the artistry and psychology of gaming

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The Rise of the iPhone

The Rise of the iPhone

This entry is part 2 of David’s series on The Future of Gaming. Part 1 can be read here.

I remember going to a birthday party back in the late 1990s. There weren’t a whole lot of people there, maybe a little under a dozen max, and as was often the case back in those days, we ended up playing Nintendo 64. Four controllers, Mario Kart 64, Goldeneye 007, Star Fox 64, all the old multiplayer standbys. I didn’t know a lot of people at the party; I was friends with the host, but the rest of the guests were from church, school, soccer, etc. But what I do remember is this: sitting around the TV, everyone knew how to play Mario Kart 64. Everyone knew how to play Goldeneye 007. Everyone knew how to play Star Fox 64. We all came from very different interests, but the sports fans and the nerds, the boys and the girls, the youngest and the oldest, all knew how to play the same games. That was just the expectation back then. Games and gaming were mainstream. Everyone did it.

With the field’s splice into hardcore gamers and casual gamers (largely driven by the introduction of the PlayStation and then the Xbox, and the growth of gaming as a standalone industry), that dynamic disappeared for a while. Gaming became as splintered as the movie industry; some liked romantic comedies and some like horror movies, some like Mario platformers and some liked hardcore first-person shooters. For the longest time, I didn’t know anyone who played the games I did. Even the ubiquity of games like Call of Duty and Halo never quite matched the ubiquity of those old Nintendo 64 days.

Then, a few weeks ago, a guy I worked with named Bryan recommended to me an iOS game called Tiny Wings. Bryan and I are both working on our doctorates in computing, and we often talk about gaming from a rather academic perspective. I tried the game and loved it, and passed it along to my fiancée. My fiancée recently graduated with an English degree and doesn’t generally have the same taste in games that Bryan and I do, favoring platformers and, oddly enough, fighting games over our RPGs and RTSs — but she loved Tiny Wings as well. I showed the game to my mother, whose gaming prowess doesn’t stretch beyond Bejeweled and Sudoku, and she loved it. And since then, in my casual conversations and Facebook interactions, I’ve found numerous people I know — from professors in Europe to middle schoolers I tutor — love the game.

Tiny Wings isn’t a solitary example; in fact, the best example of this is probably the best-selling game in the world (depending on how you count), Angry Birds. Think for a second. Imagine you’re working an office job and you have an attractive coworker (and for a moment, if you’re not, pretend you’re a guy). Would you dare ask her if she played Call of Duty, Starcraft or even Super Mario Galaxy? Probably not. But would you ask her if she played Angry Birds? I imagine you’d at least be more likely to. The truth is that the iPhone is mainstream, and thus, iPhone games are mainstream. It gets to the point where many game sales tracking sites don’t even bother tracking iPhone game sales simply because it doesn’t feel like it’s part of gaming.

It’s easy to throw away this phenomenon as just casual gaming, but it goes much deeper than that. The iPhone is changing the gaming industry. Make no mistake, it is a legitimate threat to the perennial powers at Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. In many ways, it captures the Nintendo paradigm, but it executes it far better: Nintendo revived itself in the seventh generation by appealing to and leveraging a larger audience, but they can’t hold a candle to Apple’s iPhone when it comes to casual appeal. Apple corners the market on this in two ways; one that Nintendo and the other companies may be able to (and are already trying to) mimic, but the other in ways that they can barely dream of grasping without completely reinventing their entire business plan.

The iPhone’s enormous challenge to the gaming industry comes from two of its main features: its revolutionary marketplace and its overall ubiquity. The former is something we’ve already seen mimicked in the form of the Xbox Live Arcade and the comparable online shops for the Wii, PlayStation 3, Nintendo DS, and Sony PSP. The latter, however, is something that the other gaming companies cannot challenge so long as they are gaming companies. The latter mandates a complete reinvention of themselves lest they be left in the dust. The latter is a benefit that iPhone gets in the gaming industry precisely because it’s not considered to be part of the gaming industry. In my eyes, the other companies cannot fight the iPhone on these grounds, but at the same time, they cannot afford to cede this audience to Apple lest they be instantly overrun.

My initial intention had been one article about the role of the iPhone, but as I write this, it becomes readily apparent that one article won’t do the iPhone’s role justice. So, we’ll spend the next two weeks talking about the iPhone — next week, why its marketplace makes such a difference, and the following week, why its ubiquity presents such a unique challenge for the industry. We’ll talk about smartphones more generally as well, but in many ways, the iPhone itself best encapsulates the growing trend.

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