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Goldstuck on Gadgets

The game’s the next big thing

The classic arcade games are making a comeback ‚ on smartphones. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK unpacks the new era in gaming.

Who remembers playing Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-man, or Galaxian at games arcades and in the back of corner cafes?

That would be a sign of a mis-spent youth somewhere between the late 1970s and early 1990s, before the Internet began its own great invasion.

I blame those games for the extra year or two it took to finish my university degree, but also for guiding me down the path to a fascination with computers. And they were a pointer to what social networking would become a few decades later: immersive, interactive and addictive.

And now, even as new games arrive to offer just that terrible trio of attractions, the old games are back, this time in the form of mini-applications, or apps, for phones.

You can blame Wayne Irving II, who labels himself ‚Chief Gamer and Pinball Wizard‚ at an app developer called Iconosys.

He still bears the scars of his own misspent childhood: ‚My first real date was at an arcade in the bowling alley in Kissimmee, Florida. I guess my plan to impress my date with my arcade gaming skills backfired: I was so nervous that all I could do was play Centepede and Galaxian to show off my stuff, and the girl I was with ended feeling ignored and left out.‚

Decades later, Irving has found closure. His company has created versions of Galaxian, Space Invaders and Asteroids for the mobile phone. The versions of the latter two created for Android phones and tablets are called Android Invaders and Anderoids (See gameplay samples at However, the games have also been repurposed for the iPhone and iPad.

The significance of these three games lies in the fact that they sparked the global video game industry when they were launched in 1978 and 1979 by Atari and Namco. While pinball machines survived the onslaught, they were never able to match the popularity of those games. In Japan, they caused a shortage of 100-yen coins. In my university residence, you could sell 20c coins at a rate of four for a Rand.

We may not see that kind of frenzy physically today, as the gaming model has moved from per-play to per-download and to buying virtual goods inside games. But that means far more people playing the games, and a far larger population of gamers than at any time in history.

Angry Birds, possibly the most popular game in history, is played by an estimated 30-million people a day. The latest episode in the tale of the annoyed avians, Angry Birds Space, was downloaded 10-million times in the three days following its release last month. In total, the franchise has had more than 700-million downloads.

That dwarfs the popularity of Farmville, the Facebook game that at its height probably destroyed more productivity than real-world traffic. Farmville’s creator, Zynga, raised $1-billion when it went public late last year, valuing the company at $9-billion. It makes four of the five most popular games on Facebook, including CityVille and Texas HoldEm Poker. Around 200-million people play their games a month.

So, when they saw a new gaming app called Draw Something catch fire in the Apple App Store, with 35-million downloads in its first six weeks ‚ not to mention a billion drawings made with the app in one week ‚ the were quick on the draw. They bought the game’s creator, OMGPOP, for $200-million.

Facebook doesn’t buy games, but took Zynga’s lead barely two weeks later. They bought the photo-sharing app, Instagram, for $1-billion. There is little doubt they were spurred on by the fact that Instagram had 30-million users at a time when it was only available for iPhones, and that it had just been released for Android phones. That made it a potential threat on Facebook’s home turf, photo sharing. Instagram also strengthens their position in the mobile arena, where they already have a massive presence with mobile apps for chat and general usage. For them, gaming is more of an add-on, to keep the anti-social coming back to the social network.

Last year, in South Africa, 59% of cellphone users said they played games on their phone, a figure expected to grow to 71% this year. Those were mostly basic, free games, and they were hardly as addictive as the new generation making its way onto phones. So we can expect the figure to rise, especially when the newcomers are also the games that started it all a generation ago.

* Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget and heads up World Wide Worx. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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