iPhone 2.0 SDK: Video Games to Rival Nintendo DS, Sony PSP
March 20th, 2008
Daniel Eran Dilger
When the iPhone was unveiled a year ago, it was obvious that it would outclass the status quo in mobile phones, particularly in the US where mobile operators have been holding back innovation. Far less obvious was the potential for the new phone to rival dedicated handheld gaming consoles. Here’s how well the iPhone stacks up against the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP in both hardware and as a business model.
Not a Fair Fight.
At first blush, one likely wouldn’t think of the iPhone as being in the same league as handheld gaming consoles. However, when Apple showcased a half dozen prototype apps at the SDK launch, fully half of them were games. Clearly, Apple isn’t going to be ignoring games on the iPhone.
The most obvious competition the iPhone faces is the leading Nintendo DS and the distant runner up, Sony’s PlayStation Portable. Incidentally, both gaming units appeared on the market in late 2004; the iPhone benefits from being nearly three years younger, and therefore based on considerably more modern technology. However, gaming isn’t an easy market to break into.
In addition to the very popular DS and the runner up success of the PSP, there have been notable failures in mobile gaming. Nokia’s Symbian-based “side talking” N-Gage, released in late 2003, fell dramatically short of sales goals and turned into an embarrassing joke for the company. In early 2005, Microsoft worked with Gametrac to deliver a WinCE based gaming device called Gizmondo; that company fell apart after scandals erupted involving executives’ ties to a Swedish crime ring and massive embezzling and reckless spending resulted in its bankruptcy. It didn’t help that Gizmondo was branded the “worst console of all time” by gamer magazine writers.
Playing the Console Game.
Successfully deploying a game console is a lot of work and a lot of risk. The hardware has to deliver competitive features while also being priced low enough to attract a large audience of buyers. There’s also the catch-22 of selling units before enough game titles exist, or alternatively, lining up developer support before having sold any units to players.
Gaming heavyweight Sega pulled out of the living room games console business entirely after the tepid launch of the Dreamcast in 1998. Despite pioneering hardware, the Dreamcast suffered from poor marketing and was subsequently blindsided by the smash success of Sony’s PlayStation 2 nearly two years later.
However, Sony’s own efforts to enter the handheld gaming world, long dominated by Nintendo, didn’t materialize as planned either. Despite attractive hardware and its association with the most popular series of living room consoles ever, the PSP has fallen short of selling half as many units as the DS: 31 million PSP units versus 65 million DS. Nintendo also still sells the earlier generation Game Boy Advance, which has sold an additional 81 million units since 2001. Combined, Nintendo has sold nearly as many handheld gaming units since 2001 as Apple has sold iPods.
Microsoft similarly proved that its desktop PC monopoly power was no match for the entrenched players in the games console business, losing tens of billions on the original Xbox and Xbox 360 while remaining in a distant also ran position. Just two years into its massive investments in the 360, the console has already seen sales fall of dramatically in its second year, and entering 2008, it has consistently slipped behind the PS3 in monthly unit sales.
Apple’s Quiet Gaming Strategy.
Apple seemingly wouldn’t stand much chance in throwing its own ring into the rough and tumble games console business. Its last effort, a licensing deal with Bandai to resell a low end PowerPC Mac as the 1995 Pippin entertainment system, was a notable failure.
Rather than directly competing against the big players, Apple has been developing games for the iPod in what has appeared to be a Steve Jobs Hobby since late 2006. However, those efforts translate directly into the new iPhone development platform, as Apple has used iPod games to perfect a system for secure digital software delivery through iTunes.
When the games appeared, it was a bit of a surprise to see what the iPod could deliver. It shouldn’t have been; the 5G iPods have the same ARM7TDMI processor as the Game Boy Advance (the iPod actually has two), a higher resolution 320×260 screen compared to the GBA’s 240×160, far more RAM (64MB) and plenty of disk storage to avoid needing to carry around any cartridges.
The iPod could deliver these major hardware advantages over the GBA because it was designed to be sold for around $400; the GBA was intended to retail for around $200. The iPod certainly wasn’t designed to compete as a gaming device, but its latent capacity makes it a viable alternative for the tens of millions of users who already have an iPod and want to use it for new things. Apple’s pioneering $5 game market also lowers the threshold for impulse buying.
Can a Phone Play Real Games?
The iPhone has similar hardware advantages over the DS and PSP, both of which were engineered to sell at much lower price points. The DS originally sold for $149 (and is now $129), and the PSP debuted in the US at $249 (now sells for $169). The 8GB iPhone debuted at $599 (and now sells for $399).
