Can Game Center be the Success that Apple Hopes to Make it?

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Social networking has been finding its way into our everyday lives for quite sometime now. Most recently, it’s become a part of our gaming space. Of course there were always online multi-user dungeons (MUD) and multiplayer shooters, but social gaming has gone far beyond the stereotypical image of a lone gamer in a dark hunched over a controller or keyboard with a lifeless stare into a glowing screen. Gaming has gained popularity with people of all ages, and games like FarmVille have struck some magic chord with people and kept them playing solely for the social aspect: sending and receiving gifts, showing off their farm or just because it gives them something to do in the office.

Apple’s latest addition the social networking space, Game Center, comes several months after it was originally announced and a mere week after Apple launched Ping, yet another venture into the world of social networking. Online networks like Xbox LIVE (XBL) and PlayStation Network (PSN) have already been doing this for quite sometime, but truly became relevant this console generation thanks to Microsoft’s strong push into online gaming. Luckily, it’s paid off for the technology giant, as they seem to have the most successful of the online gaming networks available. Xbox LIVE has become so successful, that not only does it generate a steady revenue stream for the console maker, it has become one of the system's main selling points. Microsoft’s old nemesis, Apple, is hoping to do the same by introducing a social gaming network of their own.

Game Center, as you may know, is an online gaming network created for Apple’s iOS devices that will let users play games together, challenge each other, view high scores and learn about new games from their friends online. Achievements are available just as they are with other online gaming networks, but what’s so different about Apple? Why this sudden desire to become a major player in the handheld gaming business even to go so far as to launch a social network with iOS4.1? Will it attract the casual gamers as well?

While we think many of the gadget geeks and gamers will definitely jump on board, simply because they have an iPhone, we aren’t sure if an online network like Game Center has the same appeal towards casual gamers as a social networking site like Facebook. Now, perhaps Game Center doesn’t need Mom or Dad to be a great service. They are happy enough with their iPhone version of FarmVille or Peggle.

Maybe Game Center is just Apple’s way of saying, “Look, we can do what Xbox and PlayStation do, but now you can take it anywhere you go!” Keep in mind that the online options on the PSP and the Nintendo DS aren't nearly as robust as Game Center. Of course each has their place, and one can argue that the DS' limited online functionality is an excellent way to protect children (They cannot communicate by voice or chat with users they haven't exchanged a "Friend Code" with, and the code must be obtained outside of the game.). At this point it’s too early to tell whether or not Game Center will be a success, but we are most interested in how the crowd of gamers typically referred to as the hardcore will use the service. Will they accept it as a hardcore gaming platform? Or will they take to Sony’s iPhone is “built for texting your grandma, and calling your girl,” mentality?

Sony's "Step Your Game Up" ad Campaign has Poked Fun at the iPhone in the Past

If Apple has any say, they won't let Sony make them out to be a casual gaming system. In the gaming space, Sony and Nintendo do have a huge advantage over the iPhone, established IPs that people love. It's hard to find a game that can match the quality of the Mario series on any platform, and at this point, the iPhone hasn't found its "Mario," but we doubt it ever will. It's worth keeping in mind that the iPhone does have games like Street Fighter and Assassin's Creed. Full-fledged games like Chaos Rings from Square Enix, are very high-quality RPGs that narrow the gap between the usual perception of a "phone game" and what you may see on a console or dedicated gaming handheld.

This is because we've seen Apple push their way into into the handheld gaming space by providing high-quality games at a low price. This is in part thanks to digital distribution. Apple even provides the store that gamers can easily shop at. Some of us tried to discount the iPhone as a gaming machine, but the platform has become hard to ignore because the games are selling. Seems Apple's done their homework. Their next major step is simply to convince those core gamers that Game Center is a viable online network. This may be somewhat easy thanks to the ability to use your iTunes account to join the service.

We can’t leave out OpenFeint, which has been doing the social gaming network on iPhone for longer than Apple. It’s been met with success, but by making Game Center a part of iOS, users who own compatible devices will have the the App installed on their iPhone as soon as they choose to update their OS. Still, it doesn’t surprise us. It’s not the first time we’ve seen Apple create their own answer to a popular App. The question remains, will users enjoy it?

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