For games, no big rush to speedy iPhone 3GS

The latest Apple phone is a hot ticket, but some game makers say it's still a niche product representing just a fraction of the market they're looking for.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
5 min read

The iPhone 3GS is already wooing game developers with its faster, more powerful platform, but don't expect a ton of games fully taking advantage of it to flood the App Store--yet.

Though 1 million iPhone 3GSs sold in one weekend, the latest Apple mobile device is essentially still a niche product, compared to the 40 million original iPhones, iPhone 3Gs, and both iPod Touch models already sold. And those won't be able to run games with the same efficiency and speed as the new iPhone 3GS.

iPhone 3GS
1 million iPhone 3GSs sold the first weekend, but it's still considered a niche device for many iPhone game developers. Corinne Schulze/CNET

In short, it's still too early to declare the era of iPhone 3GS games officially arrived. Some game makers are waiting, or not creating games to take advantage of the device at all. Some say it's "not wise" to play specifically to what is still a small slice of the audience combing Apple's App Store for the latest downloads. For example, Pop Cap, the company behind Peggle and Bejeweled for the iPhone, said its games are benefiting from the faster load times the 3GS offers, but it has no plans to create games that are iPhone 3GS-specific.

This wait-and-see approach may be contrary to what some expected. The iPhone 3GS was essentially an update to the iPhone 3G. The "S," we were told, stands for "speed." Indeed, there's a faster processor, a PowerVR SGX graphics chip that can handle 3D rendering, and support for OpenGL ES 2.0, a standard use for creating 2D and 3D graphics. It also has a magnetometer and a video camera, unlike other Apple mobile devices.

At the device's world premiere at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference earlier this month, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller promised that games on the iPhone 3GS would perform better, and, in the parade of developers brought up on stage to demonstrate apps for the new device, the only category among education, health, games, books, and music to be repeated were games.

Pop Cap will continue to make casual games, not graphics-intensive action games, despite the opportunity the iPhone 3GS offers, according to Andrew Stein, the company's director of business development.

"Our philosophy is not to take advantage of technology just because it's there," he said. "The other thing to keep in mind: Apple has sold 1 million 3GSs, but there are 40 million devices already in market. By focusing specifically on 3GS, you're leaving a huge potential market untapped at that point," said Stein.

Independent developer Kuan Yong is already hard at work on updating his AirCoaster 3D game, which has sold 100,000 copies since February on the App Store. AirCoaster is a 3D roller-coaster simulator. For earlier iPhone and iPod Touch models, it uses the accelerometer to allow the player to gain momentum on the roller-coaster track. But now, with the iPhone 3GS's magnetometer inside, the phone can be moved along vertical and horizontal axes to tilt view, like a compass.

"Not (every user) has upgraded, so it makes sense for us to wait a little while...You can create a 3GS-only app, but it's not a good idea if there's only 1 million out there."
--Kuan Yong, independent game developer

Yong has already demonstrated it works, using the updated iPhone software development kit, and posting a video to the Web (see below). But he's not in a screaming hurry to get it onto the App Store.

"Not (every user) has upgraded, so it makes sense for us to wait a little while," he said. "You can create a 3GS-only app, but it's not a good idea if there's only 1 million out there."

So even though the iPhone 3GS has been on the market for a little over a week, and while developers are clearly eager to see what the new device can offer for games (many of the people we met in line the first day were independent game creators) the flowering of super-powerful, intense 3D graphics won't take place until more devices capable of running them are on the market. While iPhone 3GS sales will certainly pick up, if previous iPhone model sales are any indication, the device that will blow open this market for game makers isn't an iPhone.

It's an updated iPod Touch, and going by Apple's previous development cycles, a new model will be coming later this year, likely in September. Last week we got a hint the date might be getting close when someone poking around in the iPhone OS 3.0 firmware spotted a reference to "iPod3,1." Given that the current generation is referred to as "iPod2,1," it's not hard to see where this is going: after every iPhone release there's been an iPod Touch with similar features--with the exception of the hardware related to the phone--released a few months later.

As popular as the iPhone is, the iPod Touch is infinitely cheaper over the course of the device's lifetime since there's no expensive 2-year wireless service plan to be tied to. That makes the device much more accessible for a wider audience. That, in turn, will be a huge boon to companies looking to make more power games that take advantage of OpenGL 2.0 and the magnetometer.

AirCoaster creator Yong thinks that Apple will spend more time advertising the platform's capability in regard to games at that point, too. "We'll see Apple make a big push with developers," he thinks.

And for many developers, that can't come quickly enough. Gameloft, the French video game publishing company behind iPhone games like Real Soccer 2009, and Hero of Sparta, is chomping at the bit to develop games that "push the limits" of the platform, according to CEO Michel Guillemot.

"We're going to leverage on that to create even better games in the highly demanding action games category," he said in an interview. "We are delighted to have the possibility to have much better graphics and much better frames per second rate." That's still a few months away, however.

Though having to wait for those games might make gamers with the iPhone 3GS anxious, for those who have older iPhone or iPod Touch hardware and haven't yet upgraded, it's more a sigh of relief they're not going to be left behind by developers.