Mac, due not only to a smaller market share, but also Apple offering only a handful of hardware configurations that can run the latest, graphics card-melting titles.

But on the iPhone and iPod Touch things have been different.

Apple now markets the iPod Touch as a gaming device. Both it and the iPhone 3GS contain updated hardware that can run 3D (and 2D) games quite well. On top of that platform, developers have built thousands of games that cost a fraction of the price of titles found on handhelds from gaming heavyweights like Sony and Nintendo; most can be had for just a dollar, compared to the $20 to $40 that portable titles on physical media fetch.

Something that has been more interesting to watch though than the steady release of cheap games, is the rise of free, third-party social networks that come built into these titles. These provide developers with a simple way to incorporate social feature into their games, while letting players use the same profile from title to title.

Recognize these services? They're the ones that are being integrated into most of today's hottest iPhone games. CNET

In 2009 six of these networks popped up (not counting Facebook or Gameloft live), and are now vying for the top spot, both from gamers and developers alike. But which one will end up being the most widely used service as the platform matures--the one everyone starts using? After all, users will eventually tire of having to deal with different networks from game to game. Right?

We looked at six of the biggest, compared features, user growth, and development cycles, and came to the conclusion that developers have already picked a winner. However, fierce competition, and refreshed hardware and software from Apple could quite easily bring us a new front-runner by this time next year.

The players

Right now the leader is a service called Open Feint, which was launched just nine months ago. It can be found in around 600 titles on the App Store, and has a following of 6 million users. It offers a handful of social features, including high-score leaderboards, Facebook and Twitter score publishing, friend challenging, live chat, achievements, and cross-promotion for other titles that use it. The easiest way to spot it is in application logos, which often feature the green and silver Open Feint symbol if it's built-in.

Despite its current dominance, Open Feint's reign could be short-lived. One of the most immediate threats is Facebook. The social network, which now sits at 350 million users strong, is already integrated into many of the social-gaming platforms (including Open Feint) as a sub-feature. Developers know it's where users are likely to have an existing log-in and friends list, and Facebook has made it incredibly simple to include within an app by making a lightweight, portable version of its Connect service.

Right now Connect for iPhone does two big things. One is to let you log-in to apps with your Facebook credentials. The other is to share information to your Facebook news feed, and additional users of that same iPhone app. Though currently missing from Facebook Connect for iPhone, but present on Facebook's main site, are many things that could make the tool more useful, for both users and developers, including:

    • A live chat service
    • A payment system that it could draw credit from for in-game purchases
    • A social ad system

Currently, these are exactly the types of things these third-party social-gaming networks are trying to accomplish. Where Open Feint and others stand to get overtaken in the long run, would be a more advanced version of Connect for the iPhone. One that would bring more of Facebook's community and features into each app, bridging its utility outside of games and into other iPhone apps as well.

Facebook's latest numbers say its Connect service is being used by more than 60 million monthly users, who are accessing it across 800,000 Web sites and devices. That may be a fraction of its 350 million registered users, but is quite large compared to Open Feint's user and app penetration on iPhone alone. (Note: Facebook would not reveal to CNET how many of those users were on the iPhone, or how many iPhone apps were making use of the feature.)

There's also no discounting Apple itself, which could buy up any of these platforms and offer it as part of its own application SDK. That is assuming it does not come out with its own solution in a future platform update. Surely developers would want to include Apple's social-gaming system if it was a more streamlined part of the company's existing software development tools. Right?

It's not too late for such a feature either. Despite the fact that the company has made baby steps in changing the iPod and iPhone's hardware to appeal to gamers, it made big moves during the course of 2009 to make the software and business platforms more appealing for game developers. This included the launch of system software 3.0, which finally opened up Apple's hardware to peer-to-peer file transfers, Bluetooth multiplayer, in-app purchases, and the use of external hardware peripherals. Later in the year the company also changed its stance on in-app purchases to allow free apps to offer them.

The game

To put all this in perspective, let's take a look at how we got here in the first place. When iPhone game development really kicked off (shortly after the release of Apple's native application SDK in 2008), one thing that was immediately missing was any kind of central service to track player data and scores. As a result, many developers were stuck creating their own servers to save player records.

Aurora Feint was one of the first iPhone games to have social features. CNET

The first title to come out with its own solution was Aurora Feint, a puzzle game that blended role-playing elements with falling, colored pieces users had to arrange to clear the board. Its crowning feature (besides being fun) was that it let users send their name and contact information to Aurora Feint's servers. The game would then scan for friends when they started using the game, and then challenge those friends to a score duel.

The only problem was that Apple didn't like this behavior. Not only was it being done without first asking for permission, it also violated the part of Apple's SDK agreement that said that a user's contact list could only be used within the app, but not shared with other users or stored on third-party servers. As a result, it was temporarily removed from the App Store.

Aurora Feint's creators worked it out with Apple and made it so that the app would first ask for permission before sending that information, as well as securing the information on its way back to the server. Following these changes, the app was re-released.

Five months after the release of the first Aurora Feint title, its developers, Danielle Cassley and Jason Citron, launched a sequel called Aurora Feint 2 (app store link) that added features like live chat and leaderboards. These features would go on to become the underpinnings of Open Feint, which would launch just three months later.

Open Feint was not the first to have its own platform, however. Competitor Geocade beat it to the punch by launching in January. Its big twist, compared to what Aurora Feint offered, was to let users see how their scores matched up compared to nearby gamers. To make it all work, the service would check for each user's location when they first launched the app. It also gave developers a chance to make a little money by hosting ads on the scoreboards, then splitting the revenue.

