Unreal engine games coming to iOS… at a premium price?

A quick look at the App Store rankings suggests that iOS gaming is all about 2D casual titles with cute cartoony characters. Surely a big portion of the 50 million users registered in Game Center have a taste for cheap and freemium games, and despite the views of some iOS developers and its profitability, I don't think this business model will take the platform any further. From a gamer's point of view, it's great to see new games churned day after day, but is there a market for premium games on the App Store?

When Apple launched the iPhone four years ago, nobody could expect it would become the player in the mobile games market it is today. Other than hardware improvements, support for advanced graphics and the inclusion of Game Center, we haven't seen much effort to make iOS a reference for gamers. However, the technical demo showcased by Apple in one of its keynote less than a year ago made everyone believe something else was possible. It was their own way of saying: "Hey guys, this is possible using our tools".

Epic Citadel by Chair Entertainment was the debut of Epic's Unreal Engine 3 on iOS devices. Released as a free app to show the graphics potential on the platform, it allowed users to explore the castle that would later be included in the real finished product: Infinity Blade. Regardless of the absence of the free-roaming experience and navigation controls seen in the teaser app, it has now become one of the most distinct iOS games and the App Store benchmark in graphics. Needless to say, it was a commercial hit too. 

Regardless of its success, independent developers and multimillion corporations in the App Store have invested heavily in their own solutions to bring a console-type graphic experience to mobile gaming. Just have a look at the amazing work of Crescent Moon Games or Firemint in their 3D games. Even John Carmack took it a step forward and launched a Rage version on the App Store using elements of the impressive id Tech 5 engine. Unity has also done a great work providing developers with development tools to create visually stunning games without the drag of using an in-house engine.

It's all about pricing

iOS gamers don't necessarily need to care about my ramblings about graphical engines. For most of us they're just a logo when you launch the game. However, I wanted to highlight their impact in game development for iOS and their crucial role in the App Store ecosystem. The amount of work that goes in producing these games cannot be recouped at the $0.99/£0.59 price point. Am I missing something?

See the Gameloft example. The French developer is one of the biggest players on the App Store and has always tried to bring console-type games to iOS devices—a strategy often criticised but that certainly has proved successful for them. Just like EA, it has been dropping the price of its titles in the last years to gain exposure and profit from impulse purchases.

Speaking about pricing vs quality, IGN's Levi Buchanan discussed the issue with Gameloft's top man Michel Guillemot at CES, where he acknowledged that smaller developers are always the first casualties in the App Store sales frenzy.

"Developers [are] worried that spending extra time and money on innovation and quality just isn't worth it when you're going up against publishers able to subsidize 99-cent games," says the editor.

Earlier this year the company announced a licensing agreement to Unreal Engine 3 in four upcoming iOS games. The technology could be a massive improvement substituting its current dated visuals, but also worry about the implications on its production levels and pricing strategy. So far, the trailer of March of Heroes—the first title to benefit from the engine—doesn't look more promising than the recently launched Backstab, but it shows a commitment to produce high quality games. Having to pay a licensing fee to Epic could make Gameloft slow down its pricing promotions… or not.  

The other App Store juggernaut, EA—should I say Iron Monkey Studios, has demonstrated incredible potential with games like Dead Space, Mirror's Edge and the Need for Speed series. The recent acquisition of Chillingo suggests a keen interest in the casual market, but it could be just a decision to have all the App Store bases covered. Again, EA has been known for their sales every other weekend, which in my opinion, cheapens the brand and makes it harder for competitors to justify a premium price. 

In the months ahead we'll witness releases of quality games powered by premium graphic engines to join the likes of Infinity Blade, dream:scape, Dungeon Defenders or Warm Gun. Will big studios resist the temptation to drop prices? And more importantly… are you ready to pay a premium for a quality iOS game?