Attending the iGames Summit

Last week, I attended the iGames Summit 2009, a half-day event devoted to iPhone gaming, held at the Mission Bay Conference Center of the University of California at San Francisco. With over 200 attendees, the conference's prime target audience was iPhone game developers. While that does not include me, I do have a substantial interest in almost anything iPhone-related. Given that I live just across the Bay, and was able to snag a press pass, it was too hard to resist. I hopped on the BART and headed over.

The conference was not at all what I anticipated. I expected something with a more hardcore developer emphasis, with sessions focusing on coding and debugging — much like Apple's WWDC or the old MacHack. Instead, the sessions focused almost entirely on marketing: how to increase your game's popularity and make the most amount of money.

I don't mean to suggest that the organizers were misleading in their promotion. The conference was described as bringing "together leading developers, investors, and executives to share their collective wisdom on what's working today and where this exciting industry is heading." Still, I didn't assume this meant that the topics would be tilted so heavily toward the investor/executive end rather than the developer end.

The opening session set the tone for all that was to follow. It was a panel discussion, featuring Steve Demeter (Demiforce), Andrew Lacy (Tapulous), Keith Lee (Booyah) and Neil Young (ngmoco:)). Mr. Young, in particular, seems to be showing up everywhere these days. He was featured at Apple's iPhone OS 3.0 media event last week and will be "headlining" a session at this week's Game Developers Conference (in San Francisco's Moscone Center).

The iPhone as a games platform

All the panelists expected iPhone sales to continue to grow at an explosive rate over the next few years. This in turn would translate into an expanding opportunity for iPhone game developers. Indeed, panelists concurred that the iPhone was already the premier mobile phone games platform. Although most expected to expand their development efforts into other platforms eventually (especially the Android), the iPhone was where almost all of their energy was going right now.

In a bit of a surprise (at least to me), the panelists felt that Apple was doing an overall superb job in providing support to developers. ngmoco's Young went so far as to say that Apple's support was the best of any games platform he had worked with (and, given his prior jobs at Electronic Arts, he has probably worked with them all).

Of course, the panelists all had a wish list of ways that Apple could improve. A top request was a better way for beta testing software prior to release in the App Store. [As an aside, I've just been reading Apple's developer documentation on how to install apps for testing; to call it unnecessarily complicated is a gross understatement.]

One other iPhone advantage was briefly noted: Most games run equally well on the iPhone and the iPod touch. This gives Apple a potentially huge edge compared to other mobile phone platforms. As of now, the iPhone is the only platform where the exact same game can run on both a phone and non-phone device. This expands the games market to people who are not willing to commit to a device that comes with a two-year phone contract.

The problem of app piracy never came up (at least not in any of the sessions I attended). Perhaps it is considered to be too small a problem to worry about, at least for now. I certainly hope so.

There was also very little mention of the forthcoming iPhone OS 3.0. Perhaps, given that Apple had only announced the new OS 48 hours earlier, there wasn't enough time for presenters to update their notes. However, there was at least agreement that, with the new OS, Apple was significantly strengthening its position in the games market. Panelists could see numerous exciting new possibilities. For example, the accessories option will allow for peripheral game devices (such as control pads or even a "guitar"). Peer-to-peer networking will allow players to compete with each other within a single game. [I definitely agree overall. Apple appeared to have games much on its mind when it was working on OS 3.0.]

Marketing your iPhone game

Much discussion, both in the opening panel and later breakout sessions, centered on how to get your game noticed. All agreed that getting your game listed on one of the App Store's "Top 25" or "Featured" lists is very helpful. Not a surprise. There was also general agreement that Apple is quite fair about these listings and there is no underhanded way to influence Apple. Still, there was a consensus that many excellent games lay unnoticed and that some changes to the App Store might improve things.

There was also discussion of the value of word-of-mouth advertising, getting your game to go "viral" if possible. And, of course, there's paid advertising.

Personally, my iPhone software purchases tend to come from things I read, such as reviews here at The Mac Observer, at Macworld or in the App-a-Day column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Such avenues were hardly mentioned by anyone at the iGames Summit. I'm not sure why.

Monetizing your iPhone game

Another major topic at the Summit was how to maximize the profits to be made from your game. There was general discussion of how best to set a price for a game (with charts showing that, on average, free apps are downloaded about 10X as often a paid apps).

Beyond the selling price, there was discussion of how to extract money after a game is purchased. For example, you could display ads for other products within your game (I see these ads, for example, in non-game apps such as Twitterific and AP Mobile News Network). The other prime alternative is to charge for add-ons within a game. This typically requires a virtual currency or micro-payment system. Almost all of the Summit's sponsors, such as $uperRewards and Offerpal Media, were suppliers of such systems —and were hawking their wares at tables outside the auditorium.

In this regard, I wondered whether the new in-app purchase option, coming in iPhone OS 3.0, would spell doom for these companies, at least on the iPhone. The vendors acknowledged it was a matter of some concern. One bright spot, however, is that their systems will work with free games, whereas Apple will only allow its in-app purchasing with paid apps.

One other somewhat-related popular topic was social networking in games: options such as chat rooms, community leader boards, or Twitter access. In this regard, in a breakout session, Aurora Feint detailed how it is offering its social networking tools to all game developers.

Bottom line

Overall, I was disappointed with the conference. If I were a games developer, I don't think I would have learned enough that I didn't already know to justify the cost. As an interested bystander, I was especially disappointed by the almost exclusive emphasis on how to make money. I was hoping to see more on topics such as how to make best use of the iPhone APIs or otherwise improve the quality of gameplay. But that's not what this conference was about. The best I can say is that I did get an interesting peek at how developers view the iPhone platform.

But that's just me. Perhaps the conference did meet the expectations of those who attended. If so, we can expect another iGames Summit in 2010. We'll see.