The iPhone's Online Identity Crisis

Initially conceived as a multimedia device, the iPhone overcame a number of hurdles to become a popular gaming portable. But one surprising problem still haunts the device's gaming capabilities.

Despite being a phone, the iPhone doesn't have a single cohesive online experience for playing games.


Where the DS, Playstation 3, PSP, Wii and Xbox 360 each have a single online services for gaming, Apple has left the creation of iPhone gaming networks to the game publishers. The result is a handful of disconnected services vying to be number one.

Publishers Gameloft, Ngmoco and Aurora Feint operate the three most popular services for the iPhone, each giving gamers the ability to connect with one another, share their gaming experiences, and play online.

Gameloft Live allows players to chat, message one another, earn game trophies and play mulitplayer matches live. Currently nine of Gameloft's titles are supported by the service with most of the publisher's future games slated to include Live support.

While Gameloft Live is only for Gameloft's titles, both Ngmoco's Plus+ network and Aurora Feint's OpenFeint are used by other developers to add online support to their games.


OpenFeint is being used in more than 300 games with another 800 in development, said Peter Relan, chairman of Aurora Feint.

The service includes game lobbies, social discovery, the ability to see what friends are playing and challenge them to games. Mulitplayer support is currently being tested, Relan said, with turn based multiplayer expected this holiday.


Ngmoco's Plus+ network allows players to create a profile, challenge friends, compete on leaderboards and find other games supported by the network.

While some gamers may feel it's inconvenient to have to sign up for multiple services to play online, the lack of any single gaming service doesn't seem like a bad thing to the three companies.


"We see it as an opportunity," said Simon Jeffery, Ngmoco's chief publishing officer. "Apple has provided a strong foundation for the development and publishing community to nurture into a rich gaming and social ecosystem. The Plus+ network was born out of consumer need, and its evolution and growth are fueled by the market."


Julien Fournials, Gameloft's senior vice president of production, agrees:

"At this point, I don't think it's that big of an issue," Fournials said. "What's happening now is that publishers are testing out and playing around with different gaming networks and customizing it to fit the needs of their games. It's good for the industry as a whole to offer consumers different gaming options."


But eventually the multiple networks could lead to problems, says Aurora Feint's Relan.

"In the long term it's a problem if the game networks are fractured," he said. "In the short term it's OK to have multiple because it creates innovation."


Eventually, Ngmoco's Jeffery say, the market will sort itself out if Apple doesn't step in with it's own network.

"We believe that there is certainly room for a couple of networks within the iPhone gaming ecosystem, possibly serving different segments of the overall market, but ultimately probably not more than that," he said. "Casual users in particular will get frustrated with multiple accounts and multiple login requests. We firmly believe that the market will rationalize into a couple of strong leaders very quickly now."


It could be a mistake to look at the current status quo of console gaming when considering the future of Apple's iPhone. Gameloft's Fournials says it might be better to compare iPhone gaming to other social networks like YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, rather than to gaming platforms.

"The whole DNA of the App Store is diversity, so to have multiple social networking sites fits in with that structure," he said.


In the future, Gameloft Live will include stronger integration of social networks like Facebook, something Ngmoco is already pushing.


Meanwhile, Aurora Feint's founder and CEO Jason Citron says that his service is working to provide a network similar to Xbox Live for their games with the introduction of OpenFeint 2.4.

"Players will know when their friends are online, what game they are playing, and be able to instant message or mail each other just like on Xbox Live," Citron said. "We've added in-game forums for players to share tips and tricks, level strategies, or whatever they want with each other. Developers will be able to have a direct conversation with their players from right inside their games too — in the forums, by sending in-app announcements, responding to player feedback, or via e-mail to players who opt-in."


While it may feel like a disservice to gamers now, the ability for publishers and developers to test the bounds of what works and doesn't work in terms of social play and online gaming could help the iPhone evolve its own online gaming personality.

Providing a consistent login for the basics of online gaming, like finding opponents and comparing scores, is a must, but pushing the envelope through social interactions and community building would in the long run help emphasize the iPhone's unique networking strengths.


The best solution would be for Apple to provide that core online experience and leave the experimentation and innovation to outside developers.

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

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