Published Sep 26, 2010Gaming may evolve with software, but industry revolutions require leaps in hardware ― which is exactly what has happened in 2010 with nearly 13 million iPads making their way into the wild and word that in the U.S. Apple iOS gamers (also including iPhone and iPod Touch) have nearly doubled PSP users and are hot on the heels of perpetual leader, Nintendo DS.
Once upon a time Apple was a computer company ― I know, right? ― and boasted a rich gaming scene. Those early Macs may have had small, greyscale screens, but there were some amazing mid-'80s games like arcade platformer Dark Castle and hard-boiled point-and-click classic Deja Vu: A Nightmare Comes True, where you play a PI who awakens in a barroom toilet stall, poisoned, amnesiac and wanted by the mob and the cops for a murder you didn't commit. (Damn, that game ruled.)
But that was ever ago. Mac gaming's golden age proved brief as Apple abandoned the market to its dominant Windows-based rivals. That ended with the now-ubiquitous iPhone, but it was still mostly used for passing time on public transit or in lengthy lines. Serious gamers didn't consider it a serious platform. That's beginning to change with the just-released Game Center, an Xbox Live-like social-network functionality for mobile multiplayer, and the iPhone 4's impressive Retina Display screen. Still, it remains a player in the pre-existing handheld market.
The real game-changer is the iPad, a high-resolution 9.7-inch screen multi-touch device that essentially opens an entirely new front ― tablet gaming ― splitting the difference between consoles and handhelds, and doing away with physical controllers altogether. Currently, iPad gaming is rooted in familiar genres and dominated by "HD" versions of pre-existing iPhone games, like GTA: Chinatown Wars, Angry Birds, Geared or Osmos. It is also handicapped by the ever- (over?) popular App Store. Yes, they've sold a billion apps already, but not for very much.
While Apple has a genius ability to convince people to pay for things online, they did it with super low pricing. A 99 cent game is a no-brainer, and $3.99 is still an impulse buy, but people are wary once you get games' charging upwards of ten bucks, which is where the you'll find the best iPad games, like Mirror's Edge, a fantastic reiteration of EA's dystopian first-person free-runner gaming that turns parkour platformer back into the 2.5D side scroller it always wanted to be. Not only does it look utterly fantastic, but the swipe-based controls are intuitive and fun.
But the public's addiction to low app prices means developers aren't putting much effort into these games in order to maximize profitability, especially with the iPad's relatively small install base. But the more iPads out there, the more this will change. In the short term that may mean the revival of strategy and point-and-click games, which are snug fits for touch-screen controls. Already old-school classics like Broken Sword and Escape form Monkey Island have made their way to iPad.
But the iPad's swipe-based controls, paired with a tilt sensitive accelerometer and inevitable new functionality down the line, could inspire a whole new style of gaming, just as Nintendo's DS and Wii once did. But since Apple, unlike Nintendo, doesn't actually make games, it will take time for third-party developers like Epic Games ― whose upcoming Project Sword and Epic Citadel brings the Unreal Engine to iPad ― to get the heads around tablet gaming.
By being transportable, but still boasting a large screen, great sound, online capabilities, touch controls and hi-res graphics ― while also being big enough for head-to-head local multiplayer and accessible to indie developers via the app store ― the iPad's unique characteristics have the potential to create a whole new style of play. It hasn't happened yet, mind you, but gamers are holding out hope that the "i" stands of innovation.