The good, the Pad and the ugly

The good, the Pad and the ugly
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

May 13th 2010 at 8:30AM

Develop predicts just what the iPad means for games developers

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad early this year the reaction of public, press and professionals was far from hysteric. In contrast to the hype preceding confirmation of Apple’s tablet device, the watchful masses’ retort was one of bemusement.

Equally easy to dismiss as an outsized iPad Touch, misguided netbook or audacious e-reader, the iPad continues to divide opinion. But with Apple’s industry-shattering reputation, it would be unwise not to take a close look at the potential of the iPad, and weigh up the pros and cons of the headline-grabbing platform.

Sharing many of the same guts as the iPhone, and built around a near identical user interface, it’s easy to dismiss the iPad as little more than a system-revision. However when you speaking to the most renowned app developers, it’s clear that a larger screen is just the start of a bigger picture.

Size Matters

“The iPad is definitely a platform in its own right,” insists Rob Murray, CEO of Flight Control creator Firemint.

“Like going from TV to cinema, it’s a platform where size matters. Once you’ve had an iPad for a while, it’s hard not to think of an iPod touch as a smaller iPad that makes up for the limitations of a small screen size with the convenience of fitting into your jeans pocket.”

Murray isn’t alone in thinking that the iPad’s increased size is a catalyst for substantial changes to both user behaviour and game design.

“I definitely think it is a distinct new device,” affirms Eros Resmini, VP of marketing at Aurora Feint, which offers multiplayer and social backend for iPhone games.

“I see the iPad as being in between a mobile device and a laptop. I’ve heard the people use the term ‘casual computing’ to describe the kind of usage the iPad inspires.

“If you think of an iPhone, it’s more of a ‘lean-in’ experience’, in that you have to get really close to your device to start using it. I find that the iPad is more of a ‘lean-back’ experience. Surfing and using the device feels very light, and I think that bodes very well for game developers, and people that have content more suited to that lean-back scenario.”

Resmini’s observation offers an interesting proposition, suggesting that the new form of the iPad effects not just interface design, but also encourages developers to consider traditional ergonomic concerns about physical interaction.

There’s a general consensus that a larger device will encourage longer play sessions and more time spent with the device in the home, as Todd Northcutt, VP, GameSpy Technology clarifies: “The form factor, the screen size, technical capabilities and even the environment where the device will be mostly used are radically different than the iPhone.

“What makes a great game for my phone, which I might play in five minute increments standing in a grocery line, will likely not be the same great experience on the iPad, sitting on my comfy sofa when I have an hour to spend playing.”

Another casual industry stalwart – this time from the publishing sector – who eager to highlight the wider change the device’s outsized dimensions will inspire, is Intenium project manager Florian Groß. He warns that developers are going to need to start to think differently about the way they design games: “People will use it at home and not on the go. For games that implies that a one minute gameplay experience might not be enough for iPad games.”

There’s certainly no shortage of studios and bedroom coders keen to embrace the iPad, but even with such a vast collective skill base, the challenges will be myriad.
Aurora Feint works with a quite staggering 17,000 developers, positioning Resmini perfectly to tap into the murmur of concern masked by the veil of enthusiasm.

“What I hear in the crowd is that just really getting used to the new form factor is the biggest challenge,” reveals Resmini.

“The larger screen can offer a lot of opportunities to add content to games, but it also presents challenges in terms of titles that use accelerometers, and in terms of where to place the HUD. Some of the key components that needed to be crammed into the iPhone now have a lot of options. Sometimes those options can be a bit daunting.”

Down to Business

An impressive number of iPad games were available at the tablet’s US launch, and many were immediately praised for harnessing the unique potential of the platform.

Still, many more missed out on the opportunity, overcompensating for the extra screen space with cluttered UIs, or simply upscaling their titles. All of which did little to disprove the idea that iPad is little more than a ‘king-sized’ iPhone.

“It’s great to have lots of extra screen real-estate, but all of those extra pixels have to be used properly,” advises Michel Kripalani, former Autodesk games boss and now founder of app studio Oceanhouse Media.

“You can’t just take an existing iPhone experience, up-res the graphics and expect it to look good. The best iPad apps are the ones that are designed for that size screen from day one.”

