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 game library of the 3DS has improved greatly since launch. The double analog sticks and large touch-sensitive screen of the Vita make it a great system for a variety of games. In terms of sales, however, the latest iPad is likely going to be the most popular portable gaming device of 2012.

It’s worth talking about product in the context of a video game console launch. It looks the same from the outside: people waiting in long lines in front of electronics stores for the next shiny new thing. The demographics may be slightly different, and the need may be a little more intense, but Apple has been able to annually generate the sort of buzz the gaming industry hopes for every five to ten years with nearly constant hardware improvements. Apple also has a bad habit of running its events to announce new hardware or software during video game shows such as GDC and E3.

We waited in line for the latest iPad 3 at launch just like everyone else. The box and branding don’t mark the system as being new in any way I could see, it’s simply called the “iPad.” The “HD” and “3” monikers are used by the press to differentiate the system from its precursors. For Apple, this is the standard iPad. The iPad 2 is now the lower-priced model.

The two most prominent changes to the hardware are the improved “retina” display and more powerful guts. It’s hard to downplay these changes when the device is nothing more or less than a giant, interactive screen. The battery has also been enlarged to power those internals and the LTE connectivity that is available in the more expensive models. The iFixit teardown confirmed what most of us already knew: The system is little more than a battery attached to the screen. The rest of the electronics are tiny things packed into that sleek case.

The screen and guts

Let’s look at specifications for a moment, just to see what we’re dealing with here. The iPad 2 had a 9.7 inch screen running at 1024 by 768. That’s 132 pixels per inch. As tablet screens go, there was nothing bad about it. Most users had no complaints. If you asked them what they would like to change about the system, how many would bring up the screen as their first option?

The new iPad features a screen that may be the same size, but it now runs at a resolution of 2048 by 1536. That’s 264 pixels per inch. That means there are 2,359,296 more pixels in the latest iPad than there were in the model. That’s not a slight improvement. Pixels don’t exist to your eyes when you look at the screen; it’s pure image.

The iPad 3 uses the new A5X chip to drive all that screen. While the CPU seems to have been left alone, the GPU is a quad-core beast, and the hardware now features 1GB of RAM, up from the 512MB of RAM in the iPad 2. The system gives developers more power, but to take advantage of that new screen you need to push more pixels. What we’re likely to see is games that look similar to what we’re used to on the iPad 2, with what amounts to free anti-aliasing and a much sharper image.

This is where we hit a snag with describing how good the games look on the new screen, and this is the same problem Nintendo continues to face with the 3DS. I can’t show you good these games look, because your laptop doesn’t have the same pixel density as the iPad 3. The colors are going to look different. You can get a sense of how the games look from screenshots, but that’s not the same things as seeing them in action on the actual hardware. If you want to experience this, you need to head to an Apple store or bug a friend who bought the hardware.

So what does that screen and that extra power get the player? The games appear cleaner and the colors are brighter. Download and play Real Racing 2 HD, and you’ll see what I mean. There is not a single jagged line to be found. Everything looks clean and smooth, and the game moves at a solid framerate. Even 2D games like Flight Control Rocket look beautiful thanks to the “free” antialiasing and increased color depth you get from the retina display. The problem is that while the extra pixel density and deeper colors give you some advantages, there is a significant overhead involved in keeping all those pixels on the screen. So far I haven’t seen many games that look better than what we were used to on the iPad 2, they simply look cleaner and smoother.

“Developers of most 2D games have to remake all their sprites at a higher resolution to achieve a desirable visual fidelity on new hardware, which can take a lot of work depending on how they originally created their sprites,” Geremy Mustard, Technical Director of ChAIR Entertainment, told the Penny Arcade Report. “Infinity Blade II was easier to update because we created our 3D assets at a super high quality from the get-go, so everyone with the new iPad will start seeing more detail without much extra effort on our part. For example, you can now see all the dents in your armor, the slobber on enemies’ mouths, and even the wings fluttering on the tiny fireflies in the trees. It really is quite amazing.”

He’s right, the game is jaw-dropping on that newer screen, but those details weren’t added, they’re now simply easier to see.

Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy looks wonderful on the retina display as you fly your fighter and take in the view, but some of the bland texture work and simple models for objects in the game can be distracting. Something has to give when you’re running games at resolutions this high, and it’s going to be a give and take as developers learn what the system can and can’t do with the available power.

Another interesting note is that iPhone games with retina-enhanced graphics look much better when played on the iPad 3. Touch Arcade has some wonderful examples of how iPhone retina-enhanced games look when played on the iPad 3.

There is also no easier way to separate the games that have been updated for the retina display and which ones haven’t when shopping in the App Store that we’ve found. Apple is promoting some games as being compatible with the new hardware, and you can see others note the update in the iTunes listing, but there is no quick and easy way to separate games. It used to be games were marked with an “HD” with they worked on the iPad, or filed as universal apps. Will we see a new moniker for retina-ready games? The market is certainly fragmented at this point, and that’s never a good thing.

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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