Is iPad Gaming Still Born? What can we hope for in the future?

Apple iPad Keynote Games Launch

The iPad is an unmitigated success. It has grabbed the hearts of consumers and TV personalities alike. Early in its life the likes of Colbert clutched a pre-production model at the Grammy Awards.

Consumers in the US and 20 other countries, cannot get enough units of the device. And recently I marvelled at the number of Formula 1 racing drivers and media personalities clutching them in the Formula 1 paddock in Turkey.

By the way, if you are into F1 motor racing the F1 Live Timing app is an excellent example of the kind of application that the iPad is perfectly suited to. Anyway, I digress. Amusingly the majority of the iPads at the F1 race in Turkey had apparently been brought back from the US by Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton, and sold at cost plus a “commission” to his fellow drivers! When I had iPads brought to Thailand for friends and colleagues I did it at cost! Silly me! One of the reasons I was so excited about the iPad was that I was looking forward very much to playing some cool new innovative games on it.

But has the iPad really taken off as a gaming device the way we expected it to? Not yet in my opinion. Even though I freely admit that I was one of the ones who saw the iPad reinventing gaming, I have yet to see any evidence of that happening.

We reported that 35% of iPad apps were games back in early April. Since then it has been unclear how that figure has developed. Initially the vast majority of iPad games were simply ports of existing iPhone and iPod Touch titles. Albeit “enhanced” versions with the ubiquitous suffix “HD”. Worryingly, from my own observations, I am not seeing a change in that trend moving forward. More and more ports of iPhone apps are hitting the iTunes store as dedicated iPad apps, or Universal apps for the iPhone, iPod Touch and the iPad. Sure the iPad versions are better, but they are not jumping out of the screen and screaming at me this is what iPad gaming is all about!

There are a huge number of innovative media apps for the iPad. In some of those products online and written content is being re-imagined for Apple’s revolutionary device. Wired’s app for example. This is much as Steve Jobs predicted. Similarly in art apps developers are offering us ways to daub on the screen using our fingers to draw and paint with coloured digital inks and oils.

Music apps are taking advantage of the iPad’s huge touch screen to make more interactive and complex instruments than we’ve seen on the iPhone so far. Some innovative designers have created huge iPad mixing desks, or more ergonomic and innovative keyboards than can be squeezed onto an iPhone or iPod screen. Some other apps are complete re-imaginings of how we might make and enjoy music.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for iPad games, yet.

During WWDC we had Farmville and Guitar Hero as big game announcements, sharing stage time with the iPhone 4 and Steve Jobs. Sorry to be cynical, but that is more of the same type of games we are seeing ported to every gaming platform. If I want to play those games I’ll play them on Facebook or on a PS3 or 360. I can accept those on the iPhone, but I expect more from iPad developers. And I am sure you do too.

So far the list of the top 25 games for the iPad makes somewhat disappointing reading too. Titles can be taken from a range of fairly mundane ports of games like N.O.V.A, Mirrors Edge, or Need For Speed. We then have the inevitable ports of original, and admittedly fun iPhone breakout successes like Harbor Master, Flight Control, and Plants vs. Zombies.

Other developers have taken a stab at recreating board games like Scrabble or Monopoly. But they have produced what are literally recreations of board games on an iPad. I expected far more innovation in that field. Rather than say a complete carbon copy of Chess I expected something more akin to the way Chess was re-imagined in Star Wars, on the Millennium Falcon.

To date most of the games I am seeing on the iPad float somewhere between so-so and cynical attempts to cash in on previous successes.

Admittedly, it is early days yet. But I have to wonder how much effort big publishers are going to put into this platform until they have gauged the success of their ports of existing IP. I also think it is clear that the success of the iPad, and the demographic it is selling to is currently that of people who are more interested in media consumption and media manipulation. So the big game publishers may not get the feedback they are waiting for – unless they innovate, and stimulate customers like me.

One thing is for sure. People should rightly be expecting more out of the games they get on their iPad. They shouldn’t necessarily expect a game like Fallout 3, KillZone 2 or Red Dead Redemption. And sure, people still love Solitaire. I know that very well. My glorious new iPad often has to be prized from my wife’s clutches as she seems to enjoy Solitaire on my $500 Tablet far more than on her laptop or iPhone! But from the people I have spoken to, they do by and large expect something more akin to a full game on the iPad – and are being disappointed. Whereas they will just play noughts and crosses, or other trivial time wasting activities on an iPhone, in idle moments on the train or in a taxi, they actually take time out to use their iPad to do fun and interesting things. iPad games makers should recognise and cater for this.

The potential of the iPad for many activities, including gaming, is not hard to see. Its larger screen, and more flexible touch interface, as well as its surprisingly powerful graphics capability are all obvious facilities for great entertainment software. But therein also perhaps lies the iPad’s problem.

Indie developers are going to have problems producing content on a budget for this device. Art assets need to be of the next level in terms of quality and fidelity. Complex and efficient shaders need to be written for the Graphics Chip, to make the most of the iPad’s GPU’s capabilities with such a large screen to fill with pixels, and keep pretty at the same time.

The gameplay experience on the iPad needs to be a little more than squishing zits, or blowing up stick men over and over again. So not only are iPad apps going to require more resources to develop, they are going to require better design and planning, and more coding and asset production. So more money, more time, and more risk!

Production times are going to be longer. This may also be why we haven’t seen any truly breakout games on the iPad yet. Perhaps they are still in development?

But then again, perhaps they haven’t even been started yet, as Indie Developers hold fire for fear of burning too many resources on a project that may fail in development, or not sell well. Other Indies, more experienced ones with iPhone and iPod Touch games under their belts, have already shipped ports of existing iPhone titles. Likewise, so have the large publishers. Many of the large publishers have more to be ashamed of, as they have had advanced access to hardware for several months – whereas some Indie Developers can’t even buy an iPad in their country yet!

I assume a large portion of the existing iPhone game development community, small and large, are sitting back to see what sort of numbers they sell before embarking on more ambitious, resource and time intensive projects.

The problem with sitting back and seeing, though, is that we end up in a chicken and egg situation. In order for gamers to flock to a platform you have to give them a reason to come. Conversely developers want the gamers to be there so they have a captive audience – and guaranteed sales.

I know as a gamer I am disappointed with what I am seeing on the iPad in the entertainment sector so far. Right now the iPad lacks a killer app in gaming. By that I mean it doesn’t have the XBox’s Halo franchise, or the PS3′s Little Big Planet. It doesn’t even have the Wii’s Zelda. What it does have is a high number of mediocre 5 minute coffee table / dollar app diversions.

To be frank, right now, the iPad’s killer app is iWork and iBooks. After that it is basically Mobile Safari. Not much gaming going on in any of those.

The killer app for iPhone 4 is iMovie, and its ability to to play any existing iPhone game natively. On top of that it is somewhat easier for iPhone developers to justify augmenting and re-releasing the kind of games they have already sold on the iPod Touch and earlier iPhones. It’s a still a phone, after all.

What no-one is doing right now, as far as I can see, is taking a leap of faith and producing something that is so good to play that people want to buy an iPad just to play it. Without that catalyst the iPad as a gaming platform could be still born.

Can you show us any killer games for the iPad? What’s your favourite iPad game? And what would you like to see? Let us know in the comments.

Editor’s Note:

This post is a part of our series of opinion articles, in which we encourage our writers to present their opinion on something they feel strongly about.

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