The killer app for Apple's tablet: Gaming

This guest post is by Jeff Scott, founder and publisher of 148Apps, a blog providing fanatical coverage of everything iPhone and hopefully soon, the Apple tablet.

While we still don’t know the name of the new tablet device; could be iPad, iTablet, iSlate, iCanvas, or an extension of the MacBook name. But what we do know, due to many recent leaks on the announcement coming from Apple next week, the tablet is being targeted as a gaming device.

Connections with the device and gaming started when the Wall Street Journal reveled that Apple had been working with Electronic Arts purportedly to have games available to demo for the device reveal on January 27th. What games EA will be presenting, we don’t know. This follows earlier reports that Apple had been in contact with “select developers” to create apps to showcase on the device. At that time we were unable to find anyone to admit to working with Apple for the Tablet launch.

Then in the last couple days came indications from many gaming related publications small and large that they had been invited to the special Apple event on 1/27. This shows a clear push by Apple to have the device covered in the games press, pointing to gaming as a major target for the device.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Apple tablet as a gaming device.


The tablet device is expected to have a stronger processor than the iPhone 3GS which will make it well suited for games. But it’s also expected to have a screen resolution of at least 640×800 since it will also have a larger screen. This means that the device will have to work harder to put graphics on the screen with 4 times or more the resolution of the iPhone. An upgraded graphics co-processor will help with that to some extent — as will extra RAM. I think we can expect all of those.

Form Factor

The tablet is expected to be rather large compared to the iPhone. Rumors range from a 7″ to 11″ screen. My bet is on 2 models — one at the low end and one at the high end. The smaller one targeted at gaming and the larger for more general use.

Imagine if your iPhone had an 11″ screen — roughly 9 times the size of your current iPhone. Picking up that device and moving and tilting it to control an accelerometer based game. Similar in size to lifting and tilting your laptop to control a game. It would get tiring, quickly. Especially for us lazy Americans.

Moving an 11″ device around quickly to play a twitch game makes little sense, really. Not to mention the potential for damage to the device and it’s surroundings. Think of all of the stories and pictures we saw of the Wii controller being thrown into TVs, windows, and faces. It will be that same story all over again. But this time you are throwing around a potentially $1,000 device not a $45 controller.

On the other hand, a 7″ device, roughly 4x the size of the iPhone wouldn’t be nearly as bad. Still rather large for a portable gaming device, but much more workable.

Operating System

All indicators are pointing to the tablet running an expanded version of the iPhone OS 4. We can assume the major new features of that OS will be resolution independence and support of more hardware varieties. Much as OS X has been created to work on different platforms, processors, devices.

The expanded iPhone OS will likely include an update to the way you view the installed apps on the device. Having a 4×5 grid on an 11″ screen wouldn’t be too appealing.

I expect we’ll see iPhone OS 4 beta released to developers quickly. It’s expected to be a fairly big change to allow it to support the tablet. It’s early release to developers will give them extra time to update their apps before the general release.

Data Connection

I think we can say that Wifi connectivity is a given. The question is will there be some form of cellular data connectivity with AT&T or Verizon? I think it’s likely — but I really hope it will be optional and not required to purchase the device. I really don’t relish the idea of paying AT&T (or Verizon) an extra $60-$100 a month to use another device.

Another option, while a long shot, is be that it will tether to the iPhone in your pocket utilizing it’s data network. That is once AT&T finally support tethering that is. I find this much more appealing and hope it will be an option.

Expect connectivity and cloud services to be a major push for the tablet. Mobile Me has been moving further that way with each revision. Apple also recently bought LaLa, a cloud music service. Many see iTunes going toward the cloud and the tablet would be a great device to take advantage of that.

We might even see an officially supported social gaming network from Apple like XBox Live from Microsoft. And I don’t think it’s out of the question to think Apple might jump-start this by buying out one of the networks already created, it’s not very likely.

Interface / Game Controls

We can assume that there will be no joysticks or control pads on the device. That would be very non-Apple. Apple has committed heavily to multi-touch control and we expect to see more of that for the tablet. And for games, that’s pretty good news.

While many prefer hardware controls, developers of iPhone games have made great use of multi-touch as controls for games. Here’s an example of TouchGrind — one of the games with the most interesting and unique interfaces on the iPhone — running on a Mac and utilizing the multi-touch trackpad on that laptop.


The advantage of a large multi-touch screen becomes instantly clear after seeing that video. While the iPhone is limited by hardware to 5 simultaneous touches on the screen, realistically it’s more like 2-3 to provide good control without obscuring the whole screen. With a larger screen, you are presented with more options for multi-touch.

Unfortunately, this also exposes the main issue with multi-touch, obscuring the screen. This is multiplied when you have a larger screen. Notice in the above video that the game uses the trackpad as the multi-touch device not the screen. When you touch the screen, you obscure parts of the display. With an iPhone, it’s just your fingers in blocking parts of the screen. With a larger device, your whole hand gets in the way obscuring even larger parts of the screen.

There have been some rumors floating around about the potential for a touch sensitive back on future iPhone devices – similar to the top of the Magic Mouse. And there have been insiders quoted stating that we will be shocked at how we interact with the tablet. Putting two and two together, it’s not out of this world to think that the tablet might be the first device with a multi-touch sensitive back. Another possibility, as seen in the Palm Pre and other mobile devices, an area on the front, apart from the screen, that can be used as a touchpad.

