CORRECTED-PluggedIn: Next up for the iPhone ... video games?

Mon Aug 27, 2007 1:04pm EDT

(In 11th paragraph please read "10 million copies" instead of "5 million copies", correcting sales of "Bejeweled")

By Scott Hillis

SAN FRANCISCO Aug 23 (Reuters) - Your iPhone should be an ideal device for playing video games.

After all, it has a gloriously large touch-sensitive screen and sensors that can detect when it's being tilted: a mash-up of the best features of Nintendo Co Ltd's 7974.OS DS handheld and Wii home console.

But games for Apple Inc's (AAPL.O) iPhone are off to a slow start as the company concentrates instead on making sure the device's primary features of voice, music and Web browsing run smoothly.

"Apple wants to be focused on making sure the thing works as a core device," said Travis Boatman, vice president of worldwide studios for the mobile division of Electronic Arts Inc ERTS.O. "The first few iPods didn't support games but eventually they did."

Those of you with an IPhone can already play a number of games, but the first batch of titles has been mainly those that were hastily adapted to fit the screen's format.

Like other iPhone programs not made by Apple itself, games are limited to running within the Safari Web browser and cannot be installed "natively" -- meaning directly on the device -- without using work-around solutions that are too much hassle for most consumers to bother with.

That poses a few challenges to game developers. Some ways of using the touch controls, such as dragging items across the screen, don't work within the browser. Playing through the browser also means you'll be out of luck if you're outside of a coverage area.

APPLE IN THE GAME?

One of the first serious efforts came from PopCap Games, a leading developer and publisher of casual games whose slate includes hits like "Bejeweled" and "Zuma".

"There are a lot of passionate Mac users here in the company," said Andrew Stein, director of PopCap's mobile business development. "They looked at the iPhone and thought this would be really cool to do 'Bejeweled' on."

PopCap viewed the project as a proof of concept for doing games on the iPhone, but up to 100,000 people have already played "Bejeweled" on their iPhones in the three weeks since release.

That pales next to the 10 million copies that have been sold on other game devices, but it's pretty good considering that only a few hundred thousand iPhones are thought to have been sold since their debut in late June.

"We don't typically make announcements about what's in the pipeline, but based on the success of 'Bejeweled', we're looking pretty closely at the iPhone," Stein said.

EA, which has formed closer ties with Apple in recent months with more support for its Macintosh computers, is also professing love for the iPhone as it mounts a push into the area of casual games.

"We're huge believers in the iPhone and believe that's going to be a viable market going forward," Boatman said. "It has an amazing interface for games and there are lots of beautiful things you can do with that touch interface."

And there are hints that Apple is working on games of its own.

When Apple updated the iTunes software used to activate the iPhone, curious hackers who looked under the hood quickly found lines of software code indicating that games will be eventually run directly on the iPhone rather than in the browser.

That's not unprecedented: the company developed several of the 18 or so games offered for its iPod media players.

"We look at the iPhone as a really big deal. It basically makes the channel of distribution owned by Apple as opposed to owned by the carrier," said Michael Chang, founder of Greystripe, which distributes free cellphone games supported by advertising.

"Apple understands content, as opposed to carriers that are acting a lot like media companies," Chang said.