The Smart Move

After countless false starts, mobile gaming is on the move - led by a surprising champion.

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Sony and Microsoft sell games consoles which can access, store and even purchase various forms of media. They want to own the space under your television, and control the digital distribution channel you use to fill that space with content.

Meanwhile, Apple approaches the same problem from a different angle. It already controls the world's most popular digital distribution channel, but the box it sells for the space under your TV plays no games and has only been a moderate success, at best. Instead, Apple has focused on owning a different space - the space in your pocket for a digital music and video player and, latterly, a smartphone.

For the past five years, these companies have been dancing warily around one another - and more recently, the dance has been getting faster and more aggressive. Apple hasn't officially been a part of the games business up until now. In fact, it was seen as the antithesis of gaming for a long time, with its Mac desktops and laptops being utterly inferior to PCs as gaming platforms.

The broader picture, though, is of Apple as the unspoken third competitor in the console race, the dark horse who could steal the digital media crown while Sony and Microsoft squabble among themselves.

The latest shot to be fired in this unusual war came this week, when digital research group comScore revealed its latest figure for mobile phone game consumption. Yes, mobile gaming; the videogames industry's unloved stepchild, launched to so much fanfare and so much subsequent disappointment. The sector has been quietly marshalling its resources and building its revenues for some years now, but it's still never quite had the breakthrough which would make up for all the overstated ambition of its early years.

2009 may be the year when that changes - and the year when Apple finally takes the fight over the future of digital media right into the videogames market, becoming a major player in videogames in its own right.

comScore's figures show that the overall number of people downloading mobile games last year grew 17 per cent, to 8.5 million. In itself, that's respectable growth - but the real news here is that this growth was in spite of a 14 per cent decline in those downloading games on traditional mobile phones.

What that means is that smartphones are in the ascendancy. "Smartphone" is something of a loose definition, but in essence it means a combination of phone and pocket computer - a device capable of accessing a full range of Internet services, running a variety of applications, playing back media and, in many cases, playing games.

Some smartphones are better than others at playing games; Apple's iPhone is really quite a decent gaming device, for one. Almost all of them are better gaming devices than traditional "dumb" phones, though, not least by merit of having bigger, brighter screens and significantly more memory storage.

These devices represent an evolutionary leap forwards which has suddenly made mobile gaming into a palatable pastime for millions of users. Those pundits who looked at the early sales figures for games on the iPhone's App Store, tapped their noses and predicted that this device would have a huge impact on the whole world of gaming on the go have, thus far, been proven correct. It's hardly stunting the growth of the DS yet, but even at this early point, the iPhone is making waves.

The App Store itself is the second part of the puzzle. I covered the mobile games industry for several years, and at almost every conference, interview or conversation, the same topic would arise - the distribution sucks. The systems which carriers used to distribute games were archaic, confusing and discouraging, the equivalent of asking new users to dip their toe in the water but then putting a minefield, trenches and barbed wire on the beach.

Apple's single most important piece of corporate culture and understanding is nothing to do with the sleek designs of its devices or the messianic reverence afforded to founder Steve Jobs. It is, simply, that the distribution has to be tied directly and seamlessly to the device. Apple never talks about iPod; it talks about "iTunes + iPod". It's an end to end solution, from service to software to hardware, which continues to set Apple's devices apart from its competitors.

The App Store is a continuation of that philosophy. Applications, many of them games, are downloaded directly from an interface which allows searching, browsing, reading of user reviews and so on. The price for each application is clearly displayed, and there's no additional cost for data transfers or anything like that. Click "Buy" or "Install" and the icon appears on your menu screen. It seems so simple, yet it's exactly the kind of transaction which mobile gaming has largely failed to offer its would-be consumers in the past.

The upshot? Last November, almost 33 per cent of iPhone owners downloaded a game for their phone. In the short time since the device arrived, it has come to represent 14 per cent of the entire mobile gaming space - and other smartphone devices, following the iPhone's lead in how it distributes its software, are also starting to make their impact felt.

Smartphones, in other words, are on the verge of becoming an important part of the gaming landscape. The time for this kind of revolution is now - the DS and the Wii have created a population of gamers who have no ties of affection to traditional control systems, so the lack of analogue sticks or even buttons is no problem for them. Mobile carriers have accepted (or have been bullied into accepting) the need for flat-rate data tariffs. Mobile devices have become powerful enough to rival handheld game consoles.

Led by Apple, the rise of smartphone gaming looks set to be inexorable in 2009. There are still huge challenges to overcome - a debate has already been kindled over the question of pricing, and we suspect that many failed ventures will be launched before publishers work out the right price point in this new space (my own suspicion is that anything too expensive to be an impulse purchase will ultimately fail). Even some hardware vendors remain ignorant of the potential of this market - it is disappointing to see Palm's hugely promising Pre being rolled out without any worthwhile game-playing abilities.

This is the year of the smartphone. Whatever may happen in the struggle between PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii this year, expect to see mobile gaming in the ascendant at long last - and with Apple at the forefront of that movement, a player in the games space at last, it won't be long before people start wondering how hard it would be to put a decent 3D chipset and App Store support in the next revision of the AppleTV.

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