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Apple's iPad: Still Not A Game Machine
by Jeff Gerstmann on
If you were expecting Apple to shake up the gaming landscape this morning, you're probably a little bummed. But mismanaged expectations is just one of the hurdles facing Apple's new device.
I went into this morning's Apple announcement thinking that if any company is going to make the tablet market make sense, it'd probably be Apple. They're the guys that have, in the past, made complex interfaces seem sensible and natural. More importantly, I feel like I need someone to come in and tell me why a touchscreen tablet would make any aspect of what I do with technology better. Because it hasn't made any sense at all to me so far. After Apple's announcement of the iPad, I feel like I'm still waiting.
The iPad is, if you want to get right down to it, a big iPod Touch. It's got a 9.7-inch screen and a lot of the core applications you get on a Touch or an iPhone have been redesigned to take better advantage of its larger screen. It doesn't have a phone in it, but if you want to go all the way, you can get one that has support for AT&T's increasingly assy 3G network, giving you mobile data access. Though it has a faster processor than its smaller predecessors, the iPad is said to maintain compatibility with the vast majority of existing iPhone applications. It'll even blow those apps up to fullscreen, if you'd like.
I'm left wondering why, exactly, I'd want to do anything like this. While certainly smaller than my MacBook Pro, the device isn't nearly as portable as my iPhone. So if I'm going to be tethered to a product that has just enough bulk to it to require a bag instead of a pocket, I might as well lug my far-more-capable laptop around with me. Really. It's not that heavy. And unlike the demo Apple gave this morning, my laptop works with Flash. With that in mind, the way Apple bills this thing as "the best way to experience the web, email, & photos" already sounds like a fat lie. Maybe they'd do better if they billed it as "finally, an Internet device for people who don't already know how to use the Internet." I don't really mean that as a huge slight--but a closed system like this with a fairly natural interface will probably be great for the people who have no idea how to currently handle "web, email, & photos."
I feel like that extends to the iPad's gaming aspirations, as well. It's a shame that Apple chose to show off a driving game (Need for Speed Shift) and a first-person shooter (Gameloft's NOVA), because those are perfect examples of what not to do on a platform without standard controls. Driving and shooting, those are existing genres with huge legacies on other platforms. By providing that point of comparison, all you do is open yourself up to guys like me who have been playing games for a long time and won't settle for the less-precise experience offered up by a touchscreen and some accelerometers. The best iPhone games are the ones that are either casual enough to make control a non-issue or built from the ground up for the Apple-specific experience. It's something that developers learned the hard way when building games for the Nintendo DS, and later on the Wii. It's also something that developers came to terms with when working with Sony's SIXAXIS controller. Yet plenty of developers are attempting to apply their traditional game designs to Apple's devices. It's a shame to see those games continue to receive the spotlight just because they're graphically flashier than the good stuff.
So what is the iPad actually good for? I'm really not sure that it fills any need in my life. But let's focus on the gaming side of things here. The obvious first choice (and one that actually fits into an existing game genre) would be strategy games, real-time or otherwise. Though plenty of good and bad strategy games have appeared on the iPhone, the extra space either gives you a clearer or larger view of a battlefield. The multitouch pinch and swipe controls are a perfect fit for an RTS, though it's probably not solid enough for anything especially hardcore. I'd say if players are serious enough to discuss actions-per-minute for a game, it's probably not a great fit. So a version of Starcraft II might make sense... but the same SCII that will appear on PCs? Maybe not.
So far, my perfect example for an existing console or PC game that should make its way to the iPad is Ubisoft's RUSE, which is currently scheduled to hit later this year on PC, 360, and PS3. RUSE's pace, from what I've seen of it, would probably work fine in this environment. Also, well, Ubi was showing it off on a Microsoft Surface setup back at E3 last year. So obviously someone has already been thinking about how that game would work on a touchscreen. With Ubisoft cutting out Gameloft and starting to produce its own iPhone games (like Assassin's Creed II), I'll be shocked if this doesn't happen. Seriously, natural fit.
Once you get out of the strategy genre, though, things start to get a little hazy. My favorite iPhone games have been the simple ones. I'm all about card games, like Zynga's online poker game, word games like Word Ace or Bookworm, or puzzle games like KENKEN and CrossLogic. Those don't automatically benefit from a larger screen other than the obvious "well, now you can see better" thing.
I don't know, this whole thing feels like a case of mismanaged expectations. While the rumor mill always goes bananas for Apple stuff, this time it kicked into a previously unseen level of overdrive. But instead of all the wonderful and weird things people have been guessing for months, Apple delivered a bigger iPod Touch. If you need to get an Internet device that even your grandmother can understand, hey, great. But as someone who already stays up on all this tech stuff and plays games on machines actually built specifically for gaming, I'll stick with the real thing, thanks.