GDC 09: SCEA, Facebook, MySpace, Apple and N-Gage format holders lock horns
Key reps and evangelists from newer digital distribution sources Facebook, MySpace, PlayStation Network, N-Gage and iPhone debated the merits of their platforms and new formats in San Francisco today - culminating in a public drubbing of Sony and Nokia by Ngmoco's Neil Young.
The former EA exec and founder of iPhone's 'spiritual first party' game publisher told the two that their digital distribution platforms made it clear that he feels Apple has stolen a march on the entire industry with its touch-screen mobile and iPod touch.
The comments were made during a panel discussion at the GamesBeat conference in San Francisco earlier this week.
He said: "iPhone is a wonderful game to make games for, from the tool chain through to the fundamental hardware of the device compared to the DS or PSP. The fact it is always on allows it to extend beyond the potential of those other devices. It represents the first of a new class of mobile devices and new types of usage patterns for these new devices given the ease at which you are able to access software.
"Everyone that ones one has installed at least one app - that's pretty interesting. It means a big expansion in the games business."
But what do the other platforms think of iPhone and the noise it makes?
Myspace's Jason Oberfest described it as "very complementary to what we are doing" while Facebook's Gareth Davis said: "We love iPhone, Facebook is one of the most downloaded apps on the device. And Facebook Connect for iPhone means you can connect iPhone to the social network, and are able to use that complement to create new kinds of experiences."
However SCEA's PlayStation Network chief Susan Panico was less confident, suggesting that the majority of games on iPhone weren't ideally targeted to gamers, and that developers aren't happy with it: "But for developers you have to ask what kind of games you want to make. On PS3 or other consoles people are there to game - it's not a retention tool to keep people playing. I know people want to make money, but others do want to make compelling, technically advanced games that appeal to a core gaming audience."
Davis defended the idea of games being used as a 'retention tool' pointing out that on Facebook "games is still a fabulous way to connect users and drive the ecosystem forward" and pointing out that "our top three games have 30m users every month".
He also confirmed that Facebook virtual currency us "a very well requested feature and something we have been looking at for a while" to help further boost the platform - but "we want to get it right" before launching it.
Myspace's Oberfest echoed the comments, saying "we don't intend to be game developers - what we see see is providing a platform".
Nokia's Greg Sauter wanted to point out the link between mobile devices and social platforms. "Mobile and social are made for each other, and present lots of opportunities for premium applications."
But Young said he feels "Apple has the head start on all this" and added that "Apple is showing the leadership but I look forward to others doing the same" when Sauter implied that Nokia was taking its new rival's game plan very seriously.
However Sauter didn't want to talk about a fight between N-Gage and iPhone: "It's not us versus Apple in the game space - we're shipping a million phones today. The key thing is how we all work together to monetise those devices."
Yet Young replied: "But it's not working right? We're focused on Apple because that is the only viable device out there."
He added that he would like to see other format-holder companies like Sony and Nokia "put the same time and energy" into the platform the way Apple has.
"Talk all you want about the clutter on the App Store, but I've made games for the DS and PSP and iPhone is the better platform in terms of things you an do for core gamers and things you can do for casual gamers," he said.
He added that that point was simply "not debatable".
SCEA's PlayStation Network chief Panico tried to debate it, though, pointing out that "there are a lot of issues when you get into it about piracy, security and bugginess of games," on iPhone.
"On PSN we offer developers access at entry levels to get their products in there." She pointed out how Pixel Junk Eden's developers made their ROI in the first 24 hours of their availability, and said that "60 per cent of the revenues generated on PSN is through third parties and smaller developers who see a ROI very quickly. And other developers like thatgamecompany have success with really innovative and new genre content."
She said that PSN-distributed PS3 games required "low investment" for developers when compared to other platforms.
She told Young: "I don't think most people have had the success you have had"
And Facebook's Davis said that iPhone does suffer on exactly the same terms as other digital distribution platforms: "The internet has changed everything in terms of distribution and that's a great thing. The issue is discoverability - how do you find the good games? The key for social networks is you have a great tool to get the word out there."
But Young fought Apple's corner again when the point about low sales and discoverability of iPhone titles was raised: "If the market for games on the App Store was 'a game gets released, shoots up the chart and then falls out the chart' it will be difficult to consistently make money. It seems to me we are looking at a stage in the life of the App Store. It will enter another cycle and another cycle and another cycle."
He added, comparing a PS3 production with an iPhone one: "What's worse - spending thee months building game with two people, or spending 12 months building a game for 12 months with 25 people and seeing it languish on release?"
Panico replied: "Open source is great for mobile and internet, but there are different advantages when you are developing for a gaming device.
"The challenge continues to be how do you deliver exclusive quality content that drives people to the platform? One for the things important for us is integrating our devices through social connectivity.
"We've gone through the transition of being a disc based games company and transforming into a digitally distributed business where have been innovative and learned a lot of things"
She further fleshed out how she feels Sony has turned a corner amongst games developers: "Recently our software on Blu-ray has been tremendous, and we have huge releases on the way. On PSP last year we had the best year to date. PSN plays a huge role in offering different kinds of content and ways to socially connect."
Young moved to point out that he wasn't discounting Sony entirely, adding: "I would love to see the incumbent platform holder provide connected devices for consumers - you're right that Sony has great IP - and for existing handset manufacturers to provide things that are exciting for the future."
In conclusion, Nokia's Sauter moved to take the debate away from a direct comparison of platforms to pinpoint how all format-holders have learnt an important lesson in recent years: "Key for us is openness. We're trying to take all that away with things like [Nokia's content story] Ovi. We are embracing the social games space and the network games arena."
He added: "The days of the closed platforms are over."