For years, the videogame business has been all about billion-dollar brands built by rock star game developers and backed by armies of coders and artists, voice actors and marketing executives. Nintendo has Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of "Super Mario" and "Donkey Kong." Microsoft has "Master Chief," the star of the "Halo" franchise. And everyone is fighting to land the Houser brothers and their blood-soaked "Grand Theft Auto" franchise on their console next.
When Apple wants to impress an audience, however, it turns to Ge Wang, an assistant professor at Stanford who likes to show off a video clip of a woman playing "Music of the Night" on her iPhone by blowing through her nose. When Apple introduced its new iPhone software earlier this week, Wang took the stage to stun the audience by blowing into an iPhone to belt out a virtual trombone duet. Top that Bono.
The geeks with the imaginary trombones have the momentum lately, and Apple is doing everything it can to keep them rolling. Since the launch of the App store eight months ago, Apple has turned the videogame industry's star system on its head with a 40,000-strong collection of developers who have built than 25,000 applications for the iPhone and iPod touch.
New features introduced by Apple earlier this week will give developers the ability to sell in-game items such as virtual guns and pets, dole out extra levels, or find friends playing on their iPhones or iPods for a pick up match.
Users have downloaded more than 800 million applications over the past eight months. Roughly a quarter of them are games, and most were created by independent developers, two- or three-person pickup teams with an idea and a little spare time.
The result: Games that defy the old formulas, which have kept the gaming industry in a hit-driven rut for a decade. And the gaming developers who gathered in San Francisco Thursday at the iGames Summit say there's more to come. New features introduced by Apple earlier this week will give developers the ability to sell in-game items such as virtual guns and pets, dole out extra levels, or find friends playing on their iPhones or iPods for a pick up match. "I'm totally ecstatic," says Shervin Pishevar, chief executive and co-founder of the Social Gaming Network.
Connecting geeks with mass market
The changes promise to let Apple's army of geeks and professional game developers push the iPhone's oddball designs even further. Unlike a typical smart phone, the iPhone sports a touch screen and an accelerometer, forcing developers to build applications that rely on users touching, tilting, shaking and even blowing on their iPhones.
And unlike the portable gaming gadgets built by Sony and Nintendo , the iPhone and the iPod touch are built to do much more than just games. As a result, it's the one gadget even hard-core gamers admit they take everywhere. "It's a revolution," says Intel and Motorola veteran Jason Rubinstein, an entrepreneur whose latest project is now in stealth mode.
Apple's smartest move, however, has been to bypass the giant game studios and the brick-and-mortar game stores to connect the geeks with the mass market directly. IPhone and iPod touch users can download software to their phone, over the air, with the touch of a button, rather than rolling down to the local Best Buy to pick up cartridges.
And to ensure there's always something in stock at its virtual store, Apple unveiled free software development tools that made all those features accessible to videogame developers. "I've worked on every console on the sun, and hands down, by far Apple has provided the best development environment," says Neil Young, chief executive and founder of ngmoco, told the iGames Summit audience.
Just ask Steve Demeter. While working a day job creating ATM software for a bank, Demeter put together the game app Trism for the iPhone in his free time. The result: a hit that earned Demeter $250,000 in its first two months.
To be sure, iPhone game developers are growing in size and sophistication. Venture capitalists such as Kleiner Perkins and Morgenthaler Ventures are moving in. And gaming powerhouses such as Sega have introduced games for the iPhone. There's still plenty of space for the little guys: An Electronic Arts employee canceled his appearance at the iGames Summit and a replacement was not sent.