I’ve had a number of friends show me, or post updates about, their new iPad. In general, the feedback’s been quite positive from most everyone. I didn’t see any new games demo’ed yet on the device – Super Monkey Ball, the air traffic controller game. I’ve heard a few people talk about the Alice in Wonderland book, with the little interactive widgets and animations. It was a nice demo, I mentioned, but it reminded me of the dawn of the CDROM era in the 90s; sure, it’s clever and pretty, with lovely art direction. I would not be surprised there are hundreds of people in NYC with the skills to do a similar project with any number of evocative texts.
But what about games? One of the reason why the iPhone and presumably, the iPad are such excellent devices is that Apple rigorously controls the hardware and software – both the OS and the applications available on the device itself. You know, a lot like how Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony control their game consoles. I’ve had the opportunity to download a number of games for my iPhone mostly for my son, cart racing games primarily: Crazy Cart, Crash Bandicoot Racing. He also plays Mario Kart DS. The cost differential for each piece of software is significant; the iPhone games are priced like impulse purchases, whereas the DS games are more significant investments. Even factoring out the cost of goods, Mario Kart costs more.
My sense is that it offers more gameplay depth, too. I think from an economic sense, that was predictable – I paid more for the DS game, there’s more value delivered. But also, gamers expect more content. More gameplay, more depth. Even games with woefully short and under-architected single player experiences (I’m looking at you, Modern Warfare 2) deliver complex online play with persistent data and character progression so as to almost seem MMOG-like. Despite its horsepower, and a few very interesting games the iPhone hasn’t emerged as an influential games platform. Maybe it’s the form factor, I thought.
The iPad should eliminate that excuse. The screen’s big, the UI responsive – capable of delivering ‘real’ game experiences. But does the Apple ecosystem allow that? I’m not hopeful.
Historically, Apple’s felt surprisingly anti-game – games ruled on the Apple II platform, but the Mac’s always been positioned as a productivity device, not a games device. Everyone knows that the IBM PC – ironic, no? Big Blue? – became the platform of choice. (Meanwhile the mammals of the era, game consoles, were busy evolving underfoot.) Apple’s only half-heartedly supported the game development industry in those long years since the Apple II. Despite helping make the Apple II, despite the fact that games are arguably the most popular application on personal computers, games were ghettoized. We were the comic books of the interactive world.
A short anecdote. When I worked at the publisher of one of the big MMOGs, we talked to Apple about porting our game over to the Mac but we concerned about market size; would Steve consider showing off our game during his big Apple conference? (Remember, this was before Mac’s resurgence.) Our thought was, hell – even 100K users would be a substantial revenue boost to the bottom line.
There was no way that was going to happen, was the return message. Not so many words, but the intent was clear.
The downward price pressure on iPhone apps make the idea of a $19.95 game seem outlandish. But without that, what kind of game experiences are we getting? Ports of existing games, with a relatively small amount of content – levels, characters, tracks, unlocks. Is innovation going to be rewarded? Or are we going to see clones of existing game ideas – a Diablo clone, a MW2 clone, shrunken down to be fast food?
Perhaps the iPad’s app price point is higher, high enough to support building interesting experiences, taking risks, building more games like Bryce Manor.
But a friend of mine suggested that the iPhone/iPad are appealing to a new kind of gamer – a gamer looking for short, disposable experiences. He didn’t say ‘disposable’ – I think he implied it by describing low-immersion, low-complexity, low-investment, short play session games. Does this mean that games are relegated to becoming toys? I think Roger Ebert’s full of crap when he claims games aren’t art, because when you’re playing a game like MGS4 or Dragon Age (or Braid or Plants vs Zombies), you’re deeply emotionally invested in the arc of the game.
Will we see them on the iPad? Not, I fear, if the idea of a best-selling $30 game on the iTunes App store isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds today.