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iPhone 5: The Game Designer’s Perspective [Gamer by Design]

After all the talk about the iPhone 5 in this big week of Apple announcements, I thought it would be interesting to put my thoughts on paper. After all, I’ve been talking about it with my fellow game developers for about a week now. If you follow my blog posts, you know that I am an indie developer who spent the last year making Zig Zag Zombie, a puzzle game on Android, Mac, and iPhone. But like most mobile games, at this point, we have to really pay a lot of attention to the iPhone market, because it’s still where people download our game the most. That being said, the schedule and nature of hardware releases by Apple has a pretty profound effect on game designers.

So I’ll talk about the basic points here.

Changing resolutions and dimensions so often is un-Apple

If you see in my previous posts about Apple products, you’ll know that I’ve given a pretty unbiased lover/hater account of Apple’s decisions to keep a limited amount of devices and prevent third party devices from using their OS. Well, in the last year, I’ve felt that some of the device releases have fragmented the line-up.

One of the things designers love the most about making games for Apple devices is that  you can test on a limited amount of screen resolutions, yet reach a huge amount of people. So basically, the cost/time to test a game per devise vs. the potential sales on the marketplace are great.

It's so...tall

For Zig Zag Zombie, we made high resolution art (for an iPhone 4 retina display), and we were able to adjust the game slightly so it displayed well on iPhone4 screens, iPhone 3gs screens (because they are half the resolution but the same proportions), and iPad1 and iPad 2. The iPads were close enough to the iPhone retina resolution that we were able to easily port it over with the same art.

With iPhone 5, the proportions changed. I realize why they made that decision, but as a game designer, it’s hard to overestimate how advantageous it was to have a more limited set of screen sizes.

My theory: a lot of indie developers will take advantage of the black letterbox feature, or make their own custom art to put in the borders that isn’t really a core part of the game.

That was a long wait for a Meh

After the years of waiting…and we all remember the “balked” release of the iPhone 5 that was really the iPhone 4s — this just wasn’t…what’s the Apple word for it?…magical.  It just wasn’t magical. It’s a cool phone, the new software is interesting to me, and honestly, I like excuses to use new toys, but it’s just not enough.

For some reason, the first thing that came to mind was the Galaxy Note. I think that phone is more of a jump ahead, with enough of a gimmick (the pen) to make it marketable. The iPhones at this point are always iterative. That’s something I totally agree with for about 3-4 years. But, when you think about it, the iPhone hasn’t changed in a revolutionary manner since its release 5 years ago. It’s just my opinion, but hey, I think people were expecting the 5 year mark to be a big change.

My analogy is cars. Ford released the current Mustang (the ones you see everywhere) around 2005. Every year, they tweak it, modernize it, fix the bugs, and add more valuable features as development costs start to pay off over time. But after a few years, they have to release a totally new version of the car, even if it’s still a Mustang, and has Mustang design elements. Even if the last one was perfect, that’s what the consumer expects. The same is true for any product. You make a good model, you refresh for a few years, then you blow people’s minds (hopefully) with a totally new one.

Fragmentation of the App Store

The app store used to have an advantage of being very unified. In the days of the first couple iPhones, developers made one version of their game, maybe had it use a new feature of the newer phone, and that was that. All of the games on the store worked for all the devices. These days, designers have a dilemma of which devices to support. For example, for our games, we dropped support of the iPhone 3g for the last revision. This is because the 3gs was a big jump in power, and we would basically have to make a different version of the game for the older phone. If you look at the numbers, and Apple users’ penchant for updating their hardware pretty often, you can usually avoid support devices that are over a couple years old without a big effect on downloads.

Watch out app store, for little androids are attacking.

My solution to this?  This is a problem that naturally happens over time, unfortunately. One way to help avoid it is to keep screen resolutions and proportions similar when possible, as I mentioned above. The second is careful management of the App Store. It’s really hard to market games to a 3gs and to an iPhone 5 if it has to run well on all of them. Usually, the effect is that it won’t take advantage of the iPhone 5 power. There probably needs to be a more “premium” section of the App Store for games that only run on iPhone 5.

But, as you’re probably thinking, that would be a tough decision that contradicts the App Store’s reputation as all-inclusive. The reality is, if you make more modern devices with all the bells and whistles, it becomes impossible to be inclusive over time, unless you really start dropping support for old devices. The Apple decision that I agree with more than any other in the last couple years was when they started selling the 3gs at super-cheap prices. This was a great way to get the fan base modernized. In the future, some kind of super cheap trade-in program for iPhone 4 wouldn’t be a bad idea. After all, the money is in the app/movie/music sales nowadays, not the hardware.

The run-down

Apple has a history of being kind of draconian about its devices and its software. Love it or hate it, it was one of the main reasons why game designers were able to move out of the old “mobile phone” era of games, in which you had to test for 50 or 60 phones of varying displays and power. If you remember buying games on your old phone back in 2005, you probably remember how disappointing most of them were. And part of that was because it was so cost-inefficient to make a game then. We are nowhere near that today, but the current releases by Apple show a less strict stance of uniformity of devices which can’t help but have a ripple effect on us people who create games.

A taller screen. Well I can think of one game that will benefit!

Image Credits: scomedy,

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