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OpenFeint's Jason Citron talks Game Center and Aurora Feint 3

The first thought on everyone's minds as we heard during the event yesterday that Apple would be forming their own social gaming network on the iPhone called Game Center, was probably, "What about OpenFeint?" Since almost the very beginning of the App Store, OpenFeint founder Jason Citron has been working hard to provide developers with a free and easy solution for implementing a social network and social features on their iPhone apps, and with one small announcement, Apple appeared to make all of that work obsolete. Quite a few unofficial social networks have spawned on the iPhone (OpenFeint is one of the first and definitely the biggest, with over 12 million users at last count), and with one fell swoop, it appeared that Apple's new official network would make them all unnecessary.

Not so, Citron told us in a quick interview today. Yesterday, he confirmed in a statement that OpenFeint would still do their best to sit on top of any official network that Apple would build, and today he talked a little more with us about the future of OpenFeint, his worries about Game Center, and how the company's first iPad title, Aurora Feint 3, is doing.

We asked Citron what his very first reaction to Apple's announcement was, and he honestly told us that he was shocked. "I didn't think that they'd do this," he said. Of course, after the fact, Apple's move seems obvious -- why not unify iPhone players under an official social network, in the vein of Microsoft's Xbox Live? But before the announcement, Citron was pretty sure that if Apple hadn't bothered yet, they'd probably stay out of the market. "They've never shown an interest in games before," he said, and that's certainly true.

So why now? "Apple stumbled onto this," he told us. "They were trying to make cool phones, an iPod and a phone coming together. They opened up the SDK, and all of a sudden there were all these games out there, and now it's disrupting the handheld gaming industry." We've seen a few hints, mostly in commercials and rumors, that Apple has been looking at the iPhone and specifically at the iPod touch as a gaming platform, but Citron believes the wind has changed for good. "I don't think they're thinking of it as an accidental opportunity any more. I think they're diving in headfirst."

But that doesn't mean the end of OpenFeint: Citron says that the network will continue to support developers up to and past Game Center's release, and that when Game Center does appear in iPhone OS 4.0 this summer, OpenFeint will do their best to help out with the transition. Even developers that join right now, he told us, won't be left out to dry when the new network comes along. He didn't share details about what he's seen in the SDK so far (since it's still under NDA), but Citron said that OpenFeint will do everything they can to make use of and support Game Center. And if Apple doesn't include some certain functionality than OpenFeint can (there was no mention of things like replays yesterday), then Citron says OpenFeint will do it.

Does he hold Apple accountable for taking over a market he's worked so hard on? "I can't take all the credit for OpenFeint," he told us. "I've always said that it's Xbox Live for iPhone, so arguably, we're copying Microsoft. Granted, it's not the same thing, but it's there. And then there's Microsoft copying GameSpy before that." But he does say that if Apple is going to take responsibility of social gaming on the iPhone, it needs to do so in the best way possible, and it needs to innovate in the same way that having multiple competing networks did: "You look at Microsoft and Xbox Live, it's been fairly stagnant for many, many years because they don't have any competition. The fundamental features of Xbox Live haven't changed much... So my concern is that Apple comes into this space, blows out all of those competing networks, and then doesn't do really, really, really cool stuff. Before, Plus and OpenFeint and Scoreloop and Agon and Crystal and Gameloft Live and all of these companies basically had to one-up each other by making themselves better. And now, what if the mothership shows up, and they don't?"

Citron also spoke with us about Aurora Feint 3 -- his company's first iPad title has only been out for a few days, but he's already learned a lot about the new platform and how it differs from the iPhone. The first difficulty was not having a test unit before launch -- Citron said his team did pretty well just by mocking up prototypes and playing with those, but there were a few things (like a pause button that was a little too easy to hit) that still needed to have the hardware. And he says he's waiting on an iPad update -- there's a memory bug with an easy fix ready to be patched, but Apple hasn't approved the small update yet.

Still, he says, he's excited for Game Center along with the rest of us. "As a game developer and as a player," Citron told us, "I think it looks really good." It remains to be seen exactly how Apple's arrival in the social gaming space on the iPhone will affect all of the other players in the market, but according to Citron, OpenFeint is here to stay.

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