Dabe Alan

Say hello to the (likely) best-selling portable game system of 2012: our thoughts on the new iPad

Say hello to the (likely) best-selling portable game system of 2012: our thoughts on the new iPad

The placebo effect?

The effect of the new screen is oddly personal, and some people may not even notice the change. I checked with my own family, and with a wife and three kids of varying ages I was the only one who was suitably impressed with the retina display. My wife didn’t see much improvement, even after I compared two images from different versions of the iPad. I even pulled out my jeweller’s loupe to compare the pixel density under magnification. Yes, there was an upgrade, she finally conceded, but for her it wasn’t dramatic. She was happier with the higher quality camera, but the extra heat the iPad 3 pumped out was a turn-off for her.

I was curious about games that didn’t feature whiz-bang graphics. How much extra work goes into making your game retina-ready? “Getting SpellTower to work on the new iPad wasn’t too hard for the most part. It took about a day to recreate all of the assets in a super hi-resolution form, since I was foolish and created them at normal iPad size in the first place. And for the most part, that re-sizing is what it took,” Zach Gage told the Penny Arcade Report.

“There was one small catch though. Some fonts can look too sharp on the iPad 3 display. I haven’t done a lot of research into this, but it seems like the problem shows up when you’re trying to read body copy at a display copy size. You want the text to be super legible, but it’s running around 40-60pt instead of 8-12pt,” he explained. The solution was to add a bit of “blurry noise” around each of the letters to soften them up, and he sent over an example of how the new textures looked. Pull up the full-sized version of the image on the iPad 3’s screen to really see what he means. 

“It seems to me that the distressed letters are a bit easier on the eyes, without being noticeably altered. Of course, this all might just be me and the few people I’ve been able to test it on,” Gage said. I’ve spent a decent amount of time looking at the two versions of the lettering and zooming in and out, and I can barely tell the difference. “It’s also very, very subtle,” Gage said. Yes. Yes it is.

I’ve spent hours playing games, editing pictures, and reading books on the latest iPad, and personally I’m in love with the screen. I’ve dialed down the size of the text in the Kindle app to compensate for the improved sharpness, and the graphics in games are much smoother and feature deeper colors than the iPad 2. You get used to the change very quickly, however, and now instead of marveling at the new screen it’s just hard to go back to previous versions of the hardware. A number of people who have used the hardware have told me that they can barely see a difference. If you’re interested in upgrading, you need to head to an Apple store and spend some time with the product before you put your money down.

The iPad is in competition with the 3DS and Vita in many ways

Let’s take a look at the numbers: Sony has sold 1.2 million units of the Vita hardware to date, according to data from late February of this year. The Nintendo 3DS sold around 3.6 million units of the 3DS worldwide in its first month of availability. Apple sold 3 million iPad 3’s in its first three days of availability.

Let those numbers sink in for a bit, because they’re staggering. This is a product that starts at $500 and goes up from there. This is a product that many claim is a slight evolution over existing concepts. The public showed up at retail in force to buy the latest shiny device from Apple, even after the somewhat muted response from the press. This is the most successful iPad launch in the history of the line, meaning that demand for iPads is going up, not down. On the other hand, the market for portable, dedicated gaming hardware seems to be softening.

58 million iPads have been sold since the line’s introduction in 2010. Nintendo has sold 151.06 million units of the DS systems worldwide, and that’s adding up every model that has been released since 2004. Apple has managed to do a third of that business in just under two years.

As of this writing, four of the top ten paid iPad apps are games, including the first and third slot. Nine of the top 20 paid iPad apps are games. Gaming is a large part of the ecosystem. People justify the cost of the iPad by touting its uses as an e-reader and productivity assistant, but once they have the hardware in their hands they play a lot of games on it, and someone who just spent $500 or more on a new piece of hardware is much less likely to buy a dedicated gaming system. They may not be in the same market, but they occupy the same space in your wallet. The direct competition is very real, and the installed base is very attractive. 

