John Carmack's Rage: Why the iPhone Game Is a Success

Last Updated Nov 19, 2010 8:35 AM EST

Legendary game creator John Carmack of id Software told me a year ago that the iPhone was his favorite system right now, which is akin to Martin Scorsese saying he wanted to film his next movie with a Flipcam. Carmack was even bold enough to say his highly-anticipated Quake follow-up Rage was coming to the mobile phones first.

The iPhone/iPod game Rage: Mutant Blast TV! came out on Wednesday and already sits in the number two position. Its success will become the blueprint for console game companies because it is cheap, simple, promotional, and potentially profitable.

It's cheap: The standard definition version of Rage runs for 99 cents and the high definition version is $1.99. First, it gives the user a choice between saving a dollar and paying to see some of the best visuals ever on the iPhone/iPod. Second, it follows the low cost blueprint set by massive hits like Chillingo's Angry Birds (price: $.99) -- the only game blocking it from the Top Grossing Apple Store spot right now.

It's simple: Considered a prequel to the highly-anticipated console game, mobile Rage is all about tilting the controller and shooting the mutants attacking you. It's closer to a carnival ride than the full-fledged post-apocalyptic adventure promised in the home version, exactly what one would expect from spending a dollar. While other games are trying to bring the complex, multilayered home experience to the mobile, Rage succeeds at creating a fun game for the controller-less iPhone/iPod.

It's funding the final project: The average video game takes three years and cost several million to make. If a portion of the development money is put into a much cheaper mobile venture, then the mobile app, once it recoups, can help fund the final, bigger project. In fact, the mobile precursor could use the same graphic, audio, and design assets as the final game, making the smaller game require a bit more effort than creating a level within the full version.

Depending on how it is structured, Rockstar Games' runaway hit Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars could easily support the R & D for Grand Theft Auto V. Quake and Doom creator John Carmack is one of the few designers who would have few, if any problems getting financial backing. However, the minigame-funding-the-final-game is a great model for all video game creators.

It's advertising the consumer pays for: Rage admittedly is meant to whet the player's appetite for the $59.99 MSRP Microsoft (MSFT) XBox 360/Sony (SNE) PlayStation 3 game coming this September. id Software has made purchasing as easy as possible: Go into the Apple (APPL) iPhone game menu and a link sends you to the actual GameStop website to preorder the title 10 months before it arrives.

This is some serious planning here, and, as gaming sales slump, we will probably see promotional lead times get longer, just as Hollywood now shows trailers for movies literally years in advance. For instance, audiences got a peek at next month's Tron: Legacy at the San Diego Comic-Con two years ago.

But Rage sits in that unique place between a fancy trailer and a full-fledge video game experience, something that mobile games are uniquely apt to provide because of their low cost and mainstream appeal.