Learning from the iPhone's failure as a gaming platform

I love the idea of carrying a portable game console in my pocket, and I had high hopes for the iPhone in that regard. Unfortunately the iPhone has failed to become an enjoyable gaming platform for all but the most casual of gamers. There are some lessons here about how the iPhone's (and now the iPad's) sense of novelty is distorting our view on the strengths and weaknesses of the platform. So stay with me while I retell the story how iPhone gaming has become the trainwreck that it is today.

When the first games came out for the iPhone, it quickly turned out that the touchscreen's lack of buttons make it a horrible input device for gaming. The way most games work around this limitation is to display a virtual d-pad on the screen. It's not a good solution. Without any form of tactile feedback, the player is forced to split her attention between the action on the screen and the position of her fingers on the virtual d-pad. When the game becomes exciting, you start missing buttons. Five minutes of that and you will want to scratch out your eyes in frustration.

Games like Space Invaders Infinity Gene have tried to improve on the virtual d-pad by making the pad pop up wherever you touch the screen. While clearly being a better solution, it emphasizes another problem of touchscreen devices: Your own fingers obstruct your view of what you're trying to control. The first time you realize this, the irony of it all is overwhelming. It's like seeing that awesome computer UI from Minority Report implemented as a real product, only to discover that, duh, you can't see through your own hand!

There seems to be no limit to the bizarreness of offerings available in the App Store. Some misguided developers have tried to solve the control issue by using the iPhone's built-in accelerometer. The resulting games are controlled by tilting the device, turning it into some sort of Marble Madness from hell, played drunk, blind-folded and with a monkey down your pants. I was looking for puppies to kill after the few minutes I tormented myself with the iPhone port of Doom III, where you must actually tilt the device to aim. Last year Monkey Island was released for the iPhone, a game where you have to drag'n'drop your own mouse cursor around the screen. I'm not making this up.

Think about it for a second. Are there real people pounding out twelve-button Street Figher combos on the iPhone? Has a single person ever drag-tapped their cursor all the way to Monkey Island and back? I strongly doubt it. These apps see some purchases because of brand recognition or because they seemed fun at the time. They are good-in-store products, not built for long-term customer satisfaction.

If we want mobile applications to stay around as a sustainable business, we need to be more honest about the strengths and weaknesses of a touchscreen UI, rather than salivating about an imaginary realm of unnamed possibilities. Right now people see the pinch move for the first time and all rational thought goes out of the window. Already the App Store is full of gimmicky tools you download only to realize their impracticality and then forget about it. Retention rates for iPhone apps are abysmal and prices have been in free fall for months.

If we cannot make more real cases for the long-term usefulness of apps besides those already pre-installed on the iPhone, apps are bound to be marginalized like Java MIDlets were in the past.

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Mon, 05 Apr 2010 11:39:00 GMT

by henning