Rant Face-Off: Gaming on the iPad

When Apple invited writers from several popular video-game sites to attend the recent unveiling of the iPad, it led many gaming enthusiasts to wonder what Apple had up their collective sleeves - were they intending to position the new device as a serious competitor in the handheld console market?

The games featured on stage at the media event didn't leave a whole lot to be excited about. Both EA and Gameloft made it clear they had very little time with the iPad SDK, and subsequently, the titles featured were not polished experiences - mainly demo material.

Ultimately, the iPad reveal has split gamers down the middle - with some believing that, in terms of gaming, the iPad is little more than a bigger version of the iPod Touch, while others might maintain that, though we haven't seen a great implementation of gaming on the iPad yet - the device itself is not lacking in game-related potential.

In an effort to represent both sides of the conversation, we've asked two of our writers to share their game-related impressions of the iPad - as well as what they think is in store for the future of the device in this particular industry.

Make sure to check out both sides of the debate - then share your thoughts in the comments.

Jason Weissman - "The iPad is a bigger, less portable, iPhone that will continue to provide casual gamers with quick puzzle-like titles but won't capture a meaningful chunk of the market space."

After seeing Apple’s unfortunately-named iPad unveiled last week, I was unsure as to why this device was necessary in the marketplace. The iPad is simply a super-sized iPod Touch. Granted, the device has improved specs over the current iPhone/iPod Touch technologies, but who exactly was thinking, “if only the iPod Touch was bigger and less portable...that would be something!” Plus, netbooks, with all of their deficiencies, still seem to be a better overall value and appear to have much more functionality.  In fairness, the iPad did appear to be a very cool e-book reader...albeit, a very expensive e-book reader. But besides Apple fanboys, I could not figure out to whom this device would appeal.

Since the iPad’s operating system is based upon the iPhone OS, I assumed that the iPad would have its share of time-killer, simplistic, casual games. However, Apple has gone one step further and has been touting the iPad as a new gaming platform that would appeal to hardcore gamers as well. I know Apple and gaming have always been synonymous (har-har), but I have my doubts that the iPad will ever claim a significant share of the hardcore gaming marketplace, whether it be mobile or otherwise.

To date, the games on the iPhone and iPod Touch have mostly targeted the casual-gamer crowd. As a business model, this has proven to be very successful, but no must-have title has been developed for the hardcore market. Sure, there have been poor facsimiles of Modern Warfare or Mass Effect games on the iPhone, but those were just cash tie-ins. The sci-fi shooter N.O.V.A. is a quality mobile title, but no one would argue that it is in competition with console first-person shooters or that it controls as well. The most successful games on the iPhone/iPod Touch platforms have been puzzle games, racers, and strategy titles. That’s great for those who do not normally play games, but for the hardcore crowd, these titles don’t provide the same experience that is available elsewhere.

In my opinion, the iPhone OS has been limited because of its primary interface. Touchscreen-control schemes tend to be overly simplistic, very unwieldy, and do not offer tactile feedback, which makes controlling the onscreen action very imprecise. The iPad has the same limitation and does not provide an option for a mouse or controller. There is an accelerometer that can be put to good use in racing games and some puzzle games, but it isn’t as useful when playing a shooter, RPG, or adventure game. Even with racers, gamers are going to tire quickly while holding a 1.5 pound device up in the air for extended sessions in order to steer a car.

Putting aside my hardcore gamer’s concerns, the iPad will not become a successful gaming platform because of one key reason: price. The cheapest model is $499 and it only offers 16 GB of memory.  A gamer could buy a 120 GB Playstation 3 for $299. Granted, the PS3 is not a mobile device, but is the mainstream gamer going to spend $200 more for a device that is inferior? And remember when the Playstation 3 had a $499 price point? Gamers who were predisposed to wanting the PS3 stayed away in droves because the cost was too high. Are they going to pay that price for an untested device from a company that has a checkered gaming past?

For those who are truly seeking a mobile gaming experience, the Nintendo DS, which retails for only $169.99, is a vastly superior platform with an incredible library of software that the iPad will never match. If the DS doesn’t appeal to you, because of its limited graphics, then the Sony PSP is still a better option than the iPad. Plus, you can surf the internet on your PSP and, unlike the iPad, you’ll actually be able to access some flash websites.

