Will brands like USA Network kill garage iPhone developers?

USA Network, a large entertainment company, launched its first game for the iPhone today: A word puzzle game dubbed Letter Matrix.

This is a another milestone for the iPhone, as big companies start releasing games of their own, in order to stay in the mix: They’ll be battling it out with small, often two-person developer teams.

USA Network is a big company with shows like Monk TV and Burn Notice, which are viewed in a 104 million homes. So far, the small companies are winning. The competition is similar to the dynamics on Facebook, where big game companies such as Electronic Arts have not yet pushed aside small startups such as Zynga, Social Gaming Network and Playfish.

The cynics among us might start to say that, with more than 9,000 games available on the iPhone the invasion of entertainment brands on Apple’s platform is a sure sign it has become too popular, like when old farts started showing up on Facebook. Others might say this marks the maturity of the iPhone as a business.

You could say brands are at a disadvantage, since most iPhone apps spread on word-of-mouth, based on the quality of the game, which gives indie game developers as much of a chance of scoring a hit as a big-brand company. The top 100 games list reflects this thinking.

USA Network will launch some of its properties as iPhone games, said Jesse Redniss, vice president of digital for USA Network in New York. The new initiative is dubbed USA Network Games and is headed by Chris McCumber, executive vice president for marketing, brand strategy, and digital at USA Network. The company made the announcement today at the LA Games Conference.

USA Network has been investing in games for three years now. Two years ago, it set up a casual game portal,, which now has more than 50 games, most of them built around USA Network’s own intellectual property. The game group has a core staff of 10 people, but most of the development work has been farmed out to companies such as Glow Interactive in New York. Glow is the vendor of choice for new projects and its GlowPlay division made the iPhone game.

The Letter Matrix game is unique in that it’s not based on a show. The game tests a player’s speed, mental dexterity and ability to stay calm under pressure. It’s a time-based game that rewards the player for creating words from the English language. The player interacts on each level with falling books that contain a single letter on the spine. The user has to combine the letters to make three-letter words. Each level gets faster and faster, up to 20 levels. Download the game here on iTunes.

It has both a paid version for $3.99 and a free trial version. The company is pulling out the stops to promote its iPhone game on TV, its web sites, with its Twitter feed, and its 600,000 fans on Facebook in what Redniss describes as a “media onslaught.”

If other platforms are successful, such as the Palm Pre, Redniss said the company will consider making games for those platforms. But for now, he said the focus is on iPhone games. It will be interesting to watch this experiment unfold.

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