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Analysis: The iPad - Good For Gaming?
Analysis: The iPad - Good For Gaming? Exclusive
January 27, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

January 27, 2010 | By Christian Nutt
More: Exclusive

[In this in-depth analysis, Gamasutra's Christian Nutt, fresh from Apple's high-profile iPad unveiling in San Francisco, takes time to ponder the future of the versatile tablet device as a gaming platform.]

In San Francisco this morning, I attended the unveiling of Apple's iPad device. It's funny. Eavesdropping on the crowd and conversing with other journalists led me to believe that everybody who wasn't excessively excited about the announcement before it even came was already a bit bored with the idea of an Apple tablet. The hype cycle with which everybody in the video game industry is already very familiar was demonstrated perfectly by 9:30 AM.

During the presentation, Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, made great hay of the fact that Apple is now primarily a mobile devices company. "By revenue, Apple is the largest mobile devices company in the world. Apple is a mobile devices company. That's what we do," he said. Most of the computers it sells are laptops, the iPhone is tremendously popular, and the iPod is a continuing success for the company.

He boasted that the company is now a bigger mobile devices company than Sony, Samsung, or Nokia. And the iPad slots into Apple's continuing emphasis on this transformation of the marketplace -- and may even help drive it.

The iPad, to oversimplify, is an extremely large iPod Touch, equipped with a 9.7-inch screen at 1024x768 resolution. It seems easy to believe that it will be a great web device and a nice e-book reader -- two of its primary functions -- and do well with photos and video. Like all of Apple's devices, it feels nice in your hands and looks nice in a shop window.

The Games Question

But how will it be for games? Well, there are two angles to consider here.

One is the platform's capabilities. The Apple A4 processor in the device runs at 1 GHz, up from the reported 600 MHz processor in the iPod 3GS, the fastest device in Apple's mobile device family until now. It has a big, beautiful screen, which is also a multitouch surface. And although Apple's official specs page simply lists "accelerometer," an Apple representative at the event told me the device's accelerometer will be able to detect tilting on both the X and Y axes, unlike the iPhone, unlocking true 3D control as a possibility, but this capability was not demonstrated.

There is no question that this will be a more satisfying and possibly much more capable device for gaming than the iPhone and iPod Touch. You can see much more, and with a bigger multitouch window and increased accelerometer capabilities, you can control it much more easily. As demoed by Gameloft, which showed off a work-in-progress iPad version of its shooter N.O.V.A., the increased screen size will allow for increased configurability. Gameloft has added a mini-map to its game, and the position of on-screen controls was configurable in a way that likely wouldn't be worth the bother on iPhone.

The other angle, of course, is that the iPad is as closed a platform as the iPhone is. Inevitable jailbreaking aside -- and what developer benefits from that? -- it's worth remembering that you'll be limited to Apple's SDK and iTunes delivery mechanism, as with its other mobile devices. A touch-based Mac this is not. In this sense, it really is a big iPod.

This seems peculiar on a device that's so close to an actual computer -- Apple demoed iWork, including its Pages word processing software, on the device this morning. You can output to a monitor or hook up a keyboard. But the user ultimately doesn't have control over his or her device in the same way he or she would with a laptop, and everything will flow through iTunes when it comes to syncing with a PC or Mac.

So now you know where you stand, developers: the same place you already were, more or less. As always, Apple is the gatekeeper.

What Will Happen with the Software Market?

It's obvious that, at least at launch, most developers are going to worry about making iPad-native versions of existing apps. Sure, "most" iPhone apps are compatible with the device out of the box, but while they're totally playable, they don't benefit much from being blown up to two times their native resolution. The benefit here is that the Apple fanatics who buy this thing at launch will already have access to their existing software libraries on their new device, which may reassure some purchase decisions.

But the retrofit mania will happen mostly because it won't make sense for many developers, particularly cash-strapped indies, to pour resources into iPad-native games when its future is less obviously bright than the iPhone's was. And indies won't be the only ones doing this. After demoing a version of iPhone Need for Speed Shift, quickly retrofitted for iPad, EA's Travis Boatman said, "We're going to be able to bring all of our other EA games from the App Store to this device in no time."

Much more so than at the original App Store launch, it's going to be exceedingly difficult to stand out from day one -- unless you can come up with a tremendously original idea, execute on it well, and market it aggressively.

If you do come up with that great new idea, "we're going to put it front and center" on the App Store, promises Apple's SVP of iPhone software, Scott Forstall. That's a promise you can rely on. Apple routinely features strong software on the App Store and, more importantly, makes the choices itself, based on quality, without ad buys coming into the picture.

But the slots are so limited and the process so opaque that you can't rely on it happening to you. The iPad will be as big a crap shoot for developers as the iPhone is. Forstall promised "another goldrush" when the iPad launches. But that promise, rather than exciting them, might make most developers a little queasy.

Who's Going to Be There?

Jobs calls iPad "a truly magical and revolutionary product." The realists, or the cynical, call it an overgrown iPod Touch. Whatever it is, the audience -- its size and its makeup -- will be integral to its appeal as a game platform. The capabilities are obviously there, and with such a big screen that's so easy to control, the ability to deliver rich and robust game experiences becomes immediately obvious. There's Unity and even Unreal Engine for the device, let's not forget, among other technologies that can help deliver high-quality experiences.

