Digital Foundry: iPhone vs. Developers • Page 3

Firemint, Adept and others discuss the technical and commercial realities of the iPhone line.

Rendering prowess aside, does the new hardware offer up any further enhancements, over and above the basic 3D throughput? How does memory consumption vary across the various configurations available?

"It's highly variable depending on situation," explains Wooji Juice's Canis Lupus. "The new 3GS has 256MB of RAM, all the previous devices have 128MB of RAM, however 64MB is taken up by the OS and of the remaining 64MB or 192MB, a variable amount is consumed according to the user's settings and recent activity (tabs open in Safari, email account push/poll settings, iPod movie watching, etc). On a 128MB device, usually 15MB-25MB is available."

The only other major memory constraint developers need to bear in mind is the size of the final iTunes download.

"I believe the current hard limit on file size is 2GB," says Firemint's Robert Murray. "Obviously you want to keep it well under that to make sure the app can be downloaded in a reasonable amount of time directly to the device. Our largest games are still under 100MB in total file size, and we go to some lengths to keep them small, for example by using in-game cut-scenes as opposed to video."

"Downloads are limited to 10MB if you want to be able to download the game on a cellphone connection," adds Lupus. "But if you don't mind your customers having to download over Wi-Fi or via iTunes on their desktop computer, the limit shoots up to 2 gigs - which, in iPhone terms, is a vast, cyclopean mountain of space. So it's really the developer's call."

But at the end of the day, projects that push the technology or cram vast amounts of content onto the iPhone are going to be few and far between - especially when getting your game noticed on the App Store is incredibly tough. The competition and low price-points make for iPhone development accessible but extremely challenging. In many cases, the financials just don't work out.

"Besides needing an awesome team, it takes a very long time and buckets of money to make a game that really makes the most of a platform as powerful as the iPhone," says Firemint's Robert Murray. "Most people with that sort of money or access to finance are going to want to see a clear return on investment. Unfortunately, at the moment it is very hard to make a good case for spending a million dollars or more on an iPhone game, the numbers just don't add up, and one of the reasons that they don't add up is because of the downward spiral in pricing expectations on the App Store and the fear that it will only get worse.

"Another reason is that there are simply so many developers trying their luck on the App Store that it is over-competitive. Those two problems are connected, it is the hyper-competition that drives developers and publishers to drop their prices in order to win whatever sales they can or otherwise fall into obscurity. However if you look at a company like Firemint, we are in a position where we need the App Store to be able to support top-quality games in order for our business to thrive. We can't take a short-term approach to this platform by exploiting the pricing bias of consumers to outsell competitors. We need to operate in an ecosystem that is more sustainable than that, because we need to ensure that our business is sustainable."

"Almost every game drops to a dollar at some point," says Adept Games' Daniel Boutros. "The only ones that don't are the premium EA ones and a few of the 'classics' like Fieldrunners. This gives you a much shorter long-tail. In relative terms, you can make more money making shovelware on a retail distribution deal for the Wii than you can making a great iPhone game."

Boutros also has first-hand experience of the harsh realities of competing on the App Store with an original game with no celebrity endorsement or established franchise to raise awareness.

"Getting seen is simply a case of hitting the charts," he says. "Being in the charts, or in the 'Hot' and 'New and Noteworthy' areas gets you exposed on the front pages of the iTunes App Store and the on-phone App Store. Once you're there, sales shoot up and it's up to you as a developer to support the climb by getting more review code out there, and for some, updating the app to keep the community talking about it. If your business model is to fire a game into the space and hope it makes a ton of money back, I think you're being short-sighted."

But while the firesale of games and apps continues in the short term, some developers are looking at the bigger picture with a firm focus on quality.

"We also simply want to make top quality games," concludes Firemint's Murray. "Actually, 'want' is a very weak word, in reality we demand to make the best games we possibly can, and nothing is ever quite good enough, it is more of a hunger than a wanting. As long as we have the money and time to do so, then that is what we will continue to do, because it is the reason we are here in the first place. Unfortunately, most developers do not have the money and the time to invest into great games and they have no way of arguing the case to a publisher or investor because the numbers simply don't add up. Until they do, companies like Firemint that are willing to go there for reasons that don't always make sense on paper will probably be in the minority."

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