Apple’s engineers not only had a bigger budget to spend, but could use more modern technology given that Apple released the iPhone two and a half years later. Here’s how their hardware compares:
Nintendo DS: Late 2004
67 MHz ARM 946E-S (N-Gage processor) + 33 MHz ARM7TDMI (same processor as the original iPods)
256KB Flash + cartridge storage
Dual, 256×192 3“ displays; one is stylus touch sensitive
No mobile radio
Sony PSP: Late 2004
333 MHz MIPS R4000 CPU + GPU with 2 MB onboard VRAM running at 166 MHz
32 MB main RAM (new models expanded to 64MB), and 4 MB embedded DRAM. MemoryStick storage, UMD media
480×272 (368×207 usable for video); no touch screen features
No mobile radio
Apple iPhone: Mid 2007
Samsung ARM SoC 620 MHz 1176 running at 412 Mhz + PowerVR MBX 3D GPU
8 or 16GB Flash storage
320×480 3.5” display with finger multitouch input
Accelerometers for direct physical control
2 Megapixel camera
Quad band GSM + EDGE
WiFi 802.11 b/g
BlueTooth 2.0 EDR
The iPhone is in a significantly different class of performance, has far more internal resources for games, and is equipped with a variety of other hardware–from its camera to its ubiquitous (if slow) mobile network to its multitouch high resolution display and accelerometers–all of which have to power to unlock entirely new classes of games and other more serious applications.
As a handheld console, this feature set makes the iPhone a bit like the Wii, with interactive new gameplay features, and a bit like the PS3, with higher performance gaming specs and additional online and media capabilities. Buyers won’t have to decide if they want a handheld game console; they’ll get it for free when they buy the iPhone or iPod Touch.
Further, because Apple is attaching game development as a sidecar dessert on top of a device that is primarily monetized as a hardware sale (boosted by retail and accessory sales, media sales, and carrier revenue sharing), developers will get more bang from their buck and will incur less risk developing games for the iPhone. The iPhone has also already proven itself as a very desirable smartphone, even before the arrival of any native games, ameliorating the worries of a whether games developers should invest in the platform.
The iPhone’s development tools are more approachable to a wide audience of developers already familiar with the Mac, they’re significantly cheaper to obtain and get started with than other consoles, and game distribution will be much easier and more lucrative because Apple doesn’t need to squeeze fat licensing fees out of its developers to make money. In fact, Apple will do best by continuing to give developers those groundbreaking 70% royalties on their software sales, encouraging a wide and deep gaming market to develop for the iPhone and iPod Touch.
The Chips and the Frameworks.
The iPhone’s System on a Chip processor bundles an ARM 1176 clocked at 412 MHz. The DS uses a pair of much earlier and simpler ARM processors, while the PSP uses the now dead end MIPS architecture, which was used in the Nintendo 64 and earlier PlayStation and PS2 consoles. Both Nintendo and Sony have since moved their modern living room consoles to variants of the PowerPC family.
That leaves the iPhone with an ideal CPU architecture for handheld gaming, and one familiar to existing smartphone developers. Above the hardware level, the Phone’s Cocoa Touch layers on a mature development framework that makes creating software for the iPhone much easier than developing for Symbian, Windows Mobile, Palm, RIM BlackBerry, and other mobile platforms.
The iPhone’s SoC also bundles a PowerVR MBX graphics processor. In the late 90s, prior to the advent of ATI and NVidia as GPU leaders, PowerVR rivaled 3dfx Voodoo graphics cards in the PC market. Sega’s Dreamcast was also built around a PowerVR graphics processor. Following the rise of ATI and NVidia, PowerVR moved into the embedded mobile arena and became the standard for mobile smartphones and related devices.
Getting performance from smartphones has often been difficult because mobiles commonly rely on their own proprietary software or least common denominator packages like Sun’s stripped down Java ME. Apple’s iPhone SDK uses OpenGL ES, the same standard graphics API used by Symbian smartphone developers and the Sony PS3. This standardization will make graphics and games development for the iPhone familiar to a wide audience.
Again, in addition to using the PowerVR hardware and Open GL ES software, Apple is also providing its own slick software integration with tools such as Core Animation, making it much easier for developers to achieve a consistent look and feel with the buttery iPhone interface without necessarily being experts in embedded video development.
And the Competition?
Nintendo has long held a dominant position in handheld gaming, developed through a strategy of focusing on playability. The Game Boy, GBA, and DS didn’t deliver the most incredible hardware of the time, but did serve as low cost gaming devices paired with large libraries of games licensed by Nintendo. The company has worked to maintain high quality games for all of its platforms.
That also results in making Nintendo’s platforms closed tighter than Apple. Nintendo started in its closed development plans after the Video Game Crash of 1983 nearly wiped video gaming out of retail stores. Atari had encouraged unlimited game production for the 2600, resulting in some game titles being produced in greater quantities than the console itself. The result was a glut of games foisted upon retailers and a backlash against gaming.
Nintendo successfully reintroduced gaming by positioning its new NES game console as an “entertainment system” paired with a toy robot. As gaming took off again in the late 80s, Nintendo’s strict controls gave it strong market power and delivered exceptional profits. Independent developers couldn’t ship games for the NES without a licensing agreement with Nintendo.
Nintendo ruled the roost until its deal to build a new CD-equipped Super NES system with Sony fell through, resulting in Sony leaving to develop its own PlayStation games console in late 1994. Sony maintained the same games licensing model as Nintendo. When Microsoft entered the fray in 2001 with the Xbox, it similarly relied upon software licensing revenue to partially bail out its console hardware losses.
