Onyx Online: Will iPhone Finally Get Its Xbox Live?

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: