Apple Scores Another Win in Gaming Arms Race

Last Updated Dec 15, 2010 11:08 AM EST

Tomorrow Epic Games makes its portable version of the powerful Unreal engine available to other Apple (APPL) iOS developers -- a huge coup for both Epic Games and Apple. A licensed software suite that makes it easier to make visually stunning games, the Unreal engine isn't available on any other mobile platform and virtually guarantees big sales for upcoming Apple platform games -- and more headaches for Google (GOOG), Nintendo (NTYDO), and Sony (SNE) mobiles.

Last week Infinity Blade, the stunning first engine-based game, grossed more than $1.6 million in its first four days. At $5.99 a pop, it ends up being more than 267,000 sold. Just a month ago id Software, which also has a customized engine, had a comparable hit with its first engine-based title, Rage HD.

The crazy part is that the iPhone's mobile competitors could have courted these developers well before Apple. Microsoft (MSFT) is still trying to get its footing in the mobile market, but with better planning, Google, Sony, or Nintendo could have introduced the mobile Unreal engine first. Here's why the three competitors failed to do so.

Google is too unstable: Google Android units is technically more powerful than the latest Apple devices, but, as id Software's legendary co-founder John Carmack lamented to me earlier, the differences between the Android models is not conducive to a stable platform. For id or Epic Games to translate its popular console engines to the Android, it would probably have to modify the program for each variation. For now, Carmack and others have decided that it's not worth the trouble.

Nintendo is too self-involved: Aside from the console's themselves, Nintendo's bread-and-butter traditionally is first-party series like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. The problem with this method is that Nintendo isn't as focused on grooming developer relationships, such as with Epic Games or id Software, as much as other companies. As a result, the variety of games available suffer. It happened with the Wii, just as it happened with the previous Nintendo 64 console, and so on. If third-party companies don't feel like they have Nintendo's full support, then there is no reason for them to put effort into translating their best engines to the machine -- hence the engines from Epic Games and id Software currently thriving on both the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft Xbox 360, and not on the Wii.

Nintendo wants to change its relationship with third-party companies for its upcoming 3DS portable, but it may be too late to block Apple. In the ultimate irony, id Software's previous Apple hit Doom Resurrection actually began when the company ported Doom 3 to the Wii years ago. With more support, the runaway smash Rage HD might have been a Nintendo mobile exclusive and not an Apple one.

Sony is too scattered: Sony has the most powerful home system available, the Playstation 3, that carries dozens of best-selling Unreal engine titles, including Batman: Arkham Asylum and Unreal Tournament 3. However, despite also having the most powerful mobile systems on the market, the Unreal engine hasn't hit any of the portable PSP units.

The likely reason is that, like Google, Sony has spread itself too thin for developers to actually take advantage of the current system. The original PSP had a decent multi-year run, but Sony has unleashed radical upgrade after radical upgrade to the once-popular system -- usually with only months between releases. For instance, the PSP Go changed the device into a download-only platform (making users' physical game collection useless overnight), shortly followed by the PSP2 which has a totally different set of specs, but now Sony is now doing a full-on gaming phone with a touchscreen. How are companies supposed to develop if they don't know the parameters? Apple has some serious control issues, but at least app creators know the platform is simple and stable.

Google, Nintendo, and Sony should not be worried about the Infinity Blade or Rage HD games themselves, but the flexible licensing agreements and the similar engines that will inspire more games like them. They all lose a serious lead by letting Apple have these technologies first.

Photo courtesy of Epic Games