Forget Multi-tasking. Apple's Game Center is the Big News.

When it comes to news pouring out of Cupertino today,  many are understandably focused on multitasking. It was the thing Steve announced first, and it’s been the thing the ‘sphere has been salivating over for weeks. But the biggest news from Apple today wasn’t multitasking – and it wasn’t even the iAd platform. It was Game Center.

Why is gaming such a big deal? Well, first there’s the obvious. Apple themselves have claimed that gaming is the biggest draw on the App Store. While Sony’s PSP and Nintendo’s DS have hundreds of available games, the App Store has 50,000+, and games regularly rank as the most downloaded paid apps around. Granted, most of them aren’t any good, but from Apple’s perspective, it’s besides the point: they have no need to care about the quality of the games because their customers are buying them anyway. People want to be entertained on the go and they area voting with their dollars for small, bite-size games that can be played on something they have with them at all times anyway.

So with gaming such a big deal, Game Center is going to place even more focus on the interactive entertainment available on Apple’s devices. But more than that, it’s going to create an entirely new gaming ecosystem to the market.

When you look at the gaming world, one of the reasons that Microsoft have been so successful this generation – perhaps the most important reason – has been Xbox Live. Rather than the family-friendly Wii or the arguably superior technology of the PS3, Microsoft have leapfrogged into success and profitability because they have become synonymous with social and online gaming. By becoming the online platform of choice, Xbox Live has cemented Microsoft’s place in the gaming industry – and the zeitgeist too. No-one talks about kids ‘playing on their Playstations’ anymore – now it’s about ‘kids on their Xbox’.

On top of that, by monetizing their online service and the content it contains, Microsoft have created an entirely new revenue stream – one that reaches into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Social gaming is a big deal.

Game Centre brings the kind of functionality so central to Xbox Live to the mobile world. Send invites to your friends and then play against them, track your progress on online leaderboards and collect achievements, all on the go. It’s hardly original. But by having it appear on the iPhone before any other platform – most notably the PSP2 – Apple have gotten serious leg-up on their competitors.

Imagine sitting on the bus and getting an invite to a game of scrabble from a friend on the other side of town. Or challenging 3 other friends to an action game while they are scattered around the country and you are sitting at the library. It’s a compelling idea, and brings the freedom of mobile together with the social nature of online gaming.

Despite the fact that Sony has brought limited online functionality to the PSP, they have yet to make it hope on their online network, the PSN. Importantly, no-one has yet created a mobile online network that caters to casual gamers – or any gamers, really – and you can bet the execs at Sony are shaking their heads and worrying today.

But the point is, by having a unified, centralized system for social mobile gaming , Apple are in a great position to become in mobile what Microsoft are in the home market: the company people think of when it comes to gaming with your friends when you are sitting next to them.

Unfortunately for Sony and Nintendo, Apple have a proven track record when it comes to implementing complex technologies in ways most people know how to use. Given their emphasis on seamlessness and usability, Apple just might start to become a significant player in yet another market.

Details are scant right now, so we’ll have to wait and see if there’s a cost involved and how well it all works. But if Apple’s recent past is any indication, they’ll nail the user interface and people will pile on – and it’ll be a whole new game.

Udpate: As Nate points out in the comments, Apple aren’t in fact first to announce this – Microsoft said Xbox Live will be coming to Windows Phone 7. However, Windows Phone 7 won’t be out until Fall, while Apple’s network will likely launch this Summer. Regardless, it will be interesting to watch how consumers react and in which direction they move.

Written by Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang
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2 Comments »

 
#1
Nate
April 8th, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Apple may have announced the Game Center, but Microsoft announced XBOX Live integration into Windows Phone 7 almost a month ago already. That is a gamers’ market already established with millions of users already and will have much the same functionality as well as integration with the existing marketplace established by Microsoft. Apple is not the first, and I believe a step behind already in some respects. They do not have the head start. At best they are tied right now.

 
 
#2
navneetalang
April 8th, 2010 at 7:28 pm

You’re quite right Nate: the Microsoft announcement had slipped my mind. It kinda’ raises a chicken and egg question. Microsoft have the network and its users in place, but no-one is quite sure how well their handsets will do. Apple are yet to reveal real details about their network, but have a massive user base. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what happens, and if one platform ends up becoming dominant or not.

 

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