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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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