On Wednesday, Apple announced the iPhone 5. I'll be ordering one today, even though I've had an Android for two years. I'm not making the switch because of the phone's (kinda) hot new tech. I'm making the switch because I miss my friends.
Apple's whole press conference was a touch anticlimactic, if only because the thing was such a poorly kept secret. We've known about the bigger screen, the faster LTE service, and the faster processor for weeks, even months. This week's presentation just confirmed it. And really, I'm not all that impressed by most of the additions. Sure, the new phone will make mobile gaming a bit better, but it's not all that different from an iPhone 4 or 4s.
The main reason I'm switching back isn't because of anything new that the iPhone 5 offers. It isn't even that I miss having a phone with a decent camera, or a functional map application, or the other bells and whistles offered by Apple's device. I just miss playing games online with my friends. I miss chasing their scores on leaderboards, seeing their avatars on my screen, competing against me or helping me out. I play so many video games alone. I want to play more games with my friends.
Over the past couple of years, Apple has played host to a seriously fun, growing multiplayer gaming scene. I first noticed it when Hero Academy got big. Asynchronous multiplayer had finally moved beyond Words With Friends and into a realm I really understood: Strategy role-playing.
Everyone I knew was playing Hero Academy. Except me. I was sad. No, really! I was. This was also right around the time the Game centre took root. Suddenly, everyone's mobile games were connected, and everything got that much more interesting. I'd watch my friends engage in Twitter smack-talk over high scores in Gravity Hook and Drop 7, wishing I could join in. It seemed that every time a new game came out, everyone I knew dropped the requisite 99 cents (or whatever) and joined the fray.
I almost never played games on my Android. Not like that, anyway. That said, I wasn't completely out of the loop — this is my job, after all, and I've got an iPad that I use to try out most universal apps. My old 3GS iPhone still works, too, should I need to play an iPhone-only game. But I never felt all that connected to everyone, I still felt like I was playing games in a bubble.
It's been said a hundred times: The power of iPhone gaming is that it fits into the cracks and crevasses of our everyday lives. The games are all designed around this, and game developers are getting pretty good at it. Listen to the folks at EA Mobile or Zynga talk about why their games are successful, and you'll hear some variation of "Because people have room for these games in their lives."
You don't have to take their marketing-speak at face value — if you play these games, you'll see that it's really true. It's not marketing bullshit, (or I should say, it's not just marketing bullshit), it's actually the way things are. And here's the thing: In order for a game to fit into the small moments of your life, it needs to actually be present when those moments occur.
Sitting and waiting to get a haircut. Waiting in line at airport security. Riding the train. Waiting for my girlfriend to meet me for dinner. There are only three things I consistently have with me during all of those times, and I can't very well play games on my keys or my wallet.
Games on the iPhone 5 will, I'm sure, be even more cutting-edge than ever, and the graphics will likely become all but indistinguishable from more hardcore options like the PlayStation Vita. (Though really, without dedicated controls, there's no way an iPhone could ever be my primary gaming device.) But I don't really care about all that. I care about Game centre. I care about the connectivity and ubiquity.
People in the video game industry like to talk about "the power of social." (Blerg.) Players get hooked on massively multiplayer RPGs and Facebook games because they play them with their friends, and their friends need them to make progress. A lot of first-person shooter fans own Xbox 360s because all their friends do — you can play Call of Duty on PlayStation 3 or PC, but if your friends all are playing on Xbox, you'll probably want to play on Xbox, too.
I've been feeling more and more left out over the last couple of years, which is a real testament to Apple's overwhelming success in mobile gaming. In fact, my desire to switch back feels a bit like an admission of defeat. Fine, Apple! You've won! I just want to play Temple Run against everyone, okay? I've been sitting there with my Droid feeling like the only Genesis owner at school, moping in the lunchroom while my Super NES-owning friends guffaw about their Mario Kart matches from the night before.
So yes, the iPhone 5 looks swell. The big screen will be neat. The faster connection will be great. But when it comes down to it, I'm just excited to play with my friends again.