iPad: It’s All About the Games

Businessweek article, the iPad (s aapl) is going to be all about the games. A large portion of the few companies elite enough to actually get their hands on a pre-release version of the iPad are game developers. Gaming is big on the iPhone/iPod touch platform and our own Weldon Dodd’s analysis of sales in the App Store on its one-year anniversary revealed that 79 percent of iPhone users have purchased a game. Contrast that percentage with the percentage of games shown in the iPad commercial: zero. Why this dichotomy?

Practically ever iPhone commercial shows someone playing some kind of game and showing that the iPhone platform is both for productivity and fun. Whether it’s Monopoly or Crash Bandicoot, we usually see a game somewhere in the commercial. Games are fun and the iPhone naturally feels like a game controller. From the moment games left the arcade, we’ve been used to some kind of fairly small handheld controller for our interface device. You cradle it in both hands: one on a multidirectional tool (stick or directional pad) and another holding the device and pressing buttons. Staring in the days of Mattel Football and the Atari 2600 to the Xbox and Playstation, it’s something we’ve gotten used to. Nintendo changed the rules with its Wii Remote providing an interface device that feature more motion in the mix and had us hold the device more naturally.

iPhone games still generally expect us to cradle the device in our hands and use our thumbs to simulate the directional pad and buttons. An additional control scheme of device orientation and motion is featured in many games, but the majority of iPhone games utilize thumb tapping and dragging as the primary control. While I have not been lucky enough to lay my hands on an actual iPad, it seems to me that the traditional iPod/iPhone thumb control scheme will not adapt well to the iPad. Games that work great on the iPhone platform will simply not have the same user interface experience on the iPad. They can’t; the screen is too big and the device will be held differently. Unless you have really big hands you won’t be able to move your thumbs across the whole screen. How am I going to protect Dave’s house from the zombies now?

Herein is the problem. Apple needs killer games to show off how diverse the iPad will be and currently there are none. Steve touted in his keynote the fact that we are already used to the iPad because we are used to the iPhone. That’s only partially correct. Existing games will technically “run” on the iPad, but their play will be entirely different due to the different ergonomics. The game developers will have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how people will hold the iPad and update their games to take this into account. Is it better to assume game play will happen with the iPad flat, or will more people hold the iPad up to play the game? How clunky will using the accelerometer be on a device so large? The only way to answer these questions is to have a real live iPad in hand for testing.

Apple’s seeding of iPads to game developers is not about Apple’s commitment to the gaming platform, but a recognition that games will not translate well from the iPhone to the iPad. Lexulous and Monopoly probably won’t have a problem, but games that rely on fast tapping and hand-eye coordination (meaning the really fun ones) will likely not scale and new iPad owners will be frustrated with their shiny new toy. Apple needs these games to work and work well on April 3.

What will the first game be that shows off the unique features of the iPad the way Crash Bandicoot and Rolando did for the iPhone? How will we interact with these games and finally involve our whole hand and not our thumbs? I can imagine some genres of games that will shine on the larger iPad device, such as racing games (the iPad will make for a nice big steering wheel). Will other games be redesigned for the iPad or will they simply include new controls? Most of all, will we have to buy new games for the iPad or will they simply be free updates? I’ll leave that to the game developers who were lucky enough to have an iPad before everyone else to protect us from boredom.