While Vancouver’s video-game sector has contracted during the recession, one part of the local development scene has been bucking the trend. The increasing appetite for games that can be played on devices such as Apple’s iPhone has made this a bright spot in the sagging economy.
Before developers zeroed in on the iPhone, creating a cellphone game was cumbersome because you had to make versions tailored to the proprietary devices and services of each wireless manufacturer and carrier. If the iPhone was the tipping point for mobile gaming—and it was—what’s next for developers?
Palm’s Pre smartphone has arrived. So have handsets powered by the Google-developed Android operating system. Nokia has transformed its N-Gage from a line of devices that fuse cellphones with handheld gaming consoles to a platform that delivers games to most Nokia handsets.
“N-Gage, the iPhone, Android all make it easier for developers to make games,” Kay Gruenwoldt, former Burnaby-based head of title marketing for Nokia Publishing, told the Georgia Straight by phone.
Gruenwoldt said that, in addition, the technology that’s used to develop mobile games has improved dramatically over the past couple of years. “The experience we can create is so much better,” he said. “You can tell better stories because you’ve got better tools.”
Although Android, N-Gage, and BlackBerry smartphones are racing to catch up with the iPhone in terms of the variety and quality of games and applications they offer, most mobile-game development under way in the Vancouver area remains focused on Apple’s device.
That’s because the iPhone is where the bulk of the demand is, according to Sarah Thomson, director of business development for IUGO Mobile Entertainment, a mobile-game development company founded in 2003.
“When the iPhone came onto the scene, that was a complete game changer,” Thomson said by phone from the company’s Yaletown office.
Suddenly, developers such as IUGO didn’t have to manage relationships with numerous wireless carriers and could focus their efforts on making titles to sell in the iTunes App Store. “We were able to self-publish,” she explained.
IUGO’s first game for the iPhone was Toy Bot Diaries; released in the App Store in August 2008, it became an instant hit. The company’s newest title is Star Hogs, a turn-based strategy game with 3-D graphics that allows up to four people to play together over a cellular-network or Wi-Fi connection.
Although IUGO is looking at the other smartphone platforms, it remains focused on developing games for the iPhone because the App Store has proven to be the best way to turn the company’s creations into cash.
What makes the iPhone special isn’t just the device itself; it’s the App Store. More than 1.5 billion applications were downloaded from the store in the first year since its launch in July 2008. The store’s 13,000 games make up more than 20 percent of the total number of applications.
This year, Research in Motion launched BlackBerry App World and Nokia opened the Ovi Store. Microsoft plans to launch its Windows Marketplace for Mobile later this year. But Apple’s App Store has a significant head start, and that’s one big reason most developers are sticking with the iPhone.
For Steven Rechtschaffner, it wasn’t an interest in the category of mobile gaming that led him to found No Robots Interactive this year; it was how the App Store had lowered the barrier to publishing such games. Rechtschaffner, president of the developer and publisher of iPhone games and applications, previously helped run Nexon’s Humanature Studio in Vancouver, which closed in January.
No Robots’ first title is the music game Jamble, which was developed by a small external team and released in July. “One of the things I find most inspiring about this space,” he told the Straight by phone from the company’s office in West Vancouver, “is [it allows the possibility] for up-and-coming talent to rise to the top quickly.”
Rechtschaffner said he doesn’t believe most people in the gaming industry understand the huge potential of the mobile market. He argues that the investment needed to develop an iPhone game is small enough that even small companies can afford to take the risk. “This is an unknown frontier,” he said.
Alex Garden, a former colleague of Rechtschaffner’s at Nexon, also has a new company that’s involved in the mobile-game development. Small Incorporated is creating an original concept, code-named Babushka, that it plans to deliver as an iPhone game, a line of collectible vinyl toys, and an animated soap opera for television.
The practice of using an iPhone game as a brand extender isn’t just being attempted by Small. Vancouver artist Dacosta, who goes by one name and designed characters for United Front Games’ upcoming ModNation Racers, specializes in creating vinyl toys. He’s got five iPhone games in development right now, four of which star a robot character named Mmartin. He expects the first to be released this fall.
In an interview at a West End coffee shop, Dacosta told the Straight that the iPhone offers an “amazing” platform from which to explore Mmartin’s world. “It’s a super-attractive idea,” he said, “the ability to extend these characters and put them into environments that help tell their story. That’s what I’m interested in.”
Plus, Dacosta explained, developing a game for the iPhone costs a third of what’s required to develop a vinyl toy. Apple’s software development kit costs US$100, and game engines can go for as low as US$600. “Other than that, it’s just time and skill,” he said.