Mobile gamers make iPhone a new messiah

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      It’s called the “Jesus phone” by some, so it’s clear that many people expect the iPhone to do everything from managing their hectic schedule to making them the coolest kid on the block. Although the device can’t meet all of these expectations, it’s proving to be a major contender in an unanticipated field: mobile gaming.

      In a market dominated by the Nintendo DS and the PlayStation Portable, most gamers on the go wouldn’t even think of pulling out their phones to play a game. With that clunky keypad, who needs the aggravation? But, armed with an accelerometer that senses movement and inclination, a touch screen, and processing power rivalling both the DS and the PSP, the iPhone appears more than capable of taking on the competition.

      “It’s interesting. Depending on who you listen to, people have compared the potential of gaming on the iPhone to somewhere between a Nintendo DS and a GameCube, as far as computing power,” John Biehler, a Vancouver-based technology blogger, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

      “Just like on the Nintendo Wii, you see lots of games that utilize the technology, whether it be the accelerometer or the camera. Take Sega, for example. They made a really amazing version of Super Monkey Ball using the accelerometer for the gameplay mechanics, and if you look at the game and you compare it to the visuals that you see on the Nintendo DS version—even if you compare it to what you see on the GameCube or the Wii—it’s pretty damn good for a hand-held device.”

      Biehler is impressed with the quality of many of the games, considering how quickly they were put out.

      All developers of programs for the iPhone must use the device’s software-development kit, which Apple released in March. Because you can download the SDK for free, everyone with the requisite skills can try their hand at designing an application for the iPhone—be it a game, an e-book, or a useless smiley face that serenades you in the language of your choice.

      Easy access to the SDK has allowed independent game developers to cash in on an increasingly lucrative market and compete on an equal footing with some of the larger companies. Considering that the SDK has only been available for several months, “Some of the games look really slick and are well thought out,” Biehler said.

      Nobody knows this better than Mike Pagano, a producer for Electronic Arts’ mobile-games division.

      Developing for the iPhone “has actually been pretty painless when compared to other platforms that I’ve worked on”, Pagano said from EA’s Los Angeles studio. “From a gameplay perspective, it’s a whole different world. You’re able to do things utilizing the accelerometer and most of the touch screen. You can do things like having three fingers on the screen and shaking at the same time to do some sort of gaming mechanic.”

      Pagano worked on Spore Origins, an iPhone and iPod touch spinoff of EA’s successful Spore that was released in September, and he is currently working on a SimCity iteration for the devices.

      Richard Smith, a professor of communication at Simon Fraser University, said the iPhone represents a significant milestone in the evolution of mobile-phone gaming, noting that things have come a long way since Snake, one of the first games to appear on cellphones.

      “The whole screen is not only reconfigurable but [so is] everything else on the device, so you don’t have to be stuck with the buttons it came with,” Smith said on the phone. “You can reprogram it and add new things. It’s made for a much more malleable device, much like the Internet.”

      But perhaps one of the biggest innovations Apple has brought to the mobile-gaming scene is its iTunes App Store. The on-line store allows users to download a wide variety of applications for their iPhones, from virtual lighters to graphing calculators to, of course, games.

      The iPhone has already overtaken the Nintendo DS, which launched in 2004, in terms of the number of games that are available for the platform. There are more than 600 DS titles available, while the App Store lists more than 1,500 games. Because the iPhone uses both Wi-Fi and cellular networks, the store allows you to instantly purchase a game no matter what your location.

      “If I’m stuck in the lineup waiting for my wife at the bank and I decide that I want to play Tetris, I can just buy it right there on the spot or maybe even get it for free, because there are a lot of free games as well,” Biehler said. “I don’t need to go to a store to buy a shrink-wrapped package.”

      Although the iPhone may not turn water into wine, it seems destined to be the saviour of choice for those on the go who need to keep exercising their gaming muscles.