Kripalani greets the iPad’s arrival with a breed of cautious optimism not uncommon among his peers, and is quick to highlight the fact that’s Apple’s latest piece of kit provides the largest multi-touch surface most studios will ever have worked with. That means a period defined by what the Oceanhouse president refers to as ‘unlocking new gameplay paradigms’; a process that most agree will take some time. Genres need reinventing, UI design may have to return to basics and, perhaps more significantly, studios may need to restructure.

“The mechanics and underlying technology may be the same, but I think that the craft of making iPad games is different and will be a new challenge,” says
GameSpy’s Northcutt, who proposes that Apple’s latest must-have tech could shake up app development ecosystem before it’s even settled in the wake of the iPhone.

"Does that mean more difficult? Probably. I don’t think that the kinds of stories we heard on the iPhone, with short development cycles and small teams will be repeated on the iPad for this very reason. I believe people are going to expect much more from their iPad games and doing that in the same manner as on the iPhone will be difficult – especially if the higher price points for iPad apps we’ve seen thus far remain the case.”

If Northcutt is correct, then the industry must brace itself for a leap in consumer expectation brought on by the increasingly ubiquitous iPad screen.

Miles Jacobson, the man at the driving seat of Football Manager’s recent success on iPhone, and Sports Interactive’s studio director, also subscribes to the view that a potential shift in user expectation could be on its way.

In fact Jacobson, who has never shied away from first hand communication with Football Manager’s immense swathe of fans, has picked up on what could create something of a problem for the iPhone titles.

“It’s a giant iPod that happens to have some features available that make it its own platform, particularly in the GUI side of things,” states the SI boss.

“What it isn’t is a home computer, and from the comments that I’m getting at the moment on Twitter and our forums, people don’t seem to understand yet that it’s unlikely they’ll see full blown PC and Mac games on the device.”

 

A block off the old chip

Peel away the tactile casing that has already enamoured early American adopters, and the iPad boasts some impressive credentials (see ‘Under the Hood’). There’s a custom-designed 1GHz Apple A4 processing chip keeping things running, and thanks a substantially faster CPU, the iPad does a great deal to leave its smaller predecessor in a cloud of dust.

Yet despite some box-ticking specs, life isn’t necessarily set to get any developers migrating from iPhone to iPad.

“Developing for the platform is certainly easier than it was for the iPhone from a creative perspective, because the extra screen space gives you more freedom,” says Brian Greenstone, who serves as CEO for Pangea Software – the longest continually operating game developer for Apple platforms.

With over 22 years of toiling with Apple SDKs, and a number of iPhone hits like Cro-Mag Rally under its belt, Pangea knows Apple CEO Jobs’ platforms better than most.

“The main issue now for a lot of developers is trying to figure out a single code base for an app that has to run on both the iPhone and the iPad, because obviously there are some major differences,” says Greenstone, who isn’t afraid to share some of his more troubling experiences with the iPhone.

According to the Pangea veteran, one of the biggest hurdles new iPad developers must prepare for is the issue of fill rate on the 3D chip.

“The 3D chip on the iPad appears to be the same chip as the one in the iPhone. It’s a mobile chip, and being a mobile chip it’s not really designed for such a high resolution screen,” reveals Greenstone.

“That means it’s a little bit fill rate limited – if you’ve got a lot of overlapping 3D models and fog or a complex environment like a lot of games, it brings the iPad to its knees.

“The processor is super-fast, but the graphics chip can get bottlenecked, and that has been the challenge.”

Fortunately, there’s a solution if the 3D chip isn’t quite delivering the goods.

According to Greenstone, for some of his games, a small drop of a graphics resolution slider countered by a 40 per cent upscaling on the hardware’s behalf means a near unperceivable change that lets the iPad get back on its feet.

 

Hide and Seek

Of course, creating apps isn’t just a matter of interactive design; it’s also about selling product, and on the iPhone every developer knows that means discoverability.

The arrival of the iPad App Store could have been Apple’s opportunity to implement a grand new design and rid its i-devices of the curse of the chart-based searching. But for now at least that doesn’t seem the to be part of the plan.

