By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
February 3, 2009

New data from ComScore showing that 32.4% iPhone owners have downloaded at least one game — compared with only 3.8% for the average cell phone owner —  sparked some fresh analysis of the booming iPhone (and iPod touch) game market.

As of Tuesday morning, according 148Apps, there were 18,737 applications on the App Store and 4,078 of them — nearly 22% — were games.

Why so many?

The obvious first answer is that games are very popular. Six out of the top 10 paid apps on Apple’s (AAPL) App Store are currently games or entertainment programs, which makes those categories particularly attractive to software developers.

On Monday, MacRumors dug up some back-of-the-envelope calculations done in mid-January for Byte of the Apple by Jeff Holden, CEO of Pelago software, who calculated that the 17 million-plus iPhone users had downloaded as much software as 1.6 billion other cell phone users.

“To a developer,” he wrote, “what this means is that if he launches an app for non-iPhones (assuming he has deals with all carriers and has ported to every handset in distribution on which people can download apps), he needs to have a reach 94 times as large as the reach he needs in the iPhone community (which does not require any carrier deals and is via single platform, so no porting) to achieve the same number of downloads.

“Why,” Holden concludes, “would I ever build for anything but the iPhone?”  (link)

But there are even deeper reasons for the iPhone’s popularity among game developers, and over the weekend Prince McLean laid them out in a thoughtful post for AppleInsider.

McLean cites an easy-to-use software store, attractive pricing, a nearly-invisible DRM scheme to ward off pirating, a Mac OS-like application development environment and particularly lucky timing (the iPhone 3G launched and the App Store opened six months before the economy officially tanked).

The result is a software ecosystem that produces real gaming value at bargain prices.

“Combined with the sophisticated iPhone hardware platform, with hardware accelerated 3D graphics and a decently powerful CPU,” McLean writes, “Apple’s App Store games even give dedicated handheld gaming devices a run for their money.” (link)

To illustrate his point, McLean posts screen shots — reproduced below — of Sega’s popular Super Monkey Ball as it appears on four platforms (and at four price points):

  • Nokia’s NGage version for smartphones ($20, top left)
  • A dumbed-down mini-game version for the Nokia N95 ($10, top right)
  • The iPhone version ($10, middle)
  • The same title on the Sony PlayStation Portable ($40, bottom).

See the difference? There’s your answer.

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