Why Game Center is Here to Stay

When Apple quietly removed the Game Center app as part of its iOS 10 transition, many critics proclaimed that Apple killed Game Center. Sure, you could still access it from the Settings app, but that was the beginning of the end, right? Apple must have given up on its social gaming network. Now one year later, I don’t believe that’s the case. Apple has simply streamlined the Game Center experience, so that it only provides the real services that gamers need.

The Backstory

To wrap our heads around the change, it’s helpful to recall Game Center’s history and the broader social gaming network past. In the early days of the App Store, single player games ruled the land. These were mostly arcade style titles—think Doodle Jump, Angry Birds, and Cut the Rope. You played the same levels over and over trying to set new high scores. Back then, not many mobile developers were using servers to manage global high score lists. It was a simpler, less expensive time for game development. But no matter! There was a growing, highly fragmented collection of social gaming services that provided leaderboard support. You might remember OpenFeint, among others. Lots of games integrated these social gaming platforms, but there was hardly one universal solution. It’s simply difficult to get users to sign-up for a third party platform, especially when there isn’t a dominant player.

Enter Game Center

With the introduction of iOS 4 in late 2010, Apple created the Game Center app. Furthermore, they automatically added it to every iPhone user’s phone. I think it’s worth emphasizing that when Game Center launched, Apple did not put as many of their own apps on your phone. Users had not accumulated as many third party apps either. At the time, I only had 2 pages of apps, and this was the first time I saw an app automatically download itself on my iPhone. The fragmentation problem with other social gaming networks was gone. Everyone had Game Center.

For years, Game Center served well as a mobile game hub. In addition to powering leaderboards within games, players could browse around between different games’ leaderboards within the Game Center app. Many games implemented Game Center’s achievement functionality as well. Players earned badges for “beating level 4” or “finding all of the golden eggs.” It gave players goals, which added to the excitement and buzz. You could even add friends within Game Center. It was a social network after all! The competition to see which of your friends could clear all of a games achievements first really spiced things up. Game Center was in full swing.

The Rise of Multiplayer

The Game Center experience started to change sometime within the past few years. I’m tempted to say that Game Center’s new look for iOS 7 didn’t help, but it was more of an industry shift. Robust multiplayer games were taking over the App Store. Games like Clash of Clans used their own servers to power match making. They didn’t need Game Center to manage leaderboards, since their own servers could handle them. In fact, it was a better experience, because the custom leaderboard interface flowed naturally within the game. The Game Center leaderboards also routinely featured fake scores. Developers often found it easier to protect the integrity of their leaderboards when developed in-house. Clash of Clans did use Game Center achievements, but they maintained an achievement section in-game with their own UI as well. For major budget multiplayer titles, Game Center simply wasn’t as necessary.

It’s easy to forget, but Game Center did add multiplayer matchmaking a year earlier than Clash of Clans. It focused on the style of turn-based multiplayer you would expect in basic card games. I first remember seeing it in Letterpress. It worked for many simple multiplayer games, but never caught on with major multiplayer titles. The matchmaking is often more nuanced in complex strategy games, and if you have to use a server for many other aspects of the game (saving town layouts, managing team chat, etc.), you might as well use it for matchmaking. As the market evolved, players are playing these high-end multiplayer games more, which need Game Center less.

So is Game Center dead?

No. There are tons of single player or simple multiplayer games in the App Store. That still constitutes the majority of the mobile game library in the App Store. These developers don’t want to or can’t always afford to deal with their own server (or even a mobile backend-as-a-service provider, but that’s another story). Game Center is still the best solution for their leaderboard needs.

Retention is a major concern for developers as well. If you want to maintain your own leaderboard, players are going to have to choose a username at some point. Forcing such a life altering decision on players often leads them to abandon a game early. With Game Center, everyone already has a username, so no worries! Achievements are still good for encouraging player retention as well. Game Center certainly still serves a purpose for many developers.

That leads to Apple’s decision to relegate Game Center to the background of the iPhone. The app wasn’t necessary anymore. It was instrumental in getting everyone on the service at launch, but players don’t need to go directly into the app. They simply go to the leaderboards or achievement list from the game they’re playing. It’s a more logical sequence for most users. Similarly, Apple doesn’t have an iCloud app. Its functionality only presents itself when needed. I think few people would argue that Apple is phasing out iCloud. After watching the aftermath of the Game Center change, I don’t think Apple is phasing out Game Center either. They just gave it the iCloud treatment.