Thanks to the widespread availability of broadband, gaming today is much more of a social experience than it's ever been before.  And no social gaming network is more entrenched than Microsoft's Xbox Live for the Xbox 360.  Gamers with an Xbox Live account have access to game downloads and upgrades, friend lists, in-game leaderboards (in basically every game available), in-game chat and the like.  It makes gaming on the couch much more than it used to be.

When the iPhone App Store launched, many criticized Apple for not putting such a network in place that taps into the iPhone's rich connectivity features to bring gamers together.  Oh, they've got the game downloads and updates covered, but there's no social experience to be found in Apple's App Store network.  An iPhone gamer is more or less an island.

Steve Demeter of Demiforce, author of the extremely popular iPhone game Trism, laments the lack of a social gaming network on the iPhone and is also troubled by the glut of games appearing in the App Store that are free or $0.99, so priced in a grab for the vaunted "Top" rankings list--which ranks by the number of units sold the previous day, not by the total number of sales.  Steve warns that independent developers who simply can't afford to price their games so cheaply are basically shut out of the Top lists and, as such, may find the App Store to be too hostile an environment in which to focus their efforts.

Steve believes he has a solution to the iPhone's lack of social gaming and a way for independent developers to get back into the spotlight.  It's called Onyx Online and Steve and his group has been working on it since July.

In a nutshell, Onyx Online is the XBox Live Arcade ecosystem brought to the iPhone. I wrote this kind of system into Trism as a case study, and it's been a complete success. Since Trism launched in July, we've been hard at work adapting this online code for use in any iPhone game, and the results are stunning. What we're going to do is allow any developer to insert the Onyx code into their game, which will instantly enable online scoring, achievements, leaderboards, and customized forums.

Other iPhone development companies have spoken of bringing similar systems to the iPhone--Neil Young of ng:moco spoke of his company's plans along these lines in a recent Touch Arcade interview.  The difference is that those are closed systems that would only work with that company's games.  Onyx Online is an open system that can be used by any iPhone developer--and it's free.

The beauty of Onyx Online is that it's completely viral. We've got about a dozen games right now which have approached us as early adopters. Each of these games will feature the Onyx Online backend when we go live. Inside the games, players will be able to create an account which store their achievements and high scores. The players can then log into the forums and see what their friends are playing. Onyx Online provides a great way for these users to see which games they've played, how they're doing in each, and how they compare against their friends.

A month after launch, who knows, maybe there'll be an additional 12 games that sign up. The next month it could double again. If each of these games features 20,000 unique users, you've suddenly got an ecosystem of a million users. Any upcoming developer can freely and easily tap into this entire collective. If you're writing the next hit game but you're unsure how to get it noticed, why wouldn't you want a free way to get it instantly seen by a million gamers?

Steve points out that there are other, less obvious benefits to his system.  By tracking players' scores, games on the Onyx network would never lose data when users upgrade to new versions of a game.  As well, high scores from free, demo versions of a game would be retained if and when a user purchases the full release.   Trism will see a paid level pack upgrade this holiday season, Trismology, and Trism players downloading that release will retain their score information thanks to the game's integrated Onyx Online technology.

Steve says he can save the App Store.  If Onyx Online is everything he makes it out to be and sees wide developer adoption, it seems clear he will make it a better place, at any rate.

Onyx will debut "very soon" and is headed for the Android platform, as well.  For more information, visit: http://onyx.demiforce.com/

  • henr1kk

    I don't see a bright future for this...
    Xbox Live is Xbox Live because it's operated by MS!
    If Apple released a Xbox Live-like environment for the iPhone it would be great but if every company starts creating their own, we'll still have "islands"!
    All games need to be built with the same online infrastructure for it to work and I think the only way it could work is if Apple makes it!

  • fuzzymath

    " ranks by the number of units sold the previous day, not by the total number of sales."

    Ranking by total number of sales would be worse. That would effectively lock everyone out of the market as EA would occupy all those spots and would increase their sales creating a nice feedback loop to keep them on top. Rarely would anyone be able to break into such a ranking.

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  • Aaron Sullivan

    As a developer I say: Sign me up.

    Look, the winner here will be the free one. Right? I mean... right now, like it or not, iPhone games are cheap and shallow on average. That's okay for now. You can't make a social network ubiquitous in this environment if it's expensive or royalty based.

    Apple providing it WOULD be best, but Apple is JUST now realizing that the iPhone/iTouch is a viable gaming platform.

    Godspeed, Steve Demeter and Demiforce. :)

    I'll certainly be looking to get this going with my game, whether it's the first part or a second part that would integrate achievements more heavily.

