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The iPad and Gaming

January 30, 2010

I’ve already posted my initial thoughts on whether or not the iPad needs to exist within Apple’s hardware ecosystem but now I’m going to shift gears and examine what the iPad means for gamers. After all, the main focus of Apple’s iPod Touch refresh last summer was gaming so it’s clear that Apple wants a nice big slice of the portable gaming pie that had previously been dominated by the likes of Nintendo and Sony with their DS and PSP systems. Now, the iPhone and iPod Touch represent logical gaming platforms and legitimate challengers to Nintendo and Sony’s portable gaming dominance because of their competitive price points, abundance of features in and outside of gaming, generally far cheaper prices for games and portability. The iPad on the other hand, is a different story altogether. While it has been said that the iPad will run most of the applications (in this case, meaning games) designed for the iPhone and iPod Touch, the real question is not only whether or not the average Joe will want to play games on the iPad as opposed to the already firmly established Nintendo DS or Sony PSP but whether or not someone will want to play a game on the iPad as opposed to the iPhone or iPod Touch.

The iPad definitely has some inherent advantages over the PSP, DS and even its older siblings the iPhone and iPod Touch. Thanks in no small part to the new custom built processor Apple has developed for the iPad; it is considerably faster than all of the aforementioned portables and represents a nice platform to develop games on to take advantage of that added muscle. Again, even thinking about this brings up questions that need to be answered. Right out of the gate, the iPad is at a disadvantage in terms of development following the iPhone and iPod Touch. These two devices already have a massive developer following thanks in large part to the positively huge installed base of iPhones and iPod Touches, but also because of the success of the App Store.

At this point, it is far more appealing to a developer to develop a game for one of those two platforms, to take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses they possess and try to get a slice of the already huge market than to develop a game for a device that doesn’t have a large userbase and carries with it such a high price point. On the other hand, development for the iPad can be relatively enticing because it is a fresh market and there will inevitably be fewer competitors. Because of the device being so new and the market so fresh, developers may be inclined to develop high profile games for the iPad in the hopes that people will rush out in droves to buy the device when it launches and will see their games and applications when they browse the App Store for new iPad apps tailored to their shiny new toy.

Unfortunately, one of the problems facing the iPod Touch and the iPhone carries over to the iPad and that is the lack of physical controls. Instead of actual buttons or a directional pad, games must take advantage of touchscreen input and the built in accelerometer. Now, some game developers have accepted these limitations and adapted to them to create some fantastic titles that make great use of the touchscreen but despite that, the lack of physical controls is a real turn off for many gamers, myself included. These limitations play against the iPad even more so because of its much larger size.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, just pick up an average sized notebook in two hands, put some sort of weight on it until it weighs about a pound and a half and imagine that the area just underneath your thumbs is a giant touchscreen surrounded by a bezel that’s about an inch or so thick and there you have it. Now imagine holding this device upright and trying to reach touchscreen controls that could be spread out anywhere on the 9.7 inch screen with your thumbs and fingers. I don’t imagine this will be particularly comfortable for most gamers and that such ergonomics will be limited to a handful of genres. Unless some games are completely reworked for the iPad, there are bound to be some usability issues that just aren’t present on the iPhone.

Finally, we come to one the largest concerns about the iPad…its price. Now it’s pretty well known by now that the iPad is going to set you back a pretty penny with a minimum price of entry being $499 which climbs up to $829 for the highest end model with a built in 3G modem. The high minimum price makes it more than double the price of the DSi, PSP and 8GB iPod Touch and more than triple the price of the entry level DS Lite. The iPad faces an uphill battle in convincing consumers that it’s worth the higher price and that will largely be dependent on whether or not the development community steps up to the proverbial plate.

There are a number of questions that need to be answered in order to determine the iPad’s viability as a gaming platform. One question that immediately springs to mind is whether or not the iPhone and iPod Touch will end up cannibalizing the sales of the iPad. After all, why would someone pay so much more for a product that runs the same games as another product from the same company that has a significantly lower price? Going back to portability for a moment, why would someone want to pay more for a device that is infinitely less portable than any of the handhelds mentioned prior? While it’s assured that there will be games designed solely for the iPad, will these be enough to tempt consumers to overlook the iPod Touch and pick up the iPad instead?

Clearly, there are a number of issues facing the iPad that will need to be addressed and I know that there are some that perhaps can’t be addressed in the long run. It will be interesting to see the approach Apple takes to marketing the iPad as a gaming device. Overall, it seems the iPad is in a class of its own in many respects when it comes to gaming in both a positive and negative sense. As a gamer and consumer of gadgetry of all kinds, I don’t really see the iPad taking off as a gaming platform purely because of its high price point and large size. It’s easier to buy an iPod or a DS to fill your portable gaming needs because they are far cheaper options and will fit easily in a pocket in most cases. If developers get behind the iPad and start developing games to take advantage of the iPad’s strengths such as its larger display and faster processor, I can see his being a nice, if expensive (no, I’m not letting that go) alternative to current platforms and could end up breaking new ground as a stopgap between current portables and home consoles. I see a great deal of potential in the iPad but it remains to be seen whether or not that potential will be realized.

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