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The big weakness of the iPhone when it comes to gaming has been the lack of a social platform. Facebook games are inherently social and so they spread far faster than iPhone games do, and they consequently make a lot more money for developers.

Apple hopes to catch up on that front with Game Center, a social platform for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. The platform, announced today, and due to be released with version 4.0 of the iPhone OS due out this summer, will give Apple a “social gaming network, said Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iPhone Software, at a press conference today in Cupertino, Calif.

“We do automatic matchmaking,” he said. “We”ll find others with a similar ability and match them against you. You can see how you’re progressing in a game with achievements.”

Slowly, Apple has addressed a lot of the problems related to games, which were a surprise hit application on the original iPhone. Games are now the biggest category on the iPhone and they dominate the bestseller lists. But the game makers have not made as much money as some Facebook game developers like Zynga. But last year, Apple enabled the free-to-play business model on the iPhone with the iPhone 3.0 software. That allows game makers to give away apps for free and then upsell gamers to virtual goods, such as better weapons, inside the game itself.


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And now Apple is addressing the social problem. While Facebook apps can naturally spread in an almost automatic fashion among friends, Apple’s games have had to spread by word of mouth, without much automated assistance. With so many apps, the discovery of new games has been like finding a needle in a haystack. With a social network for games, players can now more easily see what their friends are playing.

Yes, it’s a knock-off of online game services such as Xbox Live. But we’ll have to wait and see if it can offer all of the features offered by third-party social platform makers, such as Aurora Feint, which makes OpenFeint X. Since Apple’s Game Center will be built into every iPhone or iPad, Apple will have big advantages over the likes of Aurora Feint. Other rivals include Ngmoco’s Plus+ and Scoreloop, which also provide achievements and other social features for gamers and their friends. Those companies have some room to pivot, since the Apple’s Game Center only goes live this summer.

In reaction to the announcement, Shervin Pishevar, chairman of iPhone game maker SGN, said, “So cool! We really needed this for the game marketplace to explode! I always said this should only come from Apple. SGN will integrate into all our games as the standard social glue for all our games.”

Apple’s new iAd service will also be a boon for game companies. Up until now, the options for game companies were to sell their games in the AppStore, give away their games and then upsell players to virtual goods via in-app purchases, or use an ad network such as AdMob. Now, with iAd, game companies can integrate ads, and therefore a new source of revenue, right into the game.

As for the number of games on the iPhone, it has now begun to dwarf rival game platforms. “Gaming is extremely popular on the iPhone and iPod touch,” Forstall said. “In fact, we have over 50,000 titles. Let’s look at the competition. If you look at dedicated gaming devices like the PSP and DS, this just blows them out of the water.”

[photo credit: gdgt]


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