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Last Wednesday Apple rolled out iOS 4.1 to compatible devices including iPhone 4. Included in the update was Game Center, Apple's entry into the Social Gaming fracas which was previewed back in April but not really detailed to the general public until the company's music-focused event two weeks ago. But now Game Center's live. So what is it?

When I updated my iPhone to 4.1, the first thing I did was launch Game Center, set up an account, and click the "Find Game Center Games" button. I was taken to a page on the App Store listing GC compatible games. Being not only cheap but also highly susceptible to mass marketing that seeps into my subconscious without my realizing it, I downloaded FarmVille, Zynga's free*, massively popular social game that's apparently addictive, genius, a total ripoff of some other farm game that came first, and part of the reason so many people spend all day on Facebook.

Like so many popular social games, FarmVille is "free" to play but chock full of opportunities to spend real money on virtual goods.

I spent last Thursday, Friday and the weekend getting entirely addicted to FarmVille and also downloading City Story, another free simulation game that for my money is pretty much the same thing as FarmVille, just set in a city and devoid of Facebook integration. City Story also integrates with Game Center.

Over the course of the past four days, Game Center has slowly come online, shored itself up, and started to offer a peek into its own future. Though the app/ecosystem has officially launched, I'd liken it more to a "soft launch" than a full on shipping product at this point. FarmVille currently shows up when I load Game Center, but City Story does not. Some of the time when I launch FarmVille I get a "Welcome Back, nk126" Game Center message briefly overlaid at the top of the game screen, sometimes I don't. Once I got the message but it never faded away, rendering the game semi-unplayable because it was blocking some important bits of in-game info. And so on.

As for the Center itself, right now there's not a ton to it. Game Center will match you against an opponent for some head-to-head play, and the leaderboards are pretty nicely implemented, but you have to manually add friends, whereas competing (and far more mature) services like OpenFeint allow for importing of contacts from Facebook and Twitter. 

Granted, if I was playing games like WordsWorth that lend themselves more readily to one-on-one online play, I might be getting a little more out of Game Center already. So maybe I'll do that. Once I kick this farming addiction. I know, I know, I'm super lame. I get that. I'm just not yet at the point of being over it. But as it is, what I find interesting is that Apple isn't making a ton of noise about Game Center, but rather quietly deploying and ramping it up, likely while supporting big-time developers in their efforts to update popular titles with GC compatibility. 

One would imagine we'll see a big Game Center push once the new iPod Touches hit store shelves and the holiday shopping season kicks into gear. In the meantime, Game Center is up and sorta running but still no match for OpenFeint or Plus +. Thing is, while those platforms have maturity and adoption on their side, Apple has the insanely popular App Store ecosystem on its side. It's easy to imagine a near-term world where game developers would literally be fools not to develop with GC in mind given the sheer volume of compatible, connected iOS devices (and their gaming owners) already out in the field. 

Whether or not Apple can make Game Center a compelling, innovative, and stable social gaming platform - or, if "stable" is enough on its own - remains to be seen. Expect Game Center to slowly fill out and ramp up with games and gamers alike over the coming months.

Meantime look for me ("nk126") on Game Center and hit us up in the comments with your experiences using GC or a competing platform like OpenFeint on your mobile device!

 


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