When Apple announced the iPhone Software Development Kit in early March, game developers were nearly unanimous in praising the tools, iTunes-focused distribution methodology, and opportunities Apple was providing to their community: the iPhone and iPod touch, they made clear, were going to be an exciting new gaming platform, and companies such as Electronic Arts, Sega, and Gameloft were quick to commit to releasing new titles. But what, we wondered, would happen to the iPod classic, iPod nano, and fifth-generation iPods—models that collectively have outsold the iPod touch and iPhone by millions of units? Would game development dry up entirely for these popular, lower-cost models?

Does iPhone SDK mark the end of Click Wheel iPod Gaming?

Does iPhone SDK mark the end of Click Wheel iPod Gaming?
PopCap’s Peggle for Click Wheel iPods; an iPhone/iPod touch version is forthcoming

There are reasons to think that the answer could be “yes.” After releasing new games for these models at an average rate of one per week for the past three months, and 30 games in total, Apple hasn’t published a new title in three successive weeks; the last iPod game, Scrabble appeared three days before the SDK event on March 6th. Additionally, past iPod games demanded significant involvement from an in-house Apple software team. Would the notoriously future-focused Apple continue to tie up its internal resources on developing games for “classic” iPods?

No matter how important the iPhone and iPod touch might be to Apple’s future, game industry history suggests that cutting off development too quickly for the iPod nano and classic could be a big mistake. Sega painfully learned this lesson in the mid-1990s, as it killed games under development for its still-popular, affordable Genesis console in an attempt to allocate resources to its more expensive and powerful machine Saturn. High on Genesis’s success, the company assumed that customers would flock to the newer console, despite its higher price. Instead, when new Genesis game releases dried up during a still-hot selling season, customers felt burned by Sega and turned to its competitors, soon handing control over next-generation gaming to Sony—a position Sony maintained for ten years and two consecutive PlayStation consoles. Learning from Sega’s mistake, Sony decided to keep its past platforms alive, selling them at increasingly attractive price points, and enabling the new consoles to play older games, which kept customers happy no matter when they decided to transition from one PlayStation to another.

Does iPhone SDK mark the end of Click Wheel iPod Gaming?
Long before it was released for the iPod, Sonic the Hedgehog helped Sega’s Genesis console conquer the games industry

It’s obvious, of course, that Apple and third-party developers have good reasons to shift most of their resources to the iPhone and iPod touch platform. Apple’s nearly free software development toolset for the touchscreen devices makes game creation and testing comparatively easy, without requiring as much official Apple involvement. The new devices offer control options—multi-touch, accelerometer, and so on—that aren’t possible on the older iPods, which often suffered from control-related problems. And, of course, games can look and sound substantially better because of the iPhone and iPod touch’s superior video and audio capabilities. If and when these devices really take off, they’ll be a much better game platform than any currently popular iPod model.

Does iPhone SDK mark the end of Click Wheel iPod Gaming?
Apple-developed titles such as Touch Fighter show how 3-D games will play on iPhone and iPod touch

But certain realities are impossible to ignore. Sony has sold over 20 million PlayStation Portable consoles to date, and Nintendo has sold over 65 million Nintendo DS handhelds—each purchased primarily as a game machine rather than as a music, movie, Internet, or telephony device. Both devices include traditional controls and other features that gamers are familiar with, and game developers know that most people who buy PSPs and DSs are most definitely looking for games. The picture’s less clear with the iPhone and iPod touch, as Apple hasn’t released sales numbers—collectively, they’re most likely well under 15 million—and the total number of people who bought either device for gaming is likely a small fraction of whatever today’s total installed base may be.

Does iPhone SDK mark the end of Click Wheel iPod Gaming?
Sony’s PlayStation Portable (shown) has sold over 20 million units to gamers; iPhone and iPod touch numbers are hazier

Clearly, there are reasons to prefer iPod nano, classic, and 5G game development. At least for the moment, these platforms likely offer developers access to more gamers than the iPhone and iPod touch, and certainly more paying ones. Apple has already created a special section of the iTunes Store for these sorts of iPod games, and has the ability to sell titles there now, rather than at some point in June or July. Apple’s store for these games will be less crowded than the iPhone and iPod touch App Store, which will be flooded with new titles of all stripes, including many non-gaming applications. And as iPod nanos start at $149, versus $299 iPod touches and $399 iPhones, there’s every reason to believe that the sales of Apple’s Click Wheel iPods will continue to outpace its higher-priced ones—unless, of course, there are substantial price drops coming for the touchscreen models.

Does iPhone SDK mark the end of Click Wheel iPod Gaming?
Sony BMG’s Musika for 5G iPods is unlikely to be updated

For current iPod nano, classic, and 5G owners, there is some good news to report: we have heard that Gameloft plans to continue to develop titles for these iPod models, in addition to supporting the iPhone and iPod touch, though it’s unknown whether and how many of these titles Apple will actually publish. However, Electronic Arts, PopCap, Namco and Sega are all question marks; it also appears certain that Sony BMG won’t be following up on its release of Musika, a title that appeared only a month before Apple discontinued the only iPod that could play it. The fate of future iPod gaming, and the satisfaction of current iPod customers, depends on how Apple manages its Click Wheel and touchscreen iPod families. Will buyers of the old iPod designs get burned, or will Apple find a way to keep everyone happy this time?

What do you think should happen? Tell us in the comments section below.

Jeremy Horwitz

Jeremy Horwitz was the Editor-in-Chief at iLounge. He has written over 5,000 articles and reviews for the website and is one of the most respected members of the Apple media. Horwitz has been following Apple since the release of the original iPod in 2001. He was one of the first reviewers to receive a pre-release unit of the device, and his review helped put iLounge on the map as a go-to source for Apple news.