10 Jul 2010

Let’s hurry along the iPad gaming revolution

I am so excited at the possibilities the iPad holds for gaming, especially strategy gaming. Others have voiced enthusiasm, but I think there’s another level or two of excitement that folks are missing. So let’s hasten the story along because I want to play these games. Let me convince you I’m right, and then you can go make some games for me. I’ll pay $50 for the games I have in mind. Do you hear me, Matrix, Paradox, Slitherine, Panther, Creative Assembly, SSG, Firaxis, Big Huge Games, TGW, Wizards, and friends?

The best examples of strategy games on the iPad right now are Small World and Civilization Revolution. I consider these “console-like” games, since Civ Rev is in fact a port of a console game, and Small World is in the same vein as the recent spate of board game conversions for XBLA, like Catan, Carcassonne, Lost Cities, and Ticket to Ride. I’d like to argue that these titles are not nearly ambitious enough, because I think the iPad can supplant every aspect of PC gaming due to the touch interface. Small World comes closer to what I mean since it uses touch, and it makes excellent use of pretty 2D graphics and sound, but still, it could easily live on XBLA. Conversely, I don’t see any reason all of Civ IV couldn’t be brought to the iPad.

The console comparison, however, is strengthened by the analogy of the App Store to the curated download stores that live in the consoles. John Gruber of daringfireball.net makes the case that the iPad and iPhone are best thought of as “app consoles” (see here). So I expect to see games that are only as ambitious as XBLA titles for a while, but I am sure much more is possible.

Holding the iPad in your hands and using your fingers is a whole different level of control than that offered by the game consoles. An iPad is great for reading, and for touching. It offers terrific precision, and greater immersion than a PC. It has a gaggle of new UI paradigms that are best observed in the non-game apps that exist now, like Mail, Pages and Keynote. The popover menu is one example (see here). All of this can bring nice, neat order to complex interfaces. This, in fact, is one of Apple’s strengths.

I also feel strongly that reading on the iPad is an entirely different experience than reading on a laptop screen or monitor. There is empirical evidence to back this up here (punchline: reading on an iPad, Kindle, or from a real book scores about 5.7/7 whereas reading on the PC scores 3.6/7). But you don’t need the studies really, because if you try one you will see. Reading web pages on the iPad is actually a joyful experience. My theory is that the brain processes visual input differently when it’s being held in your hands. Maybe it’s the reinforcement coming from using two of your senses, even if all there is to touch is smooth glass. Whatever the reason, and however surprising it seems to you, it’s just not the same medium as the PC screen.

So the iPad offers a device where reading is superior to a PC, interactivity is superior in many ways (every device has an accelerometer, compass, and a mic and speakers, which developers can count on), and the UI is different, and arguably superior, but certainly not inferior (touch versus mouse). Plus new UI paradigms exist that smart designers can take advantage of to bridge the remaining gap in screen real estate. So why limit ourselves to ports of simple boardgames? I want to see Advanced Squad Leader and other wargames brought to the iPad as ports from the physical games. I want to see all the Paradox titles and SSG and Panther wargames brought over, as ports from the PC games. (Strangely enough, Paradox announced an iPhone port of Hearts of Iron and Majesty in 2008, but then never followed up in words or deeds. The press release has been removed from their archive, but some game sites are still tracking the HOI port, like IGN.) I want to see the back catalog brought over as well: X-Com, Heroes of Might and Magic, you name it! (Someone is working on DOSBox for iOS, called DOSPad, but it will probably not be approved given current App Store policies.) I’m just naming the games of most interest to me, but I don’t really see any limitation.

After all those games are brought over, there’s even another level we can go, because none of these ports will make full use of the accelerometer and multitouch capabilities, and the greater immersion possible on the iPad. I can’t foresee those games, though, because I’m not a designer. One category of example for the hardcore strategy gamer might be a hybrid approach where a board game or wargame with lots of rules and calculations could have a tabletop component and an iPad component that makes playing more fun. You could even take *that* idea to the next level by making the game even more complex without adding strain to the players. It would be some sort of interactive engine that contains all the rules. Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe what we want are sandboxes with lots of pieces and board configurations, and we can play whatever game we want and enforce the rules ourselves like with boardgames. I’d especially love a sandbox that came with MTG cards but didn’t force the linear application of rules into the UI the way Duels of the Planeswalkers does, but rather leaves it up to me like OCTGN2 or Magic Workstation.

OK, having said ALL of that, I actually do like the way things are going. There’s an X-COM clone in the works for iPad (Isochron), and plenty of SRPG originals and ports coming (e.g., Final Fantasy Tactics in September). As I learned on Three Moves Ahead, Small World was profitable for Days of Wonder on its first day of release, so that will surely be noticed, and hopefully at least all the XBLA board games will be brought over. But what I really want is EU3!