It may even be that there’s little Apple can or has to do about the fact users have to wade through the thousands of apps out there, says Gameloft’s vice president of publishing for the America’s Baudouin Corman: “Those issues exist with any open marketplace. I don’t think it’s unique to the App Store. With more than 10m paid downloads, we’ve been very successful in terms of our marketing and delivering high quality titles to consumers, so we are not too concerned with it.

“We are looking forward to this continued success with the iPad. We’ll continue to focus on integrating our marketing strategies with social networking – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter – to get our games out there.”

Corman’s optimism isn’t isolated, and another giant of the casual sector is equally upbeat about the challenge of discoverability. Perhaps it’s experience, or possibly influence, but PopCap Games seems confident that quality product can secure exposure on merit alone.

“As more and more apps launch for the iPad, we do expect the general challenges of discoverability and price erosion to increase,” confesses Andrew Stein, director of mobile business development at PopCap.

“However, we have found that high quality content does bubble up to the top and there are more and more websites and other sources of information dedicated to helping iPad and iPhone or iPod touch users find the best games and other apps. So discoverability isn’t totally dependent on placement in the App Store – although, of course, that does still play a huge role.”

Developers accept that poor discoverability is set to continue on the iPad, but the language is more commonly about workable solutions rather than the issue itself.

“There are all kinds of things you can do for very limited budgets though, so as long as people don’t treat the platform in the same way as they would a triple-A boxed product, but more like an XBLA or PSN game, they should be OK,” says Sports Interactive’s Jacobson

“As with any platform, if the app that you are releasing on it is good quality, and good value for money, it should get noticed as long as you PR it in the right way. But as with many great iPod games, you need to work out how to get noticed.”

 

Content War

Unfortunately, the obstacles thrown up by the iPad don’t end with studios forming a hard skin to the abrasion of discoverability. Given tha the Apple tablet makes it easier to watch movies, read books and comics and also browse online, games makers are going to have to face even more competition from those publishing non-gaming content for the platform than ever.

“Aside from the challenges of designing for a larger screen developers are going to be faced with more competition from within the platform,” warns Arkadium’s game production director Jeremy Mayes.

“Early polls seemed to indicate that buyers were less interested in gaming on iPad than then they are on iPhone.”

There’s little disputing that the iPad presents a significant challenge for even the most seasoned game developers, and with new audiences from demographics
like the ‘grey gamer’ set to be welcomed in by the friendly nature of the big screen, the pitfalls and perks of diversity are sure to be seriously amplified.

“[The challenge is] to make more engaging and more mass market titles,” says Mayes.

“The iPad will unlock a more mass market audience and will take gaming in new directions and open up gaming to new audiences.”

There is one thorn in the iPad’s side, however, that may make getting familiar with the format a little less pressure for developers. By lacking phone functionality, Apple’s tablet is without one of the key selling point of the iPhone, and for that reason, the speculation is that iPad’s growth may be faltering at first.

“The iPad’s lack of cell phone capabilities might make its growth slower than iPhone, but after using it while at home and on the road for the last couple of weeks, I see the huge potential, so sales could be boosted when the iPad goes from being ‘great to have’ to ‘need to have’,”  suggest Patrick Wylie, VP of of Big Fish Games.

 

Triple Word Score

Considering the collective views of some of the world’s most incisive touchscreen App developers, it’s easy to dwell on the difficulties the iPad presents. But it is those very complications which highlight the iPad as a new platform. From Firemint to Big Fish, the language being spoken is of teething problems; which iin itself is a sign typical of a new era in game design.

The last word goes to Arkadium’s Mayes, who highlights perhaps the most significant change the iPad can brings about. It’s a direction that could be seen as a step backward, but hints at a revolution given the potency of online gameplay.

“In my opinion, the biggest opportunity iPad brings to game developers is getting people playing games together again. I’m not talking about synchronous or asynchronous multiplayer games, I’m talking about people playing games together in the same room. The kind of ‘social games’ that were played long before Facebook existed. It wasn’t a coincidence that there were a slew of board game-like apps at launch – the device is perfect as a table top game board. Two players can play Flight Control HD across from each other on the same device.

“It makes social gaming fun again.”