Gamers of the iPhone, Your Attention PleaseS

It appears that the iPhone's online identity crisis may be nearing an end, but at what cost?

Earlier this week Apple unveiled a potential solution for one of the key issues that remain for gaming on their popular iPhone, iPod and iPad devices: The lack of a single cohesive online experience for playing games.

The Game Center, due to hit Apple devices this summer with their latest firmware update, will include a social gaming network, the ability to invite and track friends, matchmaking, leaderboards and, yes, even achievements.

But what about those game publishers who took it upon themselves to solve an issue that Apple was so slow to address? Publishers Gameloft, Ngmoco and Aurora Feint each operate popular services for the iPhone, giving tens of millions of gamers the ability to connect with one another, share their gaming experiences, and play online. Some even have their own achievements.

But now that Apple is rolling out a big, platform-wide service, what happens to the effort and money they put into giving gamers something Apple wouldn't?

When asked about this issue at Apple's Cupertino, California headquarters yesterday, Apple employees ducked the question, saying only that the real problem wasn't the total lack of such services on the device from Apple, but rather the "bunch of different social networks" that launched to fill that void.

Apple's goal, they said, was to build it into their devices so that everyone can be on the same gaming platform.

"We expect developers will build this into their games because they'll have a wider audience," one employee said.

That call to not panic sounds about right to David Roberts, the CEO of PopCap Games, who said they plan to introduce the service to their popular line of games eventually.

Of course, Pop Cap doesn't have a service used by millions to play communally on an iPhone or iPod Touch. A service that this summer will likely become obsolete. This sudden push into obsolescence shouldn't, though, come as a surprise to the big three companies that were improving Apple's gaming with their own money. And in fact, most of them seem to have been prepared for the news, already shifting their services from providing a way for gamers to communicate to giving them a chance to buy things inside a game.

When I spoke to Gameloft, Ngmoco and Aurora Feint last December they acknowledged that while the void left by Apple's lack of online service provided each of their companies with an opportunity, in the long run it could lead to issues.

"In the long term it's a problem if the game networks are fractured," Peter Relan, chairman of Aurora Feint said. "In the short term it's OK to have multiple because it creates innovation."

Jason Citron, CEO of Aurora Feint, welcomed the news of Apple's Game Center saying that the service would work with their own OpenFeint gaming service. And Game Center will also support OpenFeint X, a virtual goods management system for free to play games.

All 19 million of their users will automatically get the new OpenFeint X accounts as it continues to roll out, Citron said.

"OpenFeint X is currently built on top of OpenFeint and in the future it will also sit on Apple's Game Center social graph, achievements and leaderboards so developers and gamers don't miss a step," he wrote. "Apple is a key partner and we are delighted that they have validated the first half of the OpenFeint vision and we can now fulfill the second half: OpenFeint X and Virtual Goods based Social Games. Our developers can be 100 percent assured that we will continue to invest in OpenFeint so our 1500 live games, 2000 games in development and 19M players have a flawless experience with OpenFeint and Game Center."

Ngmoco also welcomes the new online gaming service as they transition their own plus+ network in the direction of in-App purchases as well.

"Game Center is an exciting first party innovation for the ecosystem that reinforces much of what plus+ has already accomplished and proven out early in its life cycle," said Simon Jeffery, Ngmoco's chief publishing officer. "It will effectively clean up the social space on the iPhone, which has become confusing and cluttered to consumers due to the number of social gaming networks vying for attention. Ngmoco has anticipated this move from Apple for some time, and is happy to see a cleaner developer and consumer experience on the horizon."

Jeffery added that he thinks the advent of Apple's Game Center will have very little impact on Ngmoco because their plus+ network has, in anticipation of this news, already started moving toward being more of a service and less about being a set of social gaming feature.

Ngmoco had even already shifted some of the people around to prepare for the news, he added.

"Our games are already reflecting this shift in strategy and our move toward deeply embedding social functionality within products like We Rule and Godfinger," he said. "I think that we have very clearly demonstrated that plus+ pioneered social gaming features on the iPhone, and that it has subsequently evolved into much, much more."

Gameloft, which in December said that it was good that gamers had a choice when it came to which online network to use for social gaming, didn't respond to request for comment.

The Game Center is most certainly something that Apple needed to do, but why did they take so long to do it?

Like their infamous feet-dragging on adding the ability to cut and paste on their devices and making their iPhone able to multitask, it seems that while Apple mostly gets it, they don't completely get it.

The decision to finally add cut and paste to the iPhone was met with, astoundingly, accolades. But Apple's news earlier this week that a form of multitasking was coming to the iPhone seemed to be met with less enthusiasm and more grumbling about why it took so long.

Now, two years and 50,000 game and entertainment titles after launching the iPhone, Apple has finally gotten around to providing a way for gamers to connect.

Even if the three major companies who have been providing a place for communities to take root and grow for years are OK with that, what's to say that the gamers who have found friends, built a virtual home and place to play with these services are now willing to just give up on them?

Sure, this is probably necessary, but I find Apple's seeming nonchalance about stepping in and bulldozing over these virtual communities without so much as a note of regret more than a little troubling.