While I’m sure the accelerometer will be included in the device — as it will be required to be compatible with some iPhone apps and games. It doesn’t make as great of a method to control games in a large device. As mentioned earlier, the thought of quickly moving around a large, expensive device like this, is rather scary. Not to mention that the games on the iPhone that use the accelerometers are tuned for the movement of a small device — moving a larger device will make all of these games seem a little off until they are tuned.

iPhone Apps on a Tablet

It is pretty certain at this point that the tablet will run iPhone apps and games, hopefully unmodified. It’s possible that they will need to be certified to work on the device though — much the same process we had with OS 3 and apps being certified to work with that new version of the iPhone OS. Compatibility with the tablet will likely be the biggest factor of the iPhone OS 4 certification.

The Games

Using games designed for a 320×240 screen on and increased screen size brings up issues. One of them being that if the game display is just scaled up to fit the screen, the graphics will look rather chunky. Most games use sprites sized specifically for the screen size of the iPhone. Up to this point that has always been 320×480. The tablet will have a larger screen resolution and require new graphics to take full advantage of that for full screen apps without scaling. This isn’t something that’s easy or quick to change. It could take a lot of work depending on how many different raster graphics there are in the games.

3D games are less effected as they can scale. But they will still take some work and updated graphics to be properly tuned to the larger screen size. Some of the textures used for the 3D objects may need to be upgraded for instance. And performance will most certainly need to be tuned for the larger screen size.

Multiplayer Games

While there have been a few instances of simultaneous multiplayer games on the iPhone, the small screen makes it difficult. A device with a larger screen will make that experience much more compelling. Both traditional games, like board games, and arcade games could take advantage of the larger screen and increased multi-touch capabilities to support multiplayer games.

Imagine a high resolution Scrabble, Chess, Checkers, etc. game on the tablet device where you can play either simultaneous multiplayer on a single device or across multiple devices.

Beyond traditional games, a first person shooter could use the device split screen and allow multiple players to compete in the same game.

Tablet Games Demoed

With all of the games press invited Wednesday we know that we will see some games demoed on the new device. For early demos Apple generally sticks with large developers — ones they can trust with keeping secrets — when choosing who to demo a new device. We heard previously from a developer who had 3 days, sequestered at the Apple campus, to develop a demo of in-app purchasing before the press event for iPhone OS 3.0. They will also occasionally throw in a small developer if the risk is worth it for a really good demo.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Apple has been working with EA to create a games demo for the tablet. We can say pretty certainly that EA will show one or more of their games at the event. First guess is that it will be something we haven’t seen from them yet, not just one of their games updated for the new device. Apple likes to make a big splash with the demos at press events.
scaled.MirrorsEdge iPhone
Another possibility is that we will see Mirror’s Edge. When Mirror’s Edge was first shown late last year, it looked fantastic and was one of the first games EA had really developed specifically for the iPhone. We heard recently from EA that Mirror’s Edge had been delayed at the last minute. That along with the story of EA working with Apple to demo the tablet raises a red flag and makes it a candidate to be shown Wednesday. Apple is known for asking developers to delay apps to be shown at large press events like this. Perhaps EA delayed the game to tune it properly for the tablet.
Another possibility is World of Goo. After contacting 2D Boy over a year ago looking for info on World of Goo for the iPhone we’ve been in contact occasionally. They announced a running prototype in October for World of Goo for the iPhone. At that time they said I should contact them in a month for more details as the game needed to be tuned. Since then they have been silent and haven’t responded requests for info. Another red flag raised — perhaps Apple contacted them and asked them to work on a tablet version and required them to be quiet on the whole thing. World of Goo could make a really good multi-touch game.

I’m have sent 2D Boy this theory and await their response. Even a ‘no comment’ would be good news for this theory.

Apple and ngmoco:) have had a pretty close relationship with ngmoco:) demoing at multiple different Apple press events. That and ngmoco:) also been rather quiet lately. That might indicate they are working with Apple and we may see something from them on Wednesday.

iTunes Account Sharing

Currently, you can authorize up to five desktop machines under a single iTunes account. This means that those five machine are authorized to play any protected content that account purchases. And, those five machines can sync to as many iPhone OS devices as you wish. So you can have an iTunes Account and all apps purchased on that account, shared amongst every member of your family – no matter how large that family is.

But, will that licensing model extend to the tablet? It makes sense for Apple to extend the license to the tablet as it will help them for sales of the new device. If you can have the same apps on your iPhone as your tablet without paying extra, that will make people happy. I don’t relish the thought of having to purchase apps for the iPhone and re-purchasing for the tablet to use them there.

But it can also be said that the tablet is more of a computer than the iPhone. And most software for desktop computers is licensed per machine. There could be some push back from developers on this. But initially I think we’ll see that it will be able to work with all of the iPhone apps you have already purchased.

Game Prices

As we all know, the prices for games on the iPhone are unbelievably low. Low even compared to other mobile platforms and especially so compared to the other mobile gaming devices.

Will Apple find a way to drive prices higher for apps on the tablet? While we expect the tablet will be seen from an App Store perspective as just another iPhone OS device — like the iPod Touch — it’s possible that Apple will segment certain tablet apps. Perhaps we’ll see multiple versions of the same games — some for the iPhone that work on the tablet — and extended versions just for the tablet.

Another possibility is that the rumored premium app store will actually be for expanded tablet apps. We may see expanded apps — apps to take advantage of specific tablet hardware like the increased screen size — segmented and at higher price points on a premium app store.

There are a lot of possibilities on what the tablet could be. But no matter how it comes out, we know Apple is going to push it, much like it has the iPod Touch, as a gaming device. How successful it will be is up to the app developers.

All of our questions will be answered soon. I for one am very excited for the announcements on Wednesday. While I don’t consider myself a hard-core Apple fan boy, I am very excited to see this new Apple creation and what it will mean for mobile gaming.