Geocade started out small with just two titles, and can now be found in 80. Unlike the others mentioned in this story, it also works on Google's Android, allowing developers to go cross-platform.

Geocade's big launch feature was that it would let players see how others around them were scoring. The service also offers a live view of the latest scores on its site. CNET

After Geocade, came Facebook Connect for iPhone. While missing many of the features that would later be built by the independent networks, Facebook's offering was a very big step for social gaming on the iPhone. The popular social network was offering gamers a way to sign up to use applications with credentials to a service they were already using. For app developers, that meant that they didn't have to maintain a special user database. More importantly though, it would advertise their app out to that player's Facebook wall. Facebook Connect went on to become built-in to many of these third-party platforms, simply as a feature.

Facebook Connect for iPhone allowed gamers to publish scores to their Facebook walls, as well as slurp in friends lists. Facebook

Just days after Facebook Connect was released for the iPhone, Open Feint became available to developers. Version 1.0 of its service launched with 30 titles. It offered chat and leaderboards, along with a way for users to join using their Facebook or Twitter credentials.

Open Feint was (and still is) free for developers as long as their apps were free. However, if an app cost money, Open Feint would charge based on how many users were using it each month. The service would also get a small cut out of any in-app purchases if they were suggested through its iPurchase system, which listed other apps using Open Feint.

A month after the launch of Facebook Connect and Open Feint came Scoreloop. Like the other networks, developers had to code it into their titles. In turn the players got their own profiles that stayed the same from game to game. They also got leaderboards and the capability to challenge other users on the service to score matches.

Where Scoreloop really stood out from some of the competitors was with its own built-in micro-purchase system. Unlike the other platforms, which were using in-app advertising, and cross-promotion, Scoreloop let developers build small charges into their apps using a virtual currency system. Players could win these coins by challenging other players (and winning), or by receiving them as a reward for completing certain parts of a game. The system is also set up to let users buy coins directly from Scoreloop, the revenue of which is then split with the developer.

Following Scoreloop came Agon, which is currently the second most widely used social gaming platform on the iPhone. Like Geocade, it came out the gates with leaderboards that could be geographically filtered, game achievements, and user profiles. However, Agon's big feature was that it took very little effort to stick into games; one line of code in fact.

Since release, Agon has put out two incremental updates that added a few more features to the mix. The first one added landscape orientation (so that players could use it with their device turned sideways), saved game data sync, and a way to publish high scores to Twitter and Facebook. This was followed up with the introduction of profiles, which would let multiple users share gaming profiles on the same device.

Right after Agon's release, Open Feint launched its second iteration. Released during Apple's World Wide Developer's conference, version 2.0 included a universal log-in--one that could be used across all Open Feint-enabled games, and across multiple devices. It also made it easier to discover other Open Feint-enabled titles that other users were playing, regardless of whether or not you were friends with them. This gave the service a social pulse, as you could see which games were getting the most attention at any given time.

Plus+ is one of the most exclusive iPhone game networks. Developers have to pitch their wares to get access to its SDK. CNET

Following the release of Agon and Open Feint 2.0 was Plus+ (reads: plus plus) from publisher Ngmoco. Unlike all of the other networks mentioned thus far, Plus+ was introduced as a "premium" network, and one without an open SDK. This meant that developers would have to pitch their apps to get a crack at using the service. As a result of this, Plus+ remains one of the least-used services, but one with some very high-profile games.

For players, Plus+'s core features included a profile system, friend challenges, achievements, leaderboards, social score comparison, and social score publishing to Twitter and Facebook. It also had its own status message system that lets players post what they're doing for other Plus+ users to see. Developers, on the other hand, could get placement within other Plus+ apps, a way to push out notifications of game challenges, and a built-in analytics engine that could show them more information about the players who are using their game.

Ngmoco's approach with Plus+ would later lead other game publishers to launch their own systems. The latest is Crystal from Chillingo, which is currently in an invite-only beta. Like the others, it includes leaderboards, achievements, cross-promotion and social publishing to Facebook and Twitter. Chillingo is also letting developers completely re-skin it to match their apps.

Other publishers, however are keeping their tools to themselves. This includes Gameloft, which has what it calls "Gameloft Live," a service that includes a friends list, live chat, achievements, a mail network, and scoring system. It was originally launched last year for the company's mobile games, before being retooled for Gameloft's iPhone games in late 2009. Unlike the other solutions, the social service cannot be plugged into third-party titles--just Gameloft's latest releases.

Bigger is better

While competition has spawned better features among these services, the future brings a growing need for a more unified network. Even if all these networks begin to become impossible to differentiate, users are eventually going to want a less-disjointed platform when jumping from game to game, and app to app. Thus far Facebook, and even Twitter to some degree have provided that constant, just by giving users a way to log in to these platforms.

The unification can shake out in a number of ways though, the most likely of which is consolidation. Open Feint can continue to grow until it's snatched up by a larger company (like Apple). Or it can begin absorbing, or muscling out the other, less popular networks.

As mentioned before, Apple plays a big part in this: not only in how it changes the hardware, but also how it continues to evolve the business of the App Store and information sharing between applications. But that's not to say the company is in complete control. At the moment, developers--and not Apple--are calling the shots on which one of these mini-social networks is, and will continue to be, No. 1.