Fahey: Why iPad doesn’t matter to you… yet

By Patrick Garratt
8 April 2010 18:58 GMT


Times and Eurogamer columnist Rob Fahey tells us why iPad’s impact on core gaming will be a delayed affair.

You can’t have helped but notice that Apple’s iPad, the latest long-awaited Jesus Device from the celebrated Californian company, finally appeared in the USA last week. After one of the most ridiculously over-hyped announcements in the tech industry’s history back in January, the gadget is finally in consumers’ hands, and the debate is raging on all sides as to whether this “oversized iPod Touch” (a phrase that’s either a stern condemnation or a ringing endorsement, depending upon which side of the fence you’re standing) is really going to save the publishing industry, revolutionise personal computing – or any of the other wild dreams of its devotees.

Only one of those wild dreams is of any interest to us, though, and it’s this one – that the iPad is going to be an important platform for videogames.

On the face of it, that’s a pretty big claim. The iPad is a weird new form factor; like the iPhone before it, it’s got no physical buttons that are of any use to games, instead relying on a multi-touch display, motion sensing and a microphone for input, but unlike the iPhone, it’s too big to hold comfortably in one hand, which creates new restrictions for game design.

It’s not all bad news, though. The iPad is a lot more powerful than the iPhone, and early results suggest that it’s comfortably more powerful than the (now five year old) PlayStation Portable – combined with the larger display, that means that complex 3D games will be possible. Some launch titles are promising, especially Firemint’s Real Racing HD, whose visuals compare comfortably with PS2 and Xbox titles; for developers keen to push the 3D envelope, the iPad could end up turning out better-looking games than the last generation of consoles did.

Then again, it’s not really the hardware that makes us all question the iPad as a games machine, is it? Many gamers still aren’t entirely comfortable with systems that eschew buttons and sticks for touchscreens and motion controls, but there’s a strong argument which says that this isn’t because of a fundamental problem with the hardware – rather, it’s down to what developers mostly choose to do with that hardware.

Certainly, the iPhone has become a big deal as a games platform – more game software is sold for the iPhone than for the PSP at the moment, with Sony being pushed into third place in the handheld market in the USA. Yet it’s reasonable to question who, exactly, is buying that software. Are these people who have a 360, a PS3 or a monster gaming PC at home, and then whip out an iPhone for a quick game on the way to work – or is this a further expansion of the new generation of “downstream” gamers, people who have come to the hobby not through Doom but through Farmville, not through Grand Theft Auto but through Brain Training?

There’s the real question for the iPad. It’s definitely going to be a “games machine”; there’s no point even arguing that fact. Developers are flocking to the device, and going hands-on with even the handful of properly optimised launch titles shows that this is going to be a vibrant, important platform for games. So, okay, it’s a “games machine” – but will it be a machine for gamers?

(I’m going to define “gamers” here as, well, you. The kind of people who read a blog all about videogames, which obsesses on screenshots and videos and release dates and demos and all the other stuff that makes us tick. Not your girlfriend who only plays Bejeweled or your boyfriend who spams your Facebook pages with Farmville updates but hasn’t picked up a joypad in a decade, not your mum who’s welded to Professor Layton on the DS or your slightly suspicious bachelor uncle who drags out Wii Sports every time the family comes around. You. That’s not to say these people aren’t gamers in their own way, or that their money is worth less than yours, but it’s not unreasonable to draw a line between gamers, and people who merely play games.)

Right now, the answer is “no”. Or at least, “not yet”. iPad developers are mostly veterans of creating games for the iPhone, and they know what side their bread is buttered on. When the device was being unveiled, much was made of the idea that Farmville would be one of the first apps revealed; it didn’t happen, in the end (and Farmville, which is coded in Flash, is in fact unplayable on the iPad), but it shows you where the focus lies. The iPad, right now, is seen as a platform for bite-sized, five to ten minute experiences that are open and accessible to a wide range of consumers – and that pretty much precludes things like complex storylines, twitch controls or deep, involved role-playing mechanisms, for example.

