As Apple’s Social Gaming Plans Emerge, Mobile Social Developers Respond

Apple made a potentially big move into social gaming earlier today, announcing that it planned to introduce a new “Game Center” along with the fourth version of its iPhone operating system.

The Game Center  will take the form of an app that comes pre-installed with the OS, from what we can see in Apple’s presentation today, and the preview will be available in the summer before it fully launches in the fall.

The Game Center appears similar to the social layers that have been around for years on console games rather than ones driven by your existing relationships and communication channels. It looks like a variety of mobile social platform developers have been trying to create, including Aurora Feint’s Open Feint, Ngmoco’s Plus+ and Scoreloop. We’ve gotten responses from these companies on the news, which we’ll get to below.

But first, here’s some more details on what Game Center appears to be — or not be. It will include ways to invite friends, matchmaking, leaderboards and achievements. It’s not clear how matchmaking will specifically work, but this is how Apple explained it today: “We do automatic matchmaking, we’ll find others with a similar ability and match them against you.” The feature, along with leaderboards and achievements, are all great mechanics for some types of games, and should be a good fit with the console-style ones that have been especially popular on the OS so far.

But the Game Center probably won’t instantly lead to the next FarmVille, or other games that tens of millions of people of all ages casually play all the time. Apple still doesn’t have a pre-existing social network to build on top of. There are no Apple “friends” to invite like there are Facebook and MySpace friends.

Or maybe there are.

We don’t normally spend much time scrutinizing fuzzy Apple screenshots, but one in particular from the company’s presentation today is worth a closer look. It’s of somebody inviting a friend to play a game. You can see a notification in the screenshot with the text “Invitation from [unclear name] to play ‘TouchFighter.’ Will you join me and play a game of TouchFighter?”

Who is your friend, and how does Apple know their name? It could be something basic, like users registering within Game Center, then being able to contact or friend other iPhone players who have done the same. But Apple has the chance to do something much more interesting, in terms of actual social gaming: Use phone numbers to let people invite their real friends. Obviously, Apple would need to carefully manage how this would work. One way would be to use the Game Center to show you friends who have downloaded the same game, or similar games, and let you invite them. Building on top of people’s existing contacts is what makes social games “social” — well, that and communication channels, like the invite notification Apple showed in the screenshot.

Anyway, Game Center is shaping up to be a serious new social gaming platform. Other companies, as we’ve been covering, have themselves started to see traction with their own mobile social gaming networks. Apple founder Steve Jobs said today that “Game Center won’t necessarily supplant other independently-created social platforms such as OpenFeint,” according to Gamasutra. But given that each platform has somewhat different features, and that Apple hasn’t disclosed many important details about the Game Center, here’s what the developers themselves think, verbatim.

Ngmoco’s vice president of social applications, Jason Oberfest:

We have anticipated these Apple initiatives for some time and are actually quite excited about them. On the social side, we are super excited about what Apple is doing with Game Center. We think a more seamless integration of social features within the Apple OS is a good thing for consumers and developers — Apple is in the best position to create a foundation for social interaction on the iPhone and iPad platforms, and we are excited to build on what they offer. Over the last few months we have been hard at work expanding the scope of plus+ to be a broad set of services for developers which we announced at GDC. We have learned by trial and error how to make free to play social games work on the platform and along the way have built software for running these businesses that we think can be of great value to the developer community.

Scoreloop’s chief executive, Marc Gumpinger:

Given the huge potential of the mobile social gaming market, I clearly see the rationale behind Apple’s announcement. How could any device manufacturer or carrier not want to add social glue by providing some form of social gaming infrastructure? It allows them to engage and increase their user base by accessing their users’ friends. Xbox proved that, as did Facebook (or rather Zynga, Playfish and others).

Apple positions Game Center around basic social connectivity, which represents the base layer of Scoreloop’s infrastructure. But with its virtual goods architecture and in-game monetization fully in effect, Scoreloop’s functionalities go far beyond what was announced today. Our infrastructure enables any developer to be the next Zynga – and that on the even bigger scale with billions of handsets in the mobile market.

Let’s not forget that the mobile market is fragmented and consists of far more than the iPhone. Chances are high that not all friends are on an iPhone but on an Android, Nokia, BlackBerry, BREW, Samsung or LG device. That means a device specific platform like the Apple Game Center does not allow you to interact with all of your friends. Scoreloop’s focus has been cross-platform from the very beginning. We have invested significant efforts outside the iPhone, and it now pays off. While Scoreloop is already the market leader on Android, we’re extending our infrastructure to the other important platforms for complete full coverage.

Scoreloop is the only mobile social infrastructure connecting players no matter what device they’re on. So we’re not only the perfect partner for studios and publishers alike, but also for OEMs and OS makers, Apple included.

And finally, here’s the press release Aurora Feint put out this afternoon:

April 8, 2010- Aurora Feint, creator of the OpenFeint platform, welcomed Apple’s launch of Game Center today and endorses it as a major step forward in online mobile games for the Apple gaming ecosystem. Aurora Feint runs OpenFeint as a free online service primarily for leaderboards and achievements, which currently reaches 19 million iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch gamers. The company will drive revenue growth for the mobile gaming industry with its OpenFeint X virtual goods social gaming platform for operating free to play micro-transaction based games with no server operations. All OpenFeint player accounts will automatically become OpenFeint X Player accounts when OpenFeint X goes live for the general public, so the OpenFeint community will continue to thrive.

“OpenFeint X is currently built on top of OpenFeint and in the future it will also sit on Apple’s Game Center social graph, achievements and leaderboards so developers and gamers don’t miss a step,” said Jason Citron, CEO of Aurora Feint. “Apple is a key partner and we are delighted that they have validated the first half of the OpenFeint vision and we can now fulfill the second half: OpenFeint X and Virtual Goods based Social Games. Our developers can be 100 percent assured that we will continue to invest in OpenFeint so our 1500 live games, 2000 games in development and 19M players have a flawless experience with OpenFeint and Game Center.”

OpenFeint X, launched in February, is a virtual goods social gaming platform that enables virtual goods management for free to play games with ZERO server operations. OpenFeint X is live today in Aurora Feint 3 for the iPad.

“OpenFeint has become a de-facto standard in core online game services such as leaderboards and achievements,” said Peter Relan, Chairman of Aurora Feint. “That’s the first step, but the real money opportunity is in allowing developers to create the next Zynga or CrowdStar, which will happen with the virtual goods social games platform that we’ve created in OpenFeint X.”

OpenFeint X features include a full virtual goods store, detailed analytics, a game-specific currency wallet, and downloadable game assets so game content can be pushed live in real time. The OpenFeint X developer program will only be open to OpenFeint game developers who will work with OpenFeint to transition to Game Center in the future.

Screenshots via Apple’s presentation video.