Although gaming is extremely popular on the iPhone and iPod Touch, developers and players alike have criticized the platform for its lack of an all-encompassing social gaming network that would make it easier for friends to play together and share information about hot new games.

Apple has addressed the issue with Game Center, a social gaming network for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad that was announced at the company’s press conference today in Cupertino, California.

Game Center, which goes live this summer, will include many of the features of Microsoft’s Xbox Live, including the ability for players to invite friends into a game, send games to friends as gifts, start a multiplayer game through matchmaking, earn and compare achievements, and compare high scores through online leaderboards.

According to GamesBeat, the lack of a social platform for iPhone/iPod Touch has definitely hurt sales when compared to games on inherently social platforms like Facebook, where it’s much easier for games to spread virally and through word of mouth. By contrast, with so many iPhone apps cluttering the App Store, the discovery of new iPhone games can seem “like finding a needle in a haystack.”

The big question of course is how Apple’s offering will impact or compare to existing iPhone social game networks such as Scoreloop, ngmoco’s Plus+, and Aurora Feint’s OpenFeint. GamesBeat points out that because Apple’s Game Center will come built into every iPhone and iPad, Apple will have a big advantage pushing Game Center over existing social game networks. As always, though, it will come down to features and usability.