One year ago, Apple and gaming weren't often found in the same sentence. While a few die-hards liked to pretend that the Mac was a viable games platform and not just a vehicle for World of Warcraft and a handful of PC hand-me-downs, anyone with a real interest in games knew better. The iPhone and iPod touch have changed all that. Over 13 million of us have now bought an iPhone or touch, and it turns out that one of the things we like doing with these device is play games.
You don't have to take our word for it. Games is the biggest single category on the App Store, with over 1,700 titles. At least 25 per cent of iPhone owners have downloaded at least one game, compared to an average seven per cent on most other mobile phones. At the time of writing seven of the top ten paid apps are games, plus five of the top ten are free ones. This is important stuff. Nokia, with its n-Gage hardware and services, has tried for years to build a mobile gaming platform to match Sony and Nintendo. Somehow, without even really seeming to try, Apple has succeeded, at least in the sense that you now have people talking seriously about the iPhone as the future of handheld games.
The hype isn't entirely misguided. While the iPhone and iPod touch weren't designed as gaming platforms, they have certain characteristics that make them ideal. For one thing, there's the screen. We used to think the PSP's 480 x 272 widescreen display was as good as handhelds got, but the iPhone's 480 x 320 effort has that little bit more clarity and detail, and it's brighter and more vibrant to boot. For another, there's the core specification. The Samsung System-on-a-Chip processor at the heart of the iPhone outclocks the MIPS processor in the PSP even when underclocked at 412MHz, and future firmware upgrades can easily make it faster. The iPhone's 128MB of SDRAM dwarves the PSP's 32MB, and while the PSP has its own dedicated GPU, the PowerVR MBX core integrated into the Samsung SoC is rumoured to be no slouch. No less a figure than iD's John Carmack has talked glowingly about the iPhone's graphics capabilities, putting it somewhere in the region of the Xbox or PS2, with the poorer graphics processing capabilities balanced by the additional memory.
For the most committed iPhone evangelists the icing on the cake is the combination of touchscreen and accelerometer controls. Sure, these handhelds don't have traditional D-pads, but if you're a developer and your game needs one, you can just implement it on the screen itself. But why be so boringly conventional? Why not use the sort of touch controls and gesture recognition we've seen in Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass on the DS? Or why not put the accelerometers to good use and turn the iPhone into a sort of handheld Wii, where you tilt and shake the unit to get the kind of response you're looking for? Isn't that what the more casual side of gaming is all about these days?
Yet beyond the physical design, Apple's secret weapon is the huge iPhone development community and the Apps Store itself. iPhone developers have simply flooded the Apps Store with games, some rotten, some awful, many little more than sketches or tech demos, but some surprisingly good. And the real treat is that you don't pay through the nose for these games. The more expensive iPhone games come in at around £5.99. A huge number are available for £2.99, 59p or even gratis. At these prices it doesn't matter if you buy the odd duffer. User feedback helps you steer clear of the worst examples, and there's something about these low-cost downloads that makes it horribly tempting to just keep purchasing. After all, that next 59p cheapie could be another hidden gem.