And lo, The Steve descended the mountain with the Word of the Lord still heavy upon him. Thus he spread his hands and calmed the roiling waters of commerce, and spaketh in tones of majesty to the huddled masses yearning to be freed from the burden of their cash. “Behold, ” intoned The Steve, “I bring you revolutionary magic, a magic revolution, more magic, more revolution. And I say unto you, in three score days thou will find within the holy temple of the golden apple a device that is like an iPhone only bigger and phoneless, and which resembleth the Book of Mac but smaller and less powerful, and which shall combat the wiles of the evil Kindleites by charging the people more to read. Thy pockets will be barren even as the Ark of the Apple Covenant is filled unto bursting with the Wealth of Nations. And the world shall be unchanged.” So sayeth The Steve. And the masses fell to warring among themselves.
OK, leaving aside the fact that I still can’t say the word “iPad” with a straight face (what the hell was The Steve thinking?), the product’s release schedule colors Apple’s generally high level of marketing savvy with just a hint of desperation. In releasing the SDK yesterday but not making the device itself available for 60 days (and then only making the crappiest version available) Apple is tacitly acknowledging that while The Steve may be convinced that this device is “magical” and “revolutionary” at the moment it appears to be anything but. Wishing will not make it so, but the work of some canny app developers just might.
Most of the touted uses of the iPad are already served adequately by existing software applications (and on other devices). Apple will in all likelihood need some breakthrough application that really takes advantage of the size and scale of the device (since no significant new functionality was demonstrated) to allow people to do something that they couldn’t do before. Alternatively, it will need to allow people to do something they could do before but much more efficiently. Note: much more efficiently. I have a hard time seeing how anyone will part with the amount of money needed to get the version with reasonable storage and connectivity if it only does some things a little better than is possible at the moment.
With all that in mind I’m interested in the possibilities of the iPad as a gaming platform. There was a time, not that long ago, when to say the words “Apple” and “Gaming” in the same sentence was to invite outright ridicule. That changed, to some degree, with the introduction of the Touch and the iPhone. Coupled with the convenience of the App Store, Apple devices have carved out quite a niche for themselves in the mobile gaming market. There are some great games available for the platform, and I’m continually impressed with the range. Both the Touch and the iPhone screens support games with some quite impressive graphics; more interestingly, the limited processing resources are encouraging a degree of stylistic innovation that is all but dead on the console and PC (witness the successful games like StickBo that employ a deliberately childish look to create an engaging, if relatively predictable game).
However, it is still the case that to say the words “Apple” and “Serious Gaming” in the same sentence is to invite outright ridicule. I don’t want to appear to be bashing mobile games; I realize that it is an important growth area in gaming, its a valuable arena for wannabe game developers to cut their teeth (and where indie projects at the moment have a greater chance of flourishing than they do for any other platform), and greater things may well lie ahead in the mobile arena (the fact that some gamers at least are clamoring for longer games, games with multiplayer, and so on suggests that mobile games may be starting to be seen as destinations rather than diversions: activities in their own right rather than a distraction from other activities). However, there is a huge difference in scale, scope, complexity and opportunities for player immersion between consoles and pcs on the one hand and mobile devices on the other.
Where might the iPad fit into this? I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts on this, since I don’t have a programming background. For now, I want to suggest a couple of problem areas that I see at the moment, and to offer a suggestion for a gaming niche that the iPad could conceivably fill.
1) Battery Life: Apple is suggesting 10 hours, which on the face of it seems more than adequate for the heaviest gaming session. However, nobody has, naturally, been able to verify that claim, and Apple’s batteries in other devices have shown a remarkable tendency to start off with impressive times only to erode into mediocrity quite quickly. How the device might perform under a gaming load (which can easily be a larger power suck than simply watching a video) remains to be seen.
2) The Processor: From what I’ve heard, the iPad is based on a proprietary processor developed in-house by Apple. I don’t know the reason behind such a decision. I’m not sure whether game development especially benefits from having such an important component developed, tested, and implemented on such a small scale. Yes, small scale. Lots of iPads will undoubtedly (OK, perhaps) be sold. But compared with the number of Intel, AMD and Motorola processors out there the number will be tiny. Volume means lots of performance and troubleshooting data, which Apple will lack. I’m not a developer, so I’d appreciate some more technical expertise here.
3) The OS: This OS has proven itself more than capable of handling the demands placed on it by small mobile platforms. But will it scale up? Again, I know next to nothing about app development. But I think it is important to ask whether or not the kind of games we see on the iPhone and Touch are limited by the scale of the device or the scope of the OS. If it is the latter, then I don’t see the point of playing the same kinds of things that I can play on my iPhone only bigger (and as several people at the launch noted, when it came to the games being demoed on the iPad, bigger didn’t seem to translate into better-looking; that, of course, may simply reflect the lack of games developed for the large screen’s native resolution). Are people really going to shell out $600-$800 dollars for a larger but blurrier Touch?
If the iPad is going to bring anything new to gaming, it is going to have to exploit the increased amount of real estate that is now available to pinch swipe and tap. Now this is a complete fantasy, but I would love to see the iPad develop as a device for playing MMORPGs.
Think about it. One of the notable characteristics of MMORPGs is that they are extremely complex logistical environments. Multiple areas of the screen are devoted to discrete task sets: player stats, abilities, tactical awareness displays, inventory management, maps, progress indicators and so on. Clicking on either these areas or using hotkeys brings up secondary and sometimes tertiary screens that allow access to more detailed functionality. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to deal with all of that via the magic of the touch-screen interface? Swishing and swiping your UI elements around a la Minority Report? And coupling all of that with accelerometer enabled movement around the game world? The interface might even be able to handle some essential combat dynamics in interesting ways.
Moreover, what this would do is take one of the most successful gaming sectors and make it truly mobile and casual. Instead of having to haul a laptop around with you if you wanted to game on the go, you find yourself with an hour to spare, so you kick back in your office, the park, your coffee shop, next to your sleeping SO late at night, and throw yourself into your online world of choice.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this is likely, because The Steve seems to be thinking about this device in a rather strange way. He seems to be thinking: what kinds of things that are currently being done by other devices, can I get this device to do? This line of thinking, unfortunately, pits him against his own brilliance. He’s already created several jack-of-all-trades devices that work really, really well.
A better line of reasoning would have been: what kinds of activities are people really excited about at the moment, but which are not well-served by a mobile environment? The obvious answer to that is a) social networking (Facebooking on your iPhone is great, but it is also limited, sometimes a pain, and on neither your phone or your PC is it the feature-rich experience it could be), and b) massively multiplayer online gaming. Hey, why don’t I design a device that opens up those worlds with the same kind of dazzling sense of possibility that greeted people when we transitioned from black and white film to color? Bush the Senior to Clinton? The PC to the Mac?
Now that would be magical and revolutionary.