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TUAW @SXSW: The iPhone Gaming Panel

Panels at SXSW range from touchy-feely to nuts-and-bolts. This panel was the latter. The panelists came armed with data and didn't pull punches when it came to criticism of the store or other apps.The panelists: Stephanie Morgan from ngmoco, Danielle Cassley from Aurora Feint, Raven Zachary (moderator) and Brian Greenstone from Pangea Software.

Raven Zachary is the guy responsible for the Obama campaign app, and he started off with some stats from Pinch Media around how many devices are out there: roughly 20-30 million. We don't know exact iPod touch numbers because Apple doesn't publish those, but there was a huge jump in iPod touch browser detection after the holidays.

Thus, factoring in iPhone numbers and an estimate of iPod touches, we get upwards of 20 million devices. Another interesting point: 70% of mobile browsing is done via iPhone or touch. That's a staggering amount, especially in comparison to other platforms, with Java only accounting for 8%, Windows Mobile about the same, and it goes south from there. Plus, games account for most App Store downloads, with puzzle games being the most downloaded genre.

Next up was Stephanie Morgan from ngmoco, who discussed some things we all know: the iPhone is unlike any gaming platform or handheld. She explained a sort of tiered approach to ngmoco's efforts: starting with free apps to build awareness, moving up to building a platform for good games, and ultimately expanding into the paid apps -- where the money is, of course. Stephanie did put some stats on the board, however.

For one, we found out that iPhone games don't have to be designed for McNugget-sized attention spans. According to ngmoco, the average time spent playing Rolando is over 20 minutes each time it is played. Of course, there are lots of levels in Rolando. By comparison, MazeFinger average play time was around 6 minutes.

To find out about Aurora Feint's asynchronous gameplay efforts and Pangea sales numbers, keep reading.
While Stephanie mentioned bite-sized time chunks, Aurora Feint's Danielle Cassley also pointed out that a game can be interrupted at any time. This poses a huge problem for her, as Aurora Feint Arena relies on a networked gameplay experience. As she explained, due to latency and possible disconnections, the OpenFeint platform had to support asynchronous communications, and games must provide a way to store the data and upload or download it when the network becomes available again.

This is a similar sort of system that the ill-fated N-Gage tried, and Nintendo has used in Mario Kart Wii: shadow players. You and your friends can compete online, but the gameplay you are seeing isn't live, it's a recording. Plus, Danielle said that OpenFeint 1.0 would allow some form of cross-promotion for other games using their platform. OpenFeint should be available "soon."

Danielle provided a few stats around their apps as well. The original Aurora Feint launched July 11, 2008. In the first month it received one milion downloads. Of course, it was a very early entrant and it had a compelling experience and it was free. Aurora Feint II has proven successful as well, with tens of thousands of daily users.

Brian Greenstone of Pangea had some compelling stats around the sales and development of his apps. Of course, Pangea had a pretty easy route since they had a nice library of Mac-native games to begin with. According to Brian, porting those games took "a couple of weeks a piece" and "zero cost" since he took his own time to tune them for the iPhone. Now, bear in mind that these games already existed.

The Pangea team took months to originally develop those games. But Brian's model is to use profit-sharing to cut his up-front costs. That's a smart bet, for he explained (and as many of us know), there's absolutely no way to know if your app will be a smashing success or relegated to the bargain bin of page 126. His designers only had to tweak things a bit to cram those games into the iPhone -- but don't let the "2 weeks and zero cost" fool you, there's a LOT more to making a title like Bugdom 2 for the iPhone.

Brian's sales data was intriguing. Enigmo, arguably the least "flashy" of Pangea's games, has thus far made $1.5 million in profit. That's profit, after Apple took their 30%. That's 810,000 downloads from July to January. By comparison, Nanosaur 2 has been downloaded 133,000 times and has made only $77,000. Not bad, but also a good deal for the designers who helped him as they are sharing in those profits. Given the success of their games and ease of developing for the the iPhone, Brian said Pangea won't be developing any more Mac games and will focus solely on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

During the Q&A I thought two questions were really important: how to determine price and is anyone concerned about piracy. Everyone agreed that determining pricing was a challenge. There's not a good metric for what the market perceives and what it will bear. In the case of Aurora Feint, having a free game to introduce players to the brand was critical. Same story from ngmoco, although Stephanie also suggested that gradually increasing price can help, once a lower-priced version has achieved enough traffic to boost the ranking.

Pangea had an early advantage, since their games were easy to port and had already been created. So, Brian explained, around WWDC he and some other developers were trying to figure out what the right price should be. In the end, he said that when a person saw Enigmo, they said they would pay $15. When they read the description, only $10. When Super Monkey Ball was set to debut at $9.99, Brian said that the consensus was that $10 seemed like a good bet. And to this day many of the bigger games cost $9.99.

As for piracy both Pangea and ngmoco had discovered (through code that alerted them when an app was first launched) that when an app debuts, there could be as many as 3 pirates to every legal downloader. But they also agreed that within a week or two that number falls off dramatically. Pirates, they said, aren't a long-term issue -- yet. However, networked games carry a shadow cost because a pirated app accessing the server still costs in bandwidth, something Aurora Feint continues to deal with as they roll out more networked games.

Everyone on the panel agreed that the iPhone provides the best experience for users and developers, which accounts for its success and the success of talented developers.

Coming up later we'll have a interview with Brian Greenstone of Pangea, so stay tuned!

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