  • Nexus-6

    The question is, how long until Apple steals the idea and starts rejecting any new software that includes the Onyx Online code?

  • meme

    "The question is, how long until Apple steals the idea and starts rejecting any new software that includes the Onyx Online code?"

    Then Developers use the new system and the guys behind Onyx have some issues to deal with, i cant see why Apple wouldnt want to use any users Onyx has accumulated and do some deal.

  • http://beesbuzz.biz/ fluffy

    "Steve warns that independent developers who simply can’t afford to price their games so cheaply are basically shut out of the Top lists"

    This is a pretty puzzling statement. Independent developers have tiny teams, so the sale price only has to be split across 3-4 people, if even that many. Whereas the big developers often have HUGE teams, so the sale price has to be split across dozens of people. So, how is it logical that the big developers would be able to afford to price their games more cheaply?

    If you price your game cheaply and it's a good game, you'll get a hell of a lot of sales, whether it was made by a small team or a big team, and for a small team that means more revenue per person.

    Basically, what Steve says makes absolutely no sense from an economics or common-sense point of view.

  • fuzzymath

    @fluffy

    "So, how is it logical that the big developers would be able to afford to price their games more cheaply?"

    They can't. And they don't. They don't need to as Joe the Plumber thinks EA's games are better.

  • Michael Le

    this sounds really cool I'll have to contact them about my puzzle game

    It's funny how all the top games are around 99 cents, it's like Apple planned this all along for cheap value for the consumer, and now they can list "cheaper than ds/psp games" as a big feature

  • http://www.blakespot.com blakespot

    I really think, in agreement with ng:moco's Neil Young, that iPhone gamers need to occasionally be willing to pay DS and PSP prices for games for the platform to realize its potential. I mean....why not? Is a superbly crafted game not potentially worth $15, $20, $30?

  • Nfrno

    @fluffy

    You stated your points very well and I agree.

    The big developers are at a disadvantage to independent developers from the point of unit sales. If 2 games are equally well made then the 99 cent game will sell a whole lot more than the $9.99 game. This will cause the independent developer to place higher on the list.

    The advantage of the big developers comes from a lot money invested into large programming teams and resources which have a better chance for a better game. A better game will sell more units and you should rightfully appear higher on the list.

    If Apple ranked by sales dollars (unit x price) then the big developers would certainly lock up the top slots with their higher priced games that also generate large unit sales. The current system actually allows a good game that can't sell large numbers at $9.99 but can sell a bunch at a lower price point to compete with the "Big boys".

    That said, I have been very impressed by the high quality games put out by many independent developers and I have been happy to give them my money by purchasing their games. Great job!!

  • http://www.demiforce.com Steve Demeter

    @fluffy

    Good point. My blog post (linked in the article) talks about this.

    Onyx is not going to compete with the Spores or the Asphalt Racers, which are appropriately priced at 10 bucks. Onyx is going to compete with the games pushed out by companies with a "loss leading" strategy. These companies sell their games at a loss in order to build brands and get recognition on the top lists rather than make money. This strategy unfortunately chokes out independents, because they cannot sell at a loss. They need every one of their games to make money in order to keep their small company afloat.

    Onyx helps independents by forming a network which makes the notion of the AppStore's "top lists" obsolete. Instead, Onyx will allow gamers to easily form friendships with eachother, driving sales through recommendations.

  • http://www.MobiRiot.com Jason Lake

    If the history of gaming has taught us anything, it's that a social networking aspect is a positive thing for any developer. WoW, Counter-Strike, Starcraft, X-Box Live, Halo, etc, etc, etc were all "given" extended lives by the social aspect.

    What Steve is proposing to do IS the future. There is no question. Whether or not a larger company steps in and brings a more sophisticated product is yet to be seen. Grass roots efforts are admirable but often sink in the ocean of corporate business.

  • canthon

    Apple will never let this happen. Free or not, they will never approve of a network being built on top of their own App Store. In their minds, assuring end user experience requires total control. They will cite some clause like duplicating the functionality of the Top list in the rejection letter.

  • fuzzymath

    @steve

    "Onyx is going to compete with the games pushed out by companies with a “loss leading” strategy."

    This implies they won't be using Onyx (why wouldn't they? it's free) which means they will be rejected which means you will be screening participants.

    Which means Onyx can't be free or open to all?

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  • Zincous

    Sorry to say this actually won't be happening:

    http://demiforce.blogspot.com/2009/03/onyx-rip.html

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