The iPad as Gaming Device?

Posted: January 28, 2010 by Twitchdoctor in game design, Game Platforms
Tags: , , , ,

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?

The Opportunity

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.

The Reality

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.

  1. liebke says:

    I don’t think you can judge the potential of the iPad based primarily on its attributes as a gaming platform anymore than you can judge the iPhone on such criteria. The iPhone is an outstanding incidental gaming platform, especially since it’s a device you carry most everywhere, but stripped of its other functionality and judge as a dedicated gaming device, meh.

    The iPad is the same, but the question is, what is its essential functionality? Well, for me it’s simple. I was going to purchase a Kindle, but now I’ll get the iPad, easy choice. $250 more than the similarly sized Kindle, and a lot more functionality. True the battery won’t last for weeks like a Kindle’s, but that’s like choosing a Toyota Prius over a Jetpack because the mileage is better. The iPad has a high resolution color screen, a full-fledge browser (minus Flash), a proper email client, itunes, etc.

    I might even have considered purchasing it for $500 just as an internet tablet without its other capabilities, but throw in an ebook reader (one that I assume will also have a dedicated Kindle app, like the iPhone does) and a decent gaming platform, and you’ve got a something interesting.

    Much of the negative reaction to the iPad seems to originate from those judging it as a general purpose computing device, which it most definitely is not. Its purpose is clearly not the same as that of a notebook computer or a general purpose tablet computer, and this fact is the only thing that may save it from the latter’s fate as an unsuccessful novelty act. We’ll see.

  2. Twitchdoctor says:

    I agree that it is not fair to judge the iPad’s potential in relation to its gaming potential. Well, at least not entirely fair. And while the iPhone may not be quite the point of comparison, the Touch certainly is, since that is marketed and used by many as a dedicated gaming platform/music player (and really they are linked since so many of the mobile games draw from your own music library).

    My point about the failure to conceive of the iPad as a really innovative gaming platform (and the failure to envisage it as a really innovative social networking device) was merely to point out that it seems indicative of a rather uncharacteristic failure of vision on Apple’s part. This device just doesn’t look like a game changer in the way that the iPhone instantly looked like a game changer. There is no “wow” factor here (and, as I pointed out, unfortunately no “WoW” factor either!).

    I think your question–what is its essential functionality–is a great one, and frankly its one that I still don’t know how to answer based on what I’ve seen and heard. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the negative reactions on people judging it as a general purpose computing device, because this was in fact how The Steve himself pitched the device. This thing was demoed as music player, game machine, e-book reader, and then as a work productivity machine (with the Keynote demo), and The Steve himself made repeated comparisons to notebook computers. So if it comes down to it, I already have two great multipurpose devices–and iPhone and a laptop. If you are going to try and sell me yet another multipurpose device it had better make my coffee, walk my dog and get me a date with Catherine Bell as well.

    The one “wow” element with the iPad is the deal that Apple seems to have signed with Satan in the form of several major book publishers where the publishers get to set whatever price they want for their e-books. Amazon’s model put a cap on the unrestrained greed of publishers in this area, but Apple has unleashed the hounds. It is a move I don’t pretend to understand since it smacks of desperation (we’ll do anything to get some dedicated content for our e-reader that doesn’t have Kindle splashed all over it). Think how this compares with the launching of iTunes. What has happened here is analogous to Apple saying back then, “Hey, we’ve decided that in order to persuade some of you out there that paying for music delivered via the Internet is a good idea, and to persuade others to abandon their CDs in favor of the wonderful world of mp3s, we are going to allow record companies to charge twice as much as the cost of the CDs you’ve been used to.” Its unconscionable, IMNSHO.

    Whether the e-book reader is enough to sell this thing is, as you say, something we’ll need to watch how it plays out. The fact that the screen is “color” and “high-res” may be enough to suck some people in. But there’s a reason why those people who are in the business of making *dedicated* e-book readers haven’t gone with color. You simply can’t read a book comfortably for hours without eye-strain on a LCD screen, even a high res one. So unless there is some amazing new technology embedded in the iPad screen (and no one so far has said that there is) it will allow people to purchase amazing, dazzling, full-color books–that they then won’t be able to read for very long.