That’s not to say that you, personally, won’t like the iPad as a games machine, of course. Gamers are varied people with diverse tastes; I know plenty who happily supplement a diet of blockbuster console titles or hardcore PC strategy games with puzzle titles on the DS or word games on the iPhone, and the iPad may well fill a similar niche for you. As a core gaming platform, though? Forget about it. For now.

That “for now” is important, because I suspect that while gamers will be able to ignore the iPad for the first year, perhaps even longer, this won’t always be the case. There’s no actual restriction preventing people from writing amazing core games for the iPad – on the contrary, it’s a platform almost as open as the PC (although not quite, of course), one with a solid distribution system built in, a decent 3D chip and a pretty good set of development tools. It’s not just possible that some really good small or indie developers are going to start turning out great stuff for the iPad – it’s inevitable.

In fact, the iPad is a more attractive platform for developers than you might imagine. If you’re working on an interesting, innovative indie game – the kind of thing that core gamers are going to love to bits – then your first instinct might be to release it on the PC, but Steam is tough to get onto and the PC is rife with piracy, which makes it a pretty unattractive market for a developer who’s living hand to mouth. Xbox Live Arcade, PSN and WiiWare all cost a lot of money up front – hundreds of thousands of dollars, in some cases – and publishers aren’t keen to take risks on them as a result. Suddenly, the iPad starts to look pretty interesting – just as the iPhone did before it.

It may not just be indie developers, either. Big publishers, too, are fascinated by the potential of the device – especially in light of the tough times the PSP has been going through, culminating in the disappointing performance of the PSP Go. The industry has lots of developers with bags of experience of creating handheld games, and right now isn’t a good time to set them to work on a new PSP project, or even a new DS project, with 3DS just around the corner, so plenty of those teams are instead planning to spend the next few months working on iPhone or iPad projects.

Give it time, in other words. Gamers are a grumpy lot, convinced that the invasion of casual players has robbed us of at least some of our pastime, and perhaps on some levels that’s true – but unlike the Wii, for example, where Nintendo had a clear strategy of targeting downstream markets with casual, non-core games, there’s no “strategy” for games on the iPad. There’s only what developers choose to create – and given time, many of those developers will stop chasing Farmville addicts and start chasing you instead.

In fact, it’s already happening, to some extent. Warpgate HD is a launch title for the iPad, a gloriously designed 3D space exploration and trading game which is enough to make an Elite fan’s heart sing with joy while still being different and unusual enough to set itself apart from its mighty forefather. It’s the kind of game that many core gamers would happily spend dozens of hours playing. It costs about five quid. Right now, it’s somewhat out on its own in the iPad library – but that won’t last. Given time, the iPad’s games library is going to start to look very tempting.

But, you cry, but it’s an Apple product! I hate Apple! It won’t matter. After all, you’ve swallowed your pride before, haven’t you? You spent a decade whinging about Microsoft’s awful operating systems and annoying Office software and bloody dreadful web browser, referring to them as the Evil Empire and possibly even hilariously spelling their name with a dollar sign (these days you do that to Sony, and curse the lack of a letter S in Nintendo’s name as being the death of satire). Then the Xbox 360 turned out to be full of brilliant games. So you bought one anyway.

So perhaps you won’t buy an iPad now. All the Apple marketing and design ingenuity in the world won’t convince you that you want or need one – but sometime in the next year or so, someone’s going to show you a game running on one, a beautiful, ingenious, clever game made by an indie developer or a talented small team that got made redundant from a big publisher that doesn’t understand this brave new digital world. Then someone will show you another one, and another one, and finally you’ll crack, because you’re not buying the iPad for Apple – you’re buying it for those beautiful, amazing games.

So – “not yet”. As a gamer, you don’t need an iPad today – but one day, you will.

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