If the iPad cannot quickly develop a large install base, the big-name developers will never take the platform seriously. Instead, you will continue to see causal gaming fare and dumbed-down versions of big titles. That’s likely why Nintendo President Satoru Iwata’s scoffed that the iPad “was a bigger iPod Touch” and he showed little concern about this new entry into the mobile-gaming world.  Perhaps Apple will rethink the iPad 2.0 with these concerns in mind, or find a way to at least lower the price of the device. But for now, the iPad’s gaming potential seems very limited.

Ben Kendrick - "The iPad will offer some of the industry's most innovative gameplay experiences and be a platform of choice for creative developers."

My initial reaction to the iPad was similar to many other people's: sure this thing is cool, and of course I want one, but it's not a piece of hardware that can actually deliver something I haven't seen before.

That said, I won't simply dismiss the device as a larger version of the iPhone because it's an unfair comparison - Apple has truly put together a third tier product. It has a number of uses that neither a laptop or smart-phone could adequately satisfy and whether you think it's useless or not probably depends on your needs and interests.

Since you're reading this, video-entertainment is likely one of those such interests. Admittedly, the stage-demos for Need for Speed: Shift as well as Nova left a lot to be desired.

More than anything else, the take-aways were simple:

  • The games looked great on the 9.7 inch screen.
  • The A4 processor can handle high-speed, motion controlled, titles without slow down.
  • There is a world of game-related possibility in the iPad.

Gaming on the iPad is an entirely new market space (with a solid lead in from iPhone development) and whether it's immediately apparent or not - the device has a well of game-related potential. It won't compete with this generation of consoles for the hardcore market - for the same reasons the Wii, Sony Motion Controller, or Natal won't take much of that market any time soon. But that doesn't mean that hardcore gamers can't appreciate the offerings on the iPad or that the device won't be a successful gaming platform.

When the iPhone was first announced, many of us would have scoffed at the idea of artistic and immersive gameplay experiences on a handheld device that compact - especially without previous developer muscle. We were used to the smartphone staples: Solitaire and Brickles; but, over time, the structure of the iTunes App Store allowed inexperienced, yet passionate, developers to deliver beautiful, innovative, games to potential customers at a much lower cost.

Probably one of the best examples of gaming on the iPhone is Eliss. Developed by digital media designer, Stephane Thirion, Eliss is a multi-touch title that challenges the player to "keep up harmony in an odd universe made of blendable planets." On the iPhone, the game is both terrific looking and highly addictive - and it could not have existed on any other video-game console.

Pocket God, takes advantage of the accelerometer and multi-touch tech, but the most significant achievement is Bolt Creative's commitment to providing complimentary "updates" every few weeks. Pocket God, while a fun experience itself, shows how rewarding developer commitment can be, as the game has benefited from an aggressive delivery of new episodic content that has been going on for over a year and a half. Shocking, especially considering the title only sets players back $0.99.

Surely, these titles aren't epic single player campaigns with Uncharted 2-like graphics, but that doesn't mean they aren't terrific experiences.

That said, if innovation and non-traditional gaming experiences aren't enough to sell you on the possibilities hidden in the iPad - titles like the recently ported Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars as well as the iPhone/iPod Touch exclusive Dexter: The Game, should also testify to the fact that even if gamers aren't expecting to see lengthy single player campaigns on Apple's platforms, developers don't share in their cynicism.

Add to the mix the improved functionality of the iPad - a bigger screen for better "virtual stick" control, as well as larger surface to interact with. Also, the inclusion of the keyboard dock seems to hint at other possible accessories en route for the iPad. Maybe we'll see a "controller" accessory (I'm thinking a thin frame that might clip onto the device) that could be implemented for players who want more tactile control options.

More than anything else, gaming on the iPad will live or die by the ideas and passions of the developers who would create software for the device. I'd be surprised if most developers are merely dismissing the iPad as a big iPhone, and would guess that there are a slew of innovative game ideas out there that had been hampered by the iPhone's small form factor or less-powerful processor.

The controversy around the iPad as a gaming platform seems to be centered around our expectations of what makes a great game experience. I would argue that any platform that can provide innovative and engaging gameplay, even if it is non-traditional, deserves a second look. If anyone had been expecting Halo 4 on the iPad - they were kidding themselves. The iPad offers developers room to do what they've been doing so well on the iPhone - to show us something different.

I'm excited to see what developers can do with the iPad tech. The device is only in the first generation, and will undoubtedly see numerous improvements and additions over the next few years - but I'd be willing to guess it'll have a much larger impact on gaming than we might think.

Do you think you'll ever game on the iPad? What direction would you like to see gaming take on the device?

The Apple iPad is set to ship on April 1st.

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