Not only that, but Apple has succeeded in creating what we considered to be impossible in the desktop console market: The iPad is 100 percent digital. There are no physical copies of games and software to sell at retailers, no software has to be shipped, and no one gets a cut but Apple. While this move would anger retailers if it happened with the Vita, Apple has covered every angle. The company owns its own successful line of retail stores to sell its products, and large retailers like Best Buy love iPad products because they get to sell them next to high-margin items such as headphones, cases, and covers.

Consider a company like Days of Wonder that used the iOS platform to change they way they sold physical board games. Digital copies of Days of Wonder games are now a major part of the company’s business strategy, and their sale increases the sales performance of the physical board games as well. Hell, the CEO of the company wishes he could sell the physical games directly through Apple to take advantage of the audience, and he claimed that even if they had to give Apple a 30 percent cut of each sale it would still be profitable. Everyone talks about how Apple changed the music, phone, and hardware markets, but we’re also seeing the impact that the iOS devices, and the iPad specifically, have on markets that don’t come anywhere near electronics. Not to make the point again, but this is a gaming market. 

Look at the iPad from the point of view of an independent developer and you see an incredibly welcoming platform. It’s not expensive to release your game on the App Store, and Apple doesn’t shove indie games into the ghetto of something like the Xbox Live Indie Channel. Games from smaller or one-person teams sit next to games from companies like EA and often do quite well. Think of how many games became a part of the cultural world of gaming from the iOS ecosystem, I’m thinking of Angry Birds, Tiny Wings, Words with Friends and others, and consider how many of them came from big-name publishers. EA and the rest may be special consideration from Apple when it comes to things like release schedules and possibly promotion, but that’s where it ends. Apple doesn’t care whose games become popular as they get a cut of each app sale whether it’s a tiny game from a new studio or a copy of the Sims. The market won’t tolerate a game that’s more than a few dollars, but the bigger hits tend to be simpler games. 

This leads to other problems, such as the difficulty of promoting games on the App Store and rampant cloning, but there is much more opportunity than there is danger. If you’re a small team and you want to make a splash without spending a large amount of money, you are looking at Steam and the App Store. Nothing else makes much sense. The App Store has allowed a sort of middle class of game developers to exist. It’s hard to get rich creating and selling iPhone games, but you can certainly make a living doing so. Apple isn’t just leeching gamers and hardware sales away from Nintendo and Sony, it’s stealing mindshare and innovation by being so welcoming to development talent.

The iPad has a monstrous installed base, it’s easy to code for, releasing games is a snap, and there is no physical product to worry about. You can’t trade in an app, nor can you buy one used, and no one cares. When Microsoft and Sony look at other companies they want to emulate, they’re not jealous of Nintendo anymore; the ecosystem they’d love to successfully copy is the iPhone and iPad.

With so many great games being released in the $2 to $5 price point on the iOS devices, consumers may soon be fed up with the $30 or higher price of 3DS and Vita games, if they aren’t already. This isn’t just an economic issue, the culture is also in play. Kids are now growing up with Angry Birds instead of Mario. Draw Something is already a huge hit, and it happened under the noses of the press and the publishers. It’s all word of mouth; games spread organically. My mother heard about Tiny Wings from a co-worker before she read my story on the game. This is just one reason why so many writers and hardcore gamers sneer at the App Store: We have been left behind. The populace has become the tastemaker, not us.

But what about THIS ipad?

The screen is better, but the change can be subtle if you don’t know what to look for. The camera has been improved, but using the iPad to take pictures is still a pretty ridiculous thing. The extra graphical power has been put to use to power that ridiculous screen. This isn’t a huge upgrade, but it’s hard to go back to older models of the hardware once you’ve seen what it can do. This is a luxury item in a line that was already dominating the competition. Judging by the sales number, no one seems to mind. 

I didn’t miss my 3DS or my Vita as I played games on the iPad 3 in preparation for this story. My gaming itch was being scratched, and more games were just a dollar or two and a quick download away. There will be plenty of people in the comments who say that they need buttons and aren’t happy with just a touch screen, and that’s fair, but enough people will be satisfied with the experience of gaming on the iPad that they’re not going to put down the money for a dedicated portable gaming console.

If this hasn’t begun to scare anyone else in the industry, it should. The landscape of portable gaming is now split three ways, not just two, and Apple is leading the pack by a huge margin.





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