    • liebke says:

      I think we have different ideas of what general purpose computing is. If I don’t have a compiler and I can’t do data analysis on it, it ain’t general purpose.

      The iPad is just a bit more general purpose than an iPod Touch, and nothing in the presentation indicated otherwise. The notebook comparisons I heard were in terms of web browsing, emailing, and keyboard size.

      Yes, it looks like Apple’s ebooks are going to be more expensive than Amazon’s, luckily you should be able to use a Kindle app on the iPad, and buy all your books from Amazon.

      I don’t think Apple was in the same position, in terms of licensing books, as they were with music. Nearly all digital music was pirated before iTunes music store made it cheap and convenient enough to actually purchase. Books don’t have this problem. And, as you said, they needed to get the publishing houses on board.

      As to display technology, there are certainly benefits to eInk in terms of long reading sessions, but I spend somewhere around 80% of my waking hours reading a high resolution LCD screen, not a problem (except perhaps in terms of mental health, but that’s another problem entirely :). The idea of eInk is interesting but it may end up being a technological dead end.

      As far as the iPad being a game changer or not, who knows? I say it’s a bit premature to judge it an “uncharacteristic failure of vision on Apple’s part.” This is the same reaction the iPod received when announced (I remember it well), and to a much lesser extent the iPhone.

      Perhaps you should wait until it’s released, or until you’ve used one, before writing its epitaph I recall you were cynical of the iPhone as well, and now you’re an obsessive iPhone user :-).

      I’ve been an Apple fanboy for a long time, and have watch the rollout of many of their products, from announcement to end-of-life, and there is always a bit of let down after the product announcement due to insane expectations brought on by clueless predictions.

      I have spent years training myself to dismiss pre-hype and have no expectations (George Lucas really helped me learn this lesson), and have usually been pleasantly surprised.

      • Twitchdoctor says:

        Hey, for the record I always thought the iPhone was a pretty cool idea, and when I saw one I thought it was an amazing piece of kit (magical and revolutionary). What I was dismissive of (and still am) was cellphones in general. And, no surprise, I tend to use the iPhone as a phone hardly at all. 🙂

        What you say about EInk may well be true; I’ve been thinking for a while that there is a strong possibility it will join a long catalog of technologies that were technically superior but failed in the face of superior marketing and the lure of efficiency and convenience (betamax and laserdiscs spring to mind). People love to think that technology progress is all in the direction of evolution toward the most advanced tech, but it’s usually been a big mistake to bet against people’s (misplaced, but no less powerful for all that) belief in convenience.

  3. Hey! Great article. I agree with you about “The Steve” pitting himself against his own brilliance, and I think MMO’s on the iPad is actually a sweet idea.. I had considered the possibility of playing something like WoW before on the iPhone, but the fact is the screen is simply too small for something like that. Anyway, check out my article about iPad gaming if you want:

  4. Twitchdoctor says:

    It isn’t really related to the issue of the iPad as gaming device, but in a development that was completely to be expected, the fact that consumers now have greater “choice” in e-readers means that they will soon have less choice about whether to pay more for their e-books. The first round of this battle was fought out over the weekend between Amazon and Macmillan, as described in an overview from Computer World. Unsurprisingly, we lost.

    Publishers have been bleating about Amazon’s price policy being “unsustainable” and “ruinous” for some time, and I’m honestly surprised that they have been able to get away with such claims. Ruinous is paying exorbitant advances to celebrity authors, for example. Publishers are in exactly the same position as record companies: seeing their role as gatekeeper being undermined by a proliferation of new access channels and feeling the strain of having one foot each side of the barbed wire fence of a changing promotion and distribution model. It is only the fact that we still reflexively attribute a degree of cultural authority to book publishers that pop music still lacks, that prevents their actions from being seen as the same blend of grasping greed and self-mutilating shortsightedness that characterize the actions of the RIAA.

    Some other time I’ll tell you all what I really think! 😀

  5. […] the iPad was announced earlier this year I wrote a blog entry that was generally sceptical of the device’s overall potential to revolutionize anything; […]

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