But will those who buy the iPad do so to read the New York Times during their frequent business trips -- people who want a Kindle, but better? Or will they be the same kind of diverse crowd that has the iPhone?

There seems to be a possibility that this is a device that can simplify computing, making it less confusing, more accessible, and more appealing to a wide audience. It's certainly going to be a great device for browsing Facebook, particularly as it's hard to imagine that the company won't launch a custom iPad app day one. (Still, Facebook games might not benefit -- the demo device, like iPhone, didn't do Flash.)

If that happens, this might appeal to entirely new consumers: people who just want the web and a bit more, delivered in the most convenient way possible. Who can't stand a soft keyboard for only 140 characters? After all, it's been reported that the iPhone is already gaining traction as a primary internet device for many, as surprising as that might sound to anyone who's seated in front of a PC right now.

Thanks to the iPhone and iPod Touch, says Jobs, "There are over 75 million people that already know how to use the iPad." That may be true, but will they want to use the iPad? Can they afford the iPad? For many, gaming is still incidental to the primary telephony and browsing functions of the iPhone. What's the primary function of the iPad? When that gets defined -- and marketing is part of that, so Apple's got to take point here -- that will help us know whether gaming will have a big place on this new device.

It's hard to suggest to developers to take a "wait and see" approach when the clock is always ticking on time and money, particularly for indies. There's no doubt that there's a killer app to be made, and a ton of competition out there who will be trying to make it.

At the same time, the device's future seems a lot murkier than the iPhone or iPod. The iPhone made smartphones essential to a huge number of people, and gaming came along for the ride -- and got so compelling Apple realized it would help drive the device into more hands. It's hard to think of the iPad as "essential" to anybody right now. But there's a chance it may catch the wave of a new audience that doesn't want a full-fledged PC. If ever a device had that chance, it may be this one. And those people, like any, will certainly want a chance to play games.

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Lo Pan
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No Flash and no multitasking are BIG negatives. I have to think for any game, running at the native resolution, it would be great...until the battery is drained after thirty minutes of play. :-)

Good initial step and surprising cheap price point.

Andrew Headley
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I'm one of the people that loves to get excited about big announcements by any company, and I found myself excited at first but lost interest quickly as the Apple Show went on. I don't see the iPad revolutionizing the game industry in its current form, but my mind goes wild thinking of the possibilities of handheld gaming given the size, weight, price point and quality design.

I can see myself playing a game of Civilization, Starcraft, or C&C on iPad (games I would usually stay away from on the current handhelds given screen size). That would definitely kill time on a long plane ride.

Yasuhiro Noguchi
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The biggest problem is the App Store economics. The challenge will be to convince users to pay more than $0.99 for a gameplay experience that's tailored to the iPad.

Matt Diamond
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This tablet does almost everything that my kids and wife use the family Mac and iPod Touch for, and does most of those tasks better. It doesn't do a whole lot more than that. The price is fair, I think.

As Jobs pointed out, lots of people are already on the app store buying apps and music. I don't know if this device brings more people to the App Store who weren't already there, but I don't think it needs to.

I think having iPad-only features in your game will be more than enough excuse for people to raise the price of their game compared to the iPhone version. I also expect to see companies selling 99 cent iPhone apps while charging more for the higher resolution version (maybe making that upgrade available for in-app purchase.)

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Alex Covic
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The impression Steve Jobs was giving to the press in the room, and the consumers outside that room:

"... the iPad is the most advanced piece of technology" - not once, not twice, but many times said, during the presentation. They did not show Bejeweled, PopCap or Zynga games, but 3D-Engine graphics games.

They deceit deliberately? Why?

What I am trying to get at - besides the irony, that after avoiding iPhone/iPod as video game platforms for as long as they exist - it has become one of the most profitable parts of their app-store - is how much of a true/legit video game platform is this "iPad" going to be?

Fingergaming is fine within it's limits. The limits are even a new (old) way to be creative as a game developer and try to figure out how to develop awesome little games (see the iPhone). Yet, when it comes to high resolutions and more cpu-power, what can we really expect with a "game console" that has no real controls?

And then, there is the issue of battery life. If I have heard correctly they claim up to 10 hours. Really? How long can you play a 3D-engine powered full videochip accelerated, cpu/ram consuming game on such a device, really? Not very long would be my answer. Why bother? Well, obviously some game publishers bother a lot.

It's going to be interesting to watch how this will develop. If you will develop for it or not.

Yasuhiro Noguchi
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@Dave Smith

I think netbooks represent lots of compromises and usability issues that make their existence questionable. After my experience with an eee PC, I've given up on them. Sure, they may be cheap, but they really offer no advantages in terms of functionality for me. I'd rather use a conventional laptop that's light and thin.

Regarding the control issue for gaming, I would think that smart developers will opt to not use accelerometer based controls for iPad games. I find iPhone games with accelerometer controls hard to play and stay away from them. While virtual touch controls aren't perfect, they would probably work very well for certain types of games on the iPad.

