Apple unveiled its plans Monday for a major update to iOS and a new cloud-based service, both of which will be available for consumers later this year, and iOS gamers will benefit from the changes that are coming. These changes won't make iOS a perfect gaming platform, but it's a solid indication that Apple's moving in the right direction.
Game Center is the social network component for gamers that Apple debuted with iOS 4. Game Center is being used by most game developers now to do little more than enable friends to connect and see each other's achievements. It's a shame, because iOS developers are already underutilizing what Game Center has to offer. Will that change with iOS 5?
Apple noted that Game Center now has 50 million registered users, and compared that to Microsoft's Xbox Live service, which has 30 million. Apple also claims that iOS is the world's most popular gaming platform.
It sounds great on paper, but anyone who's use Xbox Live for more than a few minutes realizes that the subscriber base number doesn't tell even part of the story - Xbox Live offers a much richer experience for gamers than Game Center does. And while iOS may be the most popular by force of sheer numbers alone, that doesn't necessarily make it the best.
Perhaps that's why Apple says it's "socializing" Game Center with iOS 5. The company is adding new capabilities such as the ability to add a profile picture, see who their friends are following, and receive recommendations for new friends to follow and new games to play.
Game Center currently tracks individual achievements in games, but the revamp in iOS 5 will introduce a point system that's not unlike the "Gamerscore" system used in Xbox Live - an aggregate score based on your overall achievements.
What's more, Game Center will serve as a conduit to the App Store, enabling users to buy Game Center-equipped games from directly within the application.
Game Center in iOS 5 is also adding support for turn-based games. If you're playing a strategy game with another player through Game Center, the software will manage the turns - sending your opponents push notifications to let them know it's their turn to play, for example, and managing multiple game sessions. And Game Center also adds the ability to add players to existing multiplayer games, opening up new possibilities for cooperative and competitive game play.
All these are great enhancements, but unlike Xbox Live, Apple faces an uphill battle with Game Center, since it's not the only social network for gamers in iOS, including OpenFeint, the cross-platform system recently sold to Gree for $104 million. Apple does have the upper hand, though, in that Game Center is Apple's solution.
I mentioned at the outset that Game Center is underutilized. Developers have been slow to support some Game Center features, like voice chat. Apple needs to do a better job of evangelizing Game Center APIs outside of events like WWDC to make sure the hundreds of thousands of iOS developers out there are making the most of the technology.
Other enhancements coming to iOS 5 will spill over to benefit gamers. Apple's new iCloud service may hold the key to one long-standing problem of iOS - synchronization of saved game files between devices.
If you use an iPhone and an iPad, for example, you can install the same game on either device, but there's no easy to way share game files between them. So if you get to level 30 on Angry Birds on your iPhone and fire it up for the first time on your iPad, you'll find yourself back to level 1 on that device. It's frustrating.
iCloud will enable applications to back up their settings files and documents to the cloud, and thus synchronize to each iOS device. Apple didn't specify during the WWDC keynote (or in the information published on its Web site) if this technology could apply to saved games, but it is providing access to those Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to developers, which opens that door.
If this idea catches hold, it will be great for gamers - play a game on your iPhone while you're commuting. Get home, fire up your iPad and pick up where you left off, same level, same achievements, same score. It only makes sense to do it this way.
My concern is that without strongly evangelizing such a pipeline, Apple is going to miss an opportunity here with developers to simplify and improve the gaming experience for users. We didn't hear that message during the WWDC keynote (which, in fairness, was long enough already at almost two hours), but we haven't really seen anything posted about that on Apple's Web site either, and that concerns me more.
AirPlay Mirroring for iPad 2 is another feature that has huge application for gaming. I've already written about the iPad 2's ability to output video to an HDMI TV using a cable. When paired with a fun game that uses the iPad as a big game controller like Firemint's Real Racing 2 HD, it's a lot of fun to play. AirPlay Mirroring takes that to the next logical step.
"AirPlay" enables iOS devices to stream audio and video to the Apple TV, Apple's $99 dongle that connects to an HDMI-equipped television set. But currently it only works with certain Apple applications. Now with AirPlay Mirroring, you'll be able to have that iPad 2 gaming experience on your TV without using a cable.
There are a few caveats, of course. Apple says that AirPlay Mirroring works only with the iPad 2, limiting its market. What's more, AirPlay Mirroring requires a second-generation Apple TV, which will limit the feature's potential market even more.
It also remains to be seen in practical terms what wireless gaming will be like on the iPad 2. The iPad 2 connects to the Apple TV over a Wi-Fi connection, which introduces a certain amount of lag. And as advanced as the iPad 2 hardware is, there's still significant processing overhead involved in compressing and streaming video over a Wi-Fi connection; that may limit the kinds of games that are likely to use this new feature.
Regardless of the potential pitfalls, AirPlay Mirroring definitely offers new possibilities for iOS game developers looking to differentiate their titles. While Real Racing 2 HD was an early eye-opener for this sort of experience, I expect the major beneficiaries of this will be casual and family games that don't put a huge load on the iPad 2's processors.
Paving the way for the future
All told, Apple sent a very strong message to WWDC attendees: iOS 5, iCloud and Mac OS X "Lion" are a three-legged stool that serves as the foundation for the future of Apple platforms.
Gaming is integral to that, especially for iOS 5; it's no secret that games make up the single biggest section of the App Store, and Apple emphasizes its iOS hardware's gaming potential in its marketing campaigns. Bit by bit, the pieces are falling into place to keep game development at the forefront of iOS.
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