These conventional game console makers rely heavily on software licensing fees to keep their heads above water; Apple doesn’t. Software sales through iTunes will be self supporting in an effort to drive software availability. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have largely been opposed to small homebrew development, and are therefore going to be threatened by Apple’s encouragement of software development freed from licensing profiteering.
Microsoft recently unveiled XNA plans that try to achieve both: courting small developers to make online Xbox games and software for the Zune, and then subsequently taxing them as much as 70% in exchange for marketing exposure. Like Apple’s iPhone App Store, Microsoft won’t allow outside development, not because of security issues, but because that’s where Microsoft hopes to make the majority of its money. It remains to be seen how well that will work for the company, particularly given the extremely low uptake of the Zune and the year over year free fall in sales of Xbox 360 units.
Microsoft also appears to have given up all efforts to repurpose WinCE as a third party handheld gaming platform after the failure of the Gametrac Gizmondo. While the company recognizes the importance of “developers, developers, developers,” without a viable platform to sell to, those developers won’t care.
Nokia is trying to resuscitate N-Gage 2.0 as a gaming platform for its higher end N-series smartphones as part of Ovi, a portal site that also plans to sell music and GPS maps. The gaming platform will be constrained somewhat by the simpler specs of Nokia’s phones; the N81 has a similar processor, but only 96MB of RAM, a far more limited graphics resolution of 240×320, and no touchscreen or accelerometers, limiting the new N-Gage platform to the simplistic cell phone style games that have already failed to garner much attention.
Nintendo is unlikely to be pushed from its perch of selling $130 handheld game consoles by the $299 and up iPod Touch and iPhone. It has also demonstrated no interest in moving into mobile phone gaming itself. Unlike other hardware makers, Nintendo has also worked to sell its consoles at a profit while also earning software licensing revenues. That means Nintendo may be less likely to deliver games for Apple’s platform, as it would tend to draw attention away from its own handheld gaming efforts.
At the same time however, the company was quick to point out that its DS didn’t directly compete against the Sony PSP, and those two products were only $100 apart; Nintendo might therefore aim to deliver software for the iPhone because of the limited competition between the two platforms serving different markets at very different price points.
Sony is working to establish the PS3 and grow sales of the PSP before the three year old platform begins to run out of steam. PSP developers face more complex and expensive tools, which has resulted in fewer games being developed and sold. The PSP only had 2 games in the US top 50 last year, compared to 12 for the Nintendo DS.
Sony has also hampered the PSP with its preoccupation with promoting its own proprietary, physical media formats, including the failed UMD and MemoryStick. Apple’s online distribution model will democratize development and the iPhone’s wireless App Store and large Flash storage will encourage lower priced game sales in volume.
Sega no longer makes its own gaming hardware, giving it free rein to develop titles for the iPhone. It demonstrated a prototype of Super Monkey Ball using the iPhone’s accelerometers to control player movement. Sega noted that the iPhone’s 320×480 resolution meant that it had to spruce up its graphics, commenting that the iPhone supported console-style graphics rather than those typical of a cell phone.
Artificial Life, Aspyr, Electronic Arts, Feral Interactive, Freeverse, Gameloft, id Software, Pangea, THQ, and Namco Bandai have all confirmed an intent to deliver games for the platform, with Gameloft announcing plans for fifteen titles by the end of the year. Apple also demonstrated Touch Fighter, its own in house game, showing off the iPhone’s use of both OpenGL graphics, accelerometer support, and OpenAL audio for stereo sound positioning.
Ethan Einhorn, who demonstrated Sega’s Super Monkey Ball, told gaming site Next-Gen, “From a technical standpoint, the iPhone is competitive with dedicated handheld gaming devices [like the DS and PSP]. The delivery system for software will be digital and easy to use. And the ability to have all of your portable electronics needs catered to with one device is irresistible. Given all of that, the potential for the iPhone as a games platform is massive. From a technical standpoint, the iPhone is competitive with dedicated handheld gaming devices. This is a phone that offers plenty of power to work with, no compatibility concerns, and uniform input functionality. That represents an evolution in the mobile gaming space.”
As Apple migrates its 150 million iPod installed base toward the iPod Touch and iPhone, the company will pair a large user base with enthusiastic development efforts. Users will get the gaming environment as a free addition to the phone, media player, and web browser they purchased. Conversely, that also means that lesser phones with plodding web browser capabilities and simplistic media playback–as well as dedicated games consoles that really only play games–will have a hard time competing against the new platform. That should make for an interesting 2008.
More on the iPhone 2.0 SDK
iPhone 2.0 SDK: The No Multitasking Myth
iPhone 2.0 SDK: Java on the iPhone?
iPhone 2.0 SDK: How Signed Certificates Work
iPhone 2.0 SDK: Video Games to Rival Nintendo DS, Sony PSP
iPhone 2.0 SDK: Readers Write on Certificate Signing
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