John Petersen
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I have a feeling it's going to flop... But that could be a good thing, because i'm usually wrong.

Thomas Nocera
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I wonder if the screen size is large enough for immersive 3D games?

Erwin Coumans
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I think the iPad is a great product for web browsing, reading and playing games in the lazy chair.

It is a relief not having to waste time with system administration, virus scanners and security issues,

the app store is a good thing for developers.

Thomas Nocera
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What if Apple could tie 2 of these screens together so it could be held like a book or be used like a laptop with the touchscreen keypad on the bottom screen with game controls?

Jay Martinez
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If we're supposed to lug this expensive thing around, you HAVE to take of the handcuffs.. this thing needs to be a personal computer with a multi-touch display -- that's what we are all trying to think of it as anyway, and its what anyone who buys it is going to desperately try and use it as regardless of how it's marketed!

Chris Melby
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Handcuffs are a good descriptor.

The iPad should not be as restrictive as my 2G Touch, especially for its size and supposed power. If and when it supports the same apps and plug-ins that I can run under the desktop version OS X, I'll buy one.

Erwin Coumans
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@ Chris and Jay

The iPad should be very easy and worry-free to use, just like a e-book reader or a gaming console. I think the iPad is less restrictive than an e-book reader and many gaming consoles (that might even have more power)

Those are golden handcuffs, until some 'hero' pirates make it easier to steal games. The App Store will help distributing/selling games more developer-friendly than on the Mac OS X desktop (even easier than digital distribution through Steam on PC). The quality of games for iPad will be likely better than iPhone, because of better hardware.

Chris Roth
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My concern is programing a GUI controller into this mammoth device. It would be like holding a 10" NES controller. I'm still excited about the possibilities and challenges this will bring.

tito santana
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"There's Unity and even Unreal Engine for the device... "

And let's not Forget ShiVa 3D, that create iPhone and soon Android on the same platform. StoneTrip (creator of ShiVa) created iBall that was downloaded 850 000 times.

Tom Newman
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As long as developers are creating specifically for the iPad interface it should be fine. With the iPhone, the console style games with the virtual joystick feel sandwiched onto the system, where as the games you can play with one finger (of which there are also many console genres represented) feel natural for the platform. The iPad opens the door to many NEW possibilities. Let's see these exploited, and not just more of the same ports.

Marco Devarez
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I think gaming on the iphone/ipod touch grew organically/naturally whereas the ipad seems to want to force it... and i have no crystal ball to say whether it will succeed or not, but it seems to me that force and creativity for the most part tend to be mutually exclusive.

Joe Woynillowicz
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Sure people will port iPhone games and continue to build those types of games for this device but as mentioned above I think there are a lot of really cool possibilities and *outside* of single player games. One reason the Wii has been such a hit is getting everybody playing so what if you did this on the iPad?

I think the potential for board game type of games that instead of being a flat board but really interactive environments could be really cool, even something as simple as chess where you have integrated score, counter, and could have some really cool animations if you wanted to do a battle chess type of thing.

As long as consumers start buying this device I really see a lot of potential in really different types of games.

R Hawley
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Once the battery runs out, it turns into the iTray.

The hardware, which on the surface is iPhonezilla, shares the same infrastructure. As a content delivery system it's better for the sake of being bigger.

Only potential downside I can see is what we saw with the XBOX360 and PS3, higher resolutions demanding higher-production values which escalate to the point where it cripples margins and kills studios. But I don't see that as a real danger here. Not yet anyhow.

The only aspect of this device I get excited about is business related, as a mobile interface to web applications or augmented reality, and not related to games at all. But the offshoot of these products will be a generation of users as familiar with touch interfaces as we are with the mouse. That will change things in the future for all of us and those to come.

Michael Vassiliadis
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This must be the most useless and overpriced gadget ever produced. No multitasking, no flash, no usb, no card reader, weak CPU/GPU, to big to carry around, no means of cover/protection, no GPS, extremely limiting mini-SIM 3G interface, a joke of a OS. And all that for double the price tag of a netbook (or even a cheap laptop) that does all of the above plus more.

What a joke.

Luke Mazza
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I have to agree with Michael on all his points and I'd like to ad one more. How the hell do you comfortably hold this thing while using it? Sure, if you're curled in an easy chair you might be able to use your knees in some way but lets face it, the stand will only work in a few instances. Otherwise, you'll be forced to have it facing straight up or at you at the cost of losing a hand for controls and your arm getting tired. Ergonomics much?

The pompous use of the word magical is really irritating as well. This isn't magical, you made a large iTouch that doesn't even meet the specs of a decent netbook.

Tomasz Przywara
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My, it's a giant version of the iphone! However, it won't fit in my pocket...

Caleb Garner
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that's a good point.. no card reader? so you can't put photos from a camera on this directly? Yea i appreciate what they are making and I'm sure it does what it does well, but yea it's really kind of niche.

However apple has been going strong for awhile so i think they might be able to market it well enough that people will buy first / ask questions later... look at the ipod/itunes. they are not the best mp3 players/management system on the market IMHO, but people just get them because it's what everyone else uses