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Wanted: Creative spark for iPhone games

Mobile renaissance in dark ages

Comment The phrase "recession proof" has been bandied about a lot lately to describe the games biz, as people seek their own entertainment at home rather than spending on the cinema or in restaurants.

And in many ways, the games industry is thriving more than ever. In 2008, Americans spent more than $21bn on games, hardware, and accessories compared to $18bn in 2007 according to market beancounter, NPD Group.

But those are financials. From a gamer's perspective, it's about the games. And while there's hope for a new generation of gaming devices, some radical steps are required to ensure early advances can be capitalized on.

Even before the recession reared its head, the rising cost of game production was becoming a noticeably disturbing trend. Experimentation and truly creative design would pop up occasionally in titles like Katamari Damashi, Killer 7, and Shadow of the Colossus, but for the most part game makers were living by the creed of making their titles big, brown, and pushing serious polygons.

There's still room for digital epics penned by small armies of developers to be sure - and thankfully there's still enough money in game making for that to be possible. But nowadays the belle of the ball is a cheap game that requires a smaller time investment and offers replay value by virtue of being fun and polished - albeit often short - rather than the false bottom of farming achievements or unlockables.

While big releases inevitably have a polarizing effect on gamers, creative and cheaply developed titles like Braid and World of Goo are universally praised. Of the console makers, Nintendo embraced the minimalist philosophy first with the Wii - a device that at the time baffled most by being not much more powerful than its predecessor, the Gamecube. Microsoft and Sony have since heard the call and have accommodated online marketplaces specifically for smaller development houses.

For independent developers, the economy means either be very good or die. And from the bottom up, the games industry hasn't seen a rise in creativity and imagination like this in recent memory.

But the state of the economy seems to be moving bigger names of the industry in the opposite direction. There's a handful of large, successful independent developers out there like Valve, id, and Bethesda doing their own thing, but most notable names in the biz hail to a larger corporate overlord for their daily bread.

Trouble is, the big publishers have adopted the philosophy that there's just not enough slush lying around to bankroll developers not serving up guaranteed hits. Milking an established franchise dry may be a time-tested tradition in the industry - but now publisher like Activision are positively terrified to try anything not controlled by a plastic guitar.

When game guru Will Wright left Electronic Arts early this month to work on his own projects without EA oversight, the game publisher fell over itself in the announcement of his departure to say that his franchises would live on. And on and on and on. Spore alone was said to have an upcoming expansion pack Spore Galactic Adventures coming down the pipe, as well as "game concepts" like Spore Hero, Spore Hero Arena, and Spore Creature Keeper. Anything just so long as it has Spore in the title.

Against this back drop of dwindling development team sizes and growth of ideas, mobile gaming has become the hot new thing. Honestly though, mobile gaming has been around and even trouncing sales of console and PC gaming since the dawn of Gameboy back in 1989.

This time around, everyone's abuzz about games on new "mobile devices" - AKA mobile phones, AKA very specifically the iPhone. Yes, there's other smartphone makers out with games - but until their best ideas exceed copying Apple's online marketplace, there's not much point being overly inclusive.

Some have called the new popularity of cheap mobile gaming a "renaissance" for the industry - but that's assuming for every Leonardo, five dudes in Milan were being commissioned and praised for painting Virgin and Child with Farts.

An average of 165 apps are released for the iPhone each day, and the most popular of these apps are games. Fantastic, right? The best should be bubbling to the surface. But the truth is that the iPhone is mostly only attracting the dregs.

Where's the creativity in iPhone gaming? Apple's app store is flooded with things like card games (with touch), tower defender (with touch), generic side-scroller (with touch), puzzle game (with touch) and racing game (with touch).

I've yet to be wowed by any iPhone game that attempts something new - beyond tacking on motion control or touch screen to established formulas.

Still, Apple (and apparently game makers) are earning payroll by virtue of it being relatively open, cheap, and easily accessible both for developers and and their potential customers.

Maybe the best excuse is "what can you possibly expect for $4.99?".

Hopefully a lot more.

The mobile games industry has a great opportunity to shine in this economy. The recession has given smaller game makers a unique chance to show their chops. What they need to do now is bite down, think hard, and give iPhone gaming a killer app. ®

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