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The iPhone Changed Video Gaming Forever

As Apple’s runaway success of a mobile phone (and more) marks its 10th anniversary, let’s talk about its impact on how and what we play.
'Year Walk' screenshot courtesy of Simogo.

"Apple has changed the video game industry irrevocably," reads the opening line of Edge magazine's January 2012 issue, its cover carrying the title "Core Gaming," the article inside referring to an "accidental empire" and calling the company "the hottest property in portable video gaming." The piece continues: "Apple only came around to the idea that it was in the video game industry when the video game industry began to bring in the kind of money that can simply no longer be ignored."


In other words, none of this was deliberate. Steve Jobs didn't launch the iPhone on June 29th, 2007—ten years ago this week—with egg-stealing pigs or jetpack thieves in mind. He was focused on better connectivity, elegant interfaces, new ways to integrate technology into everyday work and play. It was designed to fulfill three key fucntions: to serve as a phone, of course; an internet communicator; and an iPod. And yet, in 2017, we cannot deny that the late CEO rose to a level of industry influence that arguably surpassed that of all manner of developers proper, actual games makers.

Chances are, if there's a smartphone of any kind in your pocket right now, it's got a game or some on it. And that phenomenon, that revolution, began with the iPhone—a device with no sticks, no d-pad, no conventional controls at all. But while the App Store wasn't a launch feature of the iPhone, arriving on handsets in July 2008, it almost instantly became stocked with products that were less applications for business or social interactions, more simply and explicitly games, just not of a kind that traditional handhelds, consoles and computers were used to.

Depending on who you ask, the first game launched for the iPhone was either August 2007's Lights Off, a puzzler which required a jailbroken device to run, or the Star Wars-y Touch Fighter, which admittedly was more of a tech demo than a bona-fide video game. The latter served to demonstrate the iPhone's accelerometer, while the former got people jabbing at its touch screen.


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Watch Waypoint's video on the making of the VR arcade puzzler SuperHyperCube

Neither title is up there with the App Store's most memorable, most acclaimed, or most financially successful products. Early releases such as Edge (aka Edgy, December 2008), Canabalt (August 2009) and Angry Birds (December 2009) started to get people addicted to their phones outside of sending emails and making calls. Gradually, a handful of games started to hit revenues in the multi-millions—Finnish studio Supercell is one developer that's seen its "freemium" titles like Clash of Clans and Boom Beach rake in incredible profits through the sale of both non-essential in-game extras and otherwise-locked perks.

Legitimate classics, regardless of their parent platform, snuck out between the microtransaction-fuelled free-to-play hits: Simogo's Device 6 and Year Walk (do, please, read more about those games here), Capybara's Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP, Inkle's 80 Days, Vlambeer's Ridiculous Fishing, Ustwo's Monument Valley, Terry Canavagh's Super Hexagon. All were designed specifically for the iPhone, for smartphones, for devices with a very set range of interface options. (And as such, not all of them have worked so well when ported elsewhere.)

We've all got our favorite smartphone games—some of which fall comfortably into the "casual" category, designed perfectly for short sessions, between-bus-stops tap-alongs, while others are deeper, more nuanced experiences. The fear, I guess, that smartphone gaming would take a substantial chunk out of the console market hasn't been wholly realized—although while PS4 and Switch sales are strong, you could look to the limited success of the Vita as showing how portable play time has been substantially altered by the rise of the App Store and its equivalents. Our phones are always in our hands, or near them—and it takes seconds to fire up an app and lose five minutes to it.


'Monument Valley' screenshot courtesy of Ustwo.

Affordability and instant access is a factor in the iPhone's success as a gaming platform, too. Pokémon Go has, since its launch in July 2016, been downloaded 750 million times, making its developer, Niantic, millions of dollars every week. Contrast that with Nintendo's entire Mario series, the best-selling "traditional" games series—over 36 years, it's achieved sales totaling just over 577 million. Evidently, the power of having a store in your pocket, both selling and "giving away" entertainment, is quite the thing.

All of that money goes to further illustrate the standing of gaming as one of the biggest entertainment mediums on a global scale—more profitable than Hollywood blockbusters, and comprehensively outstripping the music business. And it's not just dollar signs that have "legitimized" mobile gaming over the last decade—the fact that how we play with our phones has influenced companies whose core business is console gaming is indicative that the "old guard", if you will, is very respectful of the hold that iOS and Android greats have over the modern gamer.

Related, on Waypoint: Discussing 'Pokémon Go' with Niantic's John Hanke

I mean, look at the Switch: it's essentially a very snazzy tablet, the bigger brother of smartphones, with Joy-Con sideburns baring accelerometers and gyroscopes. And while motion controls for console games predated the iPhone's launch—the Wii came out in November 2006—there is surely no doubt that the use of Apple's device to steer, to aim, to tilt influenced later iterations of wireless console controllers. Sony's DualShock 4 even introduced a touchscreen, of sorts, to its layout.

However, all of this is a very long way (sorry, but the above is the slightest skimming of the surface of the iPhone story) of asking a very simple question, as today's Open Thread: what's your favorite iOS game, ever? I've got soft spots for several, from Whale Trail and Quell to Simogo's greats, the incredible 80 Days and the evergreen, ever-gorgeous Monument Valley. Has smartphone play altered your relationship with video games, for better or worse? Is there anything "wrong" with so-called casual gaming?

Talk about the very best that the App Store's had to offer over on the Waypoint forums.