What Games Are: Apple Needs To Make An iJoypad

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

I’ve been an iPhone loyalist since the beginning. Although I never owned one of the original phones, I was always a big fan and dived in with the 3G. I’ve never looked back. I use it for phone, mail, social media, audio and as a gaming device. It’s a similar story with my iPad, but with the addition of books and productive things like writing.

I find the simplicity of touch-based computing beguiling. It cracks me up that today we have a kind of interaction that we’d only previously seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and what we have is often better than was shown on that show. I’m also one of those people who finds iOS7 beautiful, and look forward to getting my hands on it later this year (I don’t usually install betas).

I’ve also never had much interest in other phones. While my Android and Windows Phone friends extol the virtues of those platforms, I tend to find the integration of all my computing devices into the same cloud to be beneficial. I have two Macs and an Apple TV, and at some point plan to get an iPad Mini whenever they make a retina version. I even flirted with using iCloud for mail and calendar too, but that never really stuck.

So it’s in light of all that that I want to voice a concern over Apple’s next big step with its touch devices, specifically with regard to gaming. For all the other uses of my smart devices, I find myself growing bored of iPhone and iPad as gaming platforms, and I think the company is messing up on making that story revolutionary once more. Apple has the opportunity to reinvent game control, but it’s giving that idea away. And I think that’s a mistake.

The Limits of Touch Gaming

I don’t think that my boredom with touch games comes from a lack of diversity in the market. From XCOM through to Home, Dots to Year Walk, there’s a lot of really cool stuff happening in iOS games and I’m sure this will continue. My boredom is about the limitations of touch-based interactions themselves. Touch feels a bit tapped out, as it were.

In game design terms, most touch-based games rely on drawing and tapping verbs. You’re either dragging your fingers around the screen or selecting virtual buttons, and gamey things happen. Some games move beyond this and use tilt (particularly racing games) or even location (such as Zombies Run!). The bulk are draw/tap, though.

On a PC you have mouse and keyboard, left and right click and scroll. On a console you have sticks and buttons and triggers. Both are robust systems for gameplay. Both are somewhat abstract and off-putting, but also capable of a diverse range of interaction, which is the foundation of great game design. This is why they endure, and why the range of games across all of them is massive.

Yet while touch is probably the most intuitive paradigm we’ve ever had, it lacks the ability to support complexity. I don’t just mean that the games often need to remain elegant, but rather that there are many types of game that just don’t work well on touch. When it comes to designing complex and robust interactions, for everything from platform-jumping to shooters or sports, touch has surprising limitations. There’s a lack of tactile feedback or a sense of precision. There’s the problem of occlusion, where your finger or thumb covers a part of the game while you tap on something.

As a result there are very few really decent action games in touch. Endless runners, puzzle, sim and gambling games yes. But not so much platformers, shooters, fighters or action adventures.  Many games that try to make even rudimentary action work (such as The Walking Dead Assault) find that distinguishing between selection of single and multiple units can get very complicated. Often such games end up asking the user to start remembering various gestures.

Add-On Blues

Perhaps sensing that it was time to expand the range of possible games, Apple has released a specification for iOS-dedicated game controllers. Soon you’ll be able to buy a Bluetooth game controller for your iPhone and iPad, and that will expand the range of available gaming verbs considerably. In principle this is great news but the way that Apple’s going about it is cause for concern. It’s not creating a dedicated iJoypad, a cover/battery add-on for the iPhone that reinvents game control all over again. Instead it’s simply letting other companies do that via an iOS update, and so casting its lot in with peripheral makers.

That, I think, is a big mistake.

Peripherals are often a tough sell. For many years manufacturers have created a wide variety of peripherals for gaming devices, such as Thrustmaster joysticks or light guns to play Time Crisis. These devices often end up being perceived as part of the gaming ghetto because of a lack of support. They essentially constitute a mini-platform inside another platform, and so they need their own games to shine. This means that developers need to spend time adding code to support peripherals, and that leads to a chicken/egg scenario. When it gets enough support, the developer argues, then I will jump in. But the platform cannot get enough support without developers jumping in first. So third-party peripherals end up being used only for very niche applications.

However the main exception to this rule is the peripheral built by the platform holder itself. Wii Fit, Kinect and EyeToy are all examples of such peripherals, and each was able to expand the uses of its host platform. When pushed by a platform holder directly, peripherals often sell in the millions. Developers are also much more likely to be enthused by the idea of making games, and often platform holders play a part in incentivizing them to do so. Such devices also have direct support within the operating system of the platform, which means that they can set a standard. Even if clone manufacturers knock out facsimile versions of the peripheral, developers can always work toward the core model, the one that’s set the mould for all to follow.

Why iJoypad Should Happen

Ordinarily that approach is exactly the one I would expect Apple to take. It has done so in the past with add-ons like Smart Covers or the Magic Trackpad, and both have worked well. Vertical integration and end-to-end experience is what Apple is all about after all, its key USP in a world of technology companies that prefer to operate in the aggregate. So that’s why Apple is forging ahead and making a dedicated iJoypad for iOS and changing the game once again. Right? Actually, no.

While Phil Schiller made a wisecrack about the company supposedly not being able to innovate any more, the lack of leadership in the iOS game controller space is a worrisome tell. Rather than reserving it as a big launch story to propel the iPhone 5S and the new new new iPad, the company seems to have decided to give it away. It’s being ordinary, thinking of a game controller peripheral much as PC makers think of Thrustmaster joysticks, and missing a big opportunity.

While millions of users probably don’t use their iOS devices for gaming, many millions more do. Games are consistently the highest-selling apps. Some games bank nearly a million dollars a day in sales. The audience is there, so is the content, but the robustness of interaction needed to keep that story going is arguably missing. Adding gaming controls directly onto the next generation of iOS devices would be a terrible idea because it would detract from their intuitive simplicity. However a dedicated cover peripheral of its own that the company could then make big bones about at the launch? That would sell millions.

Just as the Smart Cover did, Apple would be able to reinvent the meaning of iOS once more and developers would go crazy scrambling to make awesome games once again. Hell, it might even provide that backdoor into making the Apple TV a microconsole. Everyone would want a new cover for the iPhone 5/5S that doubled its battery life and added cool new gaming controls to it. Especially if Jonny Ive redefined control as something more than the unsexy homunculi that are modern joypads.

Let Apple Be Apple

The opportunity to be bold and try something new is where Apple usually lives and breathes, so the decision to hold back is highly out of character. With the launch of the iPhone 5S there will no doubt be much said about fancier cameras, screens and newer apps, but all of the obvious areas for improvement have been done already. Even more retina resolution or even better EarPods isn’t really a story. Nor is a fixed-up Maps or Siri. Those are just expected.

We’re more excited about the possibilities of an Apple smartwatch or TV than a reinvention of something that arguably doesn’t need it. But increasingly it feels so because we don’t expect Apple to make big bets with its core platforms any more. Given how predictable its launch events have become, nobody thinks the iPhone 5S will look much different to the iPhone 5. Nobody really thinks that iOS7 will effect much change other than in visual splendor.

It’s hard to escape the gnawing sensation that Apple is running out of gas. Personally I think an iJoypad could be just the thing to really upend that feeling and let the company be bold once again.