Apple's Portable GameS

After years of being a punch line among hardcore gamers, Apple has gotten serious about gaming, they just happened to use a cell phone and not a computer to do it.

With 30 million iPhone and iPod Touch users around the world and 25,000 applications available in their online store, Apple's smartphone has suddenly become competition for the likes of gaming giants Nintendo and Sony.

While Sony's Playstation Portable has 50 million users and Nintendo's DS has 100 million, both systems have been on the market for more than four years. It took Apple only eight months to hit 30 million and that's drawn a lot of attention from game developers.

Last year, Neil Young left gaming publisher Electronic Arts after 11 years with the company to start a mobile game publisher that focuses on the iPhone.

Ngmoco has since launched five games, some free, some for sale, on the platform, Young said. As of this month, those games have been installed on about 7 million devices, he said.

"The market is super heated. The pace of adoption is going way faster than the DS," he said. "When I left Electronic Arts there were a good group of people who thought I had lost my mind, now they think I made the right decision.

"This year we are expanding our pipeline, we plan to release 15 games this year."

Most surprising to Young has been the discovery that so many hardcore gamers are drawn to the system.

"iPhone is being adopted as a handheld," he said. "It's different than the PSP and the DS. It terms of capacity, it is more powerful than the DS, and the second generation is as powerful as the PSP in terms of processing."

"It's got a multitouch screen, and can hold all of your media. It's always on, always with you, always connected to the network."

While Young says it would be easy to bring PSP and DS games over to the iPhone doing that would ultimately be a disservice to iPhone owners.

"The iPhone deserves people trying to create games for it in the way that Nintendo tries to create games for the Wii and DS," Young said.

Ngmoco's top selling paid game is Rolando, a quirky puzzle game that has you tilting the iPhone back and forth to move animated blobs through a course while trying to protect them from dangers.

The original game sold for $10 and recently received a handful of extra levels for free. Young said his company plans to release two more iterations of the game over the next year, one in late May or early June and another in November.

The quick turnaround is something that he never could have done with the DS or PSP, both because of development time and because gamers typically don't respond to sequels so quickly. But not so with the iPhone.

"I'm surprised at how quickly people are consuming software and how frequently," he said.

The end result, in this case, will be three games that total about $30 and deliver 150 levels stretched over 50 worlds. That's less expensive and bigger than a game for the DS or PSP, Young points out.

"You are getting way more value, dished out over a year," he said.

And Young says that a recently announced update for the iPhone will make the device an even better gaming platform.

The new update, announced in California earlier this month, would allow developers to sell new content for an existing game through a built-in store. It would also allow players to talk with one another while gaming and supports local multiplayer gaming through Bluetooth. Most importantly, it opens the door to let games notify a person when a friend wants to play.

Both the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 have similar services.

"The new iPhone OS 3.0 is a major software release packed with incredible new features and innovations for iPhone customers and developers alike," said Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing. " It will keep us years ahead of the competition,"

While the iPhone can stand on its own as a gaming device, Apple hasn't done much to market it as one. Aside from a few game-themed commercials, the iPhone is still touted as a phone first.

The next obvious step, it seems, would be for Apple to introduce an iPod Touch specifically aimed at gamers.

Well Played is a weekly opinion column about the big news of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.