At Apple's last press event (on September 1st), Steve Jobs announced a number of updates to Apple's iTunes, iPod, iPad, iPhone and Apple TV products, including an update to the iOS operating system (used by the iPhone and iPod Touch) to version 4.1.
Here's how Apple describe it on their site;
iOS 4 introduces the Game Center app. An out-of-the-box social gaming network for iPhone 4 and iPod touch. Invite friends to join. Then totally crush them. Take a look at how your score ranks among your friends and other players of each game. Compare game achievements with your friends. Get matched up and put together a select group of friends to play. Or choose to automatically go up against people you don’t know in a multiplayer game.
In other words, it works in a similar way to Microsoft's Xbox Live or Sony's PlayStation Network; a way to connect to your friends on the same platform. So rather than playing "against the computer", it makes it much easier to compare high scores with friends, or play online multiplayer games on Apple devices.
While this has been possible on 3rd party platforms like OpenFeint and NGmoko Plus+, Apple's Game Center creates a "default" network for gamers to use with their iTunes accounts- without having to sign up for a different service.
But perhaps what it marks more significantly is a part of a broader shift in the world of "mobile phone gaming" from being simply casual games into "serious play" (if such a thing is possible.) For the last 2 years, Apple have been marketing the iPod Touch as a gaming platform more heavily than as a simple music/media player, with the tagline "the funnest iPod ever."
After introducing Game Centre at the September 1st event, Apple showed a demo of a game codenamed "Project Sword" running on the new iPod Touch. (An application that shows off the technology called Epic Citadel is available to download from the iTunes Store now.) This uses the Unreal engine (which most gamers will be familiar with) to create some astonishing graphics. Apple also shared some sales figures, which put the number of iPod Touches sold as more than the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP combined.
The key difference between mobile games (such as iOS applications) and dedicated gaming platforms has been around the price; mobile phone games have been either free or very cheap (a £10 would usually be considered very expensive), while Nintendo DS and Sony PSP games tend to be around £10-£25 a title. The fact that mobile phones are now powerful enough to seriously compete with dedicated mobile gaming platforms, combined with the larger potential market means that the only real difference is that dedicated platforms have dedicated gaming controllers, while mobile phone platforms usually have an "always on" internet connection. The only real differentiating point is that dedicated games devices have dedicated gaming controllers, while touchscreen smartphones involve obscuring part of the screen with your fingers to actually play the game.
Sony's latest PSP campaign is very clearly an agressive counter-attack on the iPhone and mobile games, as their fictional 12 year old proclaims that "That ain't built for big-boy games. That's built for texting your grandma and calling your girl."
In our recent gaming research, we saw that while 35% of people play games on their mobile phones, only 5% consider it to be their favourite platform for gaming. With developments like Game Center and the constantly increasing power of newer smartphones, I'd expect to see this number growing considerably — especially amongst older, more time-pressured people who might not have the time or the opportunity to sit down with "proper" console games at home, but still have an appetite for play, and pockets of time to fill in their days.
But perhaps more importantly is that this raises the bar for mobile applications. While right now, mobile games tend to be quite simple, casual games, it won't be long before branded games are are competing for time and attention with "AAA" titles as games publishers bring more resources to this growing gaming platform.