Why iOS devices get all the game tie-in love

The other day Kotaku reported on the announcement of a Mass Effect 3 iOS game. Unlike the last one, which was a top down, story-focused game, this one will be a third person shooter, with “full featured” gameplay. Someone in the comments complained about the lack of support from publishers and developers for Japanese-made handhelds like the Nintendo 3DS and Sony PSP and Vita. Why are games based on mega-hit console franchises, with mega-hit console franchise mechanics, going to phones and not dedicated gaming handhelds?

I asked that question years ago, when the iPhone was really picking up steam.  I would gladly pay a little more for that iPhone version of Assassin’s Creed or Dead Space if it was put out on PSN or the Nintendo eShop. I want to play those phone games, I really do, I just don’t want to play them on a phone, desperately wishing I had transparent thumbs. It seems a little unfair too, when an adaptation for a huge franchise gets released on phones and handheld gaming devices, and the phone version has more polish and is more fun than the crappy console port on the handheld.

But it’s all about business.

The reason iOS platforms get all the love has little to do with Japan or the handhelds made there. It's about install base and optimizing the amount of money that can be made in the shortest amount of time. There are a gozillion compatible iOS devices out there. For real. There were roughly more than 3.8 million iOS devices activated during the 2011 Christmas weekend alone. That is a huge market of potential customers. Yes, Sony has sold 70 million PSPs worldwide since 2004, and Nintendo has sold even more DS systems (in all their variations), but the install base is made up of very different demographics, and the ease of use—in terms of shopping and purchasing—on smartphones can’t be beat.

Everyone has a phone. Kids, adults, teens, oldsters, they’re all getting in on the smartphone game. The mindset people have when buying phones plays a big part in their success. Smartphones are phones that also happen to run games, not game systems that also happen to do other stuff (poorly). Smartphone customers come to their phones with app mindsets—thanks in no small part to Apple’s clever ‘there’s an app for that’ marketing—not boxed physical media games. That means they’re predisposed to getting more for less, and for their game time to come in bite sized chunks.

At five bucks developers and publishers could potentially make way more selling to those impulse buyers than at $40 to the smaller 3DS and Vita user base. There’s less risk and greater potential for reward. Five dollars for a game? No problem! That’s the same price as some coffee at Starbucks! Not to mention marketing for a phone game (if there is any) costs significantly less. Then there’s all that businessy stuff like certification and who gets what from the earnings. I can’t say for sure, but I’m willing to bet throwing a game up on iOS is easier than getting it up on PSN or the eShop (well, maybe not the eShop, Nintendo seems to let everyone through).

I have a Droid Razr, so I won't get to play the Mass Effect game, and yes that bums me out, but I can see why, from a business stand point, sticking with iOS makes sense. Each year there is ONE iOS update and ONE new iPhone. Make a game to match those specs, and maybe the specs from the year before, and you're good. With Android you have just one phone (the Galaxy Nexus) officially running the newest version of the OS, plus hundreds of different hardware configurations running several different versions of the OS. Making the game compatible with all those set ups would likely take longer than they care to spend. Plus there’s statistics out there showing that iOS users are more likely to pony up for a product than Android users.

So yes, it sucks that this game (and many of the other great franchise tie-ins) isn't going to something with actual controls. But business is business. Games go where the (easy) money is.