iWin: how Apple became the accidental king of mobile gaming

We talk to the people behind the gaming greats of iOS, to find out how Apple managed to beat Sony and Nintendo at their own game
iWin: how Apple became the accidental king of mobile gaming

Apple doesn't attend E3, and in the late 1990s its idea of a games machine was legendary disaster the Apple Bandai Pippin.

In more recent years, founder Steve Jobs spoke of Apple being at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, but his love for creative media didn't extend to games – there was little evidence he cared for or understood them. Following his lead, the company appeared quaintly oblivious to gaming. But since the iPhone's debut, Apple has quietly become a gaming giant, making available thousands of titles for the 600 million iOS devices sold to date.

The games industry has not been blind to this shift in power. Most major publishers now release iOS titles. EA is simultaneously winding down Wii U support yet prepping iOS exclusive Plants vs. Zombies 2. Even Nintendo and Sony, once routinely dismissive of Apple, now rile each other by claiming Apple is the 'only' mobile rival worth considering.

Elsewhere, the rumour mill churns regarding Apple's television ambitions; suggestions abound Apple could muscle in on turf occupied by Xboxes and PlayStations. But even if Apple remains solely wedded to 'second screens', that could still spell doom for gaming handhelds finding it tough to compete against intuitive multi-function devices, for which games can be downloaded for pennies – or nothing at all.

The full package

iWin: how Apple became the accidental king of mobile gaming
iWin: how Apple became the accidental king of mobile gaming

Take a step back and Apple's gaming success was far from assured, with the company initially oblivious to its platform's potential. 'Apple simply didn't realise it had the hottest gaming device on the planet,' thinks Timo Vihola, creative director at Mountain Sheep, noting the App Store still lists games as just one of many app categories, despite games accounting for a disproportionate amount of revenue.

The iPhone, though, had delivered what many long hoped for in mobile gaming: a powerful device boasting a truly intuitive interface, a huge audience and a straightforward storefront. 'People had experienced each in isolation – the PSP's power; Nokia's popularity; iTunes purchases – but the iPhone brought everything together,' says Vihola. For Chris Southall, Sega Europe CTO, the storefront was key: 'iTunes changed how people buy music, and the App Store similarly transformed how people access apps.' Developers note although this seems obvious now, it wasn't at the time. 'Now we've similar offerings from Google, Microsoft and Amazon, it's easy to forget the App Store was initially groundbreaking,' says indie developer Kevin Ng.

This worldwide distribution network combined with other factors to create what Noodlecake COO Ryan Holowaty calls a 'perfect storm' for game developers: 'We also got affordable developer licences, usable development tools, and the ability to self-publish. With mobile games being bite-sized, the iPhone became the perfect platform for aspiring developers to experiment and try out creations relatively risk-free.'

Apple – the new open?

iWin: how Apple became the accidental king of mobile gaming
iWin: how Apple became the accidental king of mobile gaming

With Apple regularly accused of building walled gardens, it's strange to realise that wasn't the case with gaming. 'The tiny step between ordering your SDK and starting development made traditional consoles look ridiculous by comparison,' maintains Simogo co-founder Simon Flesser. 'That every iPhone was really a dev kit also played a significant role.' Letterpress developer Loren Brichter offers similar memories: 'I recall trying to buy a Wii developer kit because I thought it'd be fun to make a game. I was even happy to pay the thousands of dollars it cost, but Nintendo wouldn't allow it because I worked from home, not an office!' When the App Store arrived, Brichter recalls the fact you could write from anywhere with 'free tools, a trivial developer fee, and the minutia of distribution handled for you, unleashed a tidal wave of creative energy' and 'things could exist that couldn't before'.

Veteran designer Ste Pickford reckons industry leaders had long been entrenched in damaging practices: 'Gaming became infected at an early stage in its history by the horrible idea of exclusivity – strict limits on who was allowed to make games and vetting what was allowed to be released.' While this made sense in the 1980s, gatekeepers are today an anachronism, and yet major players on all other platforms 'still had this old-fashioned idea of a curated range of games made by pre-approved developers'. With Apple arriving from outside the games industry, and ostensibly not really getting it, rules were instead borrowed from its approach to music, movies and books, where anyone can make and distribute a product – so long as Apple got its cut. It's a more mature approach,' thinks Pickford, 'and Apple's open, relatively un-curated App Store arrived as triple-A console development was imploding, leading to hundreds of devs scrambling to find an outlet for their work that wasn't dependent on big conservative publishers only looking for certain types of games. iOS became the only platform new indies could realistically target'.