Tech + Lifestyle

games, gear, and googleplexes (joke)

State of the System, Part I

This was first published on the iPhone Games Network. To view my original article, click here.

Apple’s App Store was announced over a year ago, and since then we’ve seen it explode, with over one billion apps downloaded, independent developers striking gold with the likes of Trism, and mainstream powerhouses contributing AAA titles like Super Monkey Ball, Tiger Woods and Assassin’s Creed. The quality and variety of games has multiplied dramatically, and with those increases comes a question – have developers reached the potential of the platform? If not, where will it go from where?

Frankly, there’s quite a bit of material to cover on the topic, so I’m splitting this into two parts. In the first, I’m focusing primarily on classic gaming elements like visuals, physics, gameplay, and controls. In Part II, I’ll discuss some of the more abstract qualities like updates, replay value, multiplayer capabilities, and the App Store back-end.

Visuals & Physics:

When most people describe a video game, the first thing they mention is graphics. Does the game look good? Are there cool effects? On a mobile platform, getting games to look good is a little more difficult than with the latest console or gaming PC. You’re dealing with rather limited hardware; the trick is to produce a good-looking game without using too much memory (which will send you back to the home screen) or killing the battery (which will send you back to your charger).

At the moment, graphics quality typically falls somewhere in between the Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP, depending on the game. Most of the games available in the App Store right now are simple 2D puzzlers, which aren’t particularly demanding on hardware, but more and more new games are either fully 3D or full of fancy visual effects (or both). Some of the most graphically impressive titles have come from Gameloft, a developer that has produced titles like Terminator Salvation and Assassin’s Creed: Altair’s Chronicles. Additionally, several games have included physics effects and modeling. Using physics is by no means a requirement, especially for mobile games, but its inclusion has really increased the quality of games that do include it, like Sway and Super Monkey Ball.

The downside of all these high-end features? When you run games that are graphically demanding, they tend to take up more space in the memory than simpler titles. When this is combined with the platform’s rather small amount of RAM, you end up with smaller levels and games that are generally shorter in length. Additionally, rendering complex 3D environments takes a lot of power. Some of the more demanding games I’ve played will empty my battery after only two or three hours of usage.


When the iPhone/iPod Touch first came out, developers were presented with something of a conundrum. How do you code on something where the only physical button (Home) returns users to the main screen? Fortunately, since then most of them have become quite adept at making good and often innovative use of the touch screen, accelerometer, and microphone (iPhone only). Example: Glyder, a flying/adventure game, has fantastic and incredibly responsive controls. All you ever have to do is tilt the iPhone/iPod in various directions and occasionally tap the screen, yet from that you are able to fly all over the map, and do a decent amount of precision flying. Other developers are learning to make use of the touch screen’s edges in order to mimic buttons without blocking the screen. Most users originally were skeptical of such a control scheme, yet they work surprisingly well.

I’d like to eventually see a microphone incorporated into the iPod Touch like what the iPhone has, if only for a little more equality between the two separate and not-quite-equal pieces of hardware. Hardcore gamers have called for the addition of a control add-on with physical buttons and analog control sticks, but I don’t see that ever happening. Apple would never create or officially sanction such a device, and I’m not sure market penetration would be good enough to merit a 3rd part actually making one and getting game developers to code for the extra input options.

Gameplay & Other Factors:

Not everything can be explained or judged through visual quality or controls. One of the most important and hardest to define qualities is gameplay. Is the game fun? Does it have any discernible story or plot-line to follow? Are the controls intuitive, or at least easy to learn? Really great gameplay will have any combination of these elements, and potentially more. Essentially, I’m looking for something that hooks me and draws me in. A game should be able to convince you that protecting a castle made of pixels is actually important, and that you should keep defending it for as long as you can. World of Tunes by Com2uS is a great example of this, albeit without any castles. It’s a rhythm-based tapping game similar to Elite Beat Agents where you hit specific spots on the screen in sync with the music. It doesn’t sound particularly complicated, but then little blue guys shaped like music notes jump up, and you’ve got to hit them at just the right moment. The music has a good beat to it, and there are fancy, colorful visuals each time you do something right; pretty soon you’re hooked. Get this one, tap, get that one, tap, get the others, tap, tap, tap, crap! Missed one… it’s strangely addictive. That’s what makes for good gameplay.

There are also other things to consider – poor battery life, low frame rates (essentially whether or not a game is “smooth”), and bugs/glitches can all ruin an otherwise great game. I instinctively avoid games that have user reviews mentioning issues with bugs – if it’s a good game, awesome! I’ll wait until the developers fix any problems. Low frame rates won’t completely destroy my experience, but they’ll definitely make me put a game down after an extended period of poor performance.


In the end, mobile gaming is all about balance. You’ve got a set of limited resources with which to create a fun, engaging experience, and paying attention to one resource at the expense of others can ruin the game for users. Ports like Terminator Salvation look great and are tons of fun, but they’re also somewhat crippled by a short battery life. Most of the factors discussed here are equally reliant on the hardware available and the skill of the developers involved. As the iPhone/iPod Touch platform matures, both of those factors should improve. I’d be willing to bet that the next generation of hardware will have upgraded specs in terms of processing power and memory. With that, expect to see more and more games rendered in 3D, more complex physics, and larger environments or more complex character models than what we have seen so far.

As for whether or not we’ll see radically different models, I doubt it’ll happen. As Nigel mentioned to me, doing so would essentially create a two-system App Store, and that wouldn’t be good for anyone involved. Developers would have to choose between developing for the new hardware’s capabilities or creating something that isn’t as good, but will work on older generations. On the other side of the equation, end-users would be screwed over with a smaller selection for owners of 1st- and 2nd-gen hardware, or with unused capabilities on new 3rd-gen hardware.

Regardless of what announcements are made this summer in Cupertino, California, rest assured that the App Store gaming experience will only get better from here. In the mean time, check back next week for State of the System, Part II!


May 22, 2009 - Posted by | Gaming, iPhone/iPod Touch, Tech | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Props on the publication at iPGN! Nice article, too. I’m curious to see what the second part will cover.

    I’ve been toying with the idea of writing an article about ‘screen estate’ in iPhone games — how to use it effectively, basically. Underworlds (Diablo-like RPG, currently 99 cents, get it now) is a perfect example of how important it is to properly utilize what limited screen space you have.

    Did you shop the idea for State of the System around to multiple sites and then write it, or the other way around?

    P.S. My article for you shall be done by the weekend. For reals.

    Comment by Matt | May 22, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks man.

      Cool idea for an article. I’d be curious to see whether game developers have actually done any sort of research or play-testing to determine how much space controls should take up, and at what point reducing said space is actually detrimental to gameplay. As for whether or not I shopped the article around, the answer is no – kind of. I’d already published an interview at iPGN, and I’ve currently got an informal contributor status with the editor. With other articles, though, I vary the time at which I submit queries depending on how much input/cooperation I’m looking for from developers. I’ve got this fear of selling an idea for an article to someone and then not being able to follow through on it…

      And this weekend sounds awesome for the article. Schedule it for Sunday or Monday.

      Comment by Brian | May 23, 2009 | Reply

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