Apple threw down the gaming gauntlet again today with the announcement of Game Center for recent models of iPhone and iPod Touch. As Gamasutra reports, Game Center brings a unified first-party online experience that combines social networking with multiplayer matchmaking, leaderboards, and achievements. This all ties back nicely with something that Lucas DeWoody brought up over at Kombo this week in which he worries that the rise of casual-oriented iPhone gaming will eventually smother dedicated handheld gaming machines such as the Nintendo 3DS and Sony's next PlayStation Portable.
We are rapidly approaching a potentially seismic shift for portable gaming. I've been dreading this day ever since 2007, for in that year we saw the release of the iPhone. The iPhone revolutionized the mobile scene, and the App Store hadn't even hit yet. It can be argued that the iPhone's revolutionary multi-touch interface can at least partially be accredited to 2004's Nintendo DS for baptizing the tech in the pool of the casual consumer consciousness. People were already comfortable with touch screens for gaming, so why not for our phones as well? Now it's the new standard for mid-high end cell phones. However, the one thing nobody in the gaming market expected was that the iPhone would become a serious gaming platform. Like it or not (and I don't), the iPhone has quickly become a go-to gadget for popcorn games simply due to convenience, even if 99% of the games couldn't hold a candle to comparable DS/PSP software. It's just easier for a casual player to carry the one device around and play some decent time killers than to have to carry around a dedicated device for the same purpose. With the debut of the iPad, that casual erosion will begin to quickly accelerate.
Now that iPhone gaming is taking another step at becoming a cohesive experience spread across multiple titles, proliferation of mobile gaming will take another step forward. I'm the type that carries a handheld game system in my pocket next to my cell phone, so I can understand Lucas's fears that watered-down ports of popular games will become the iPhone's bread and gaming butter. Not that every DS or PSP game has been original gold, of course, but when a version of Street Fighter IV lands on the iPhone instead of the PSP, I'd say that there's reason to worry. Game Center isn't a nail in anyone's coffin, but it's clearly a kick to the shin.