Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.
For the past six months I have owned the epitome of geek chic: an iPad 3 with a Logitech Ultrathin. I bought it because it seemed like a neat and lightweight solution to a persistent back pain problem that I have with laptops. However as I used it, it would draw much attention.
Its appearance on a table in a conference would spark conversations. Clients would stare mystified while I showed them how it worked and then ask where they could get one of their own. Random passers-by would walk up to me at events, on the train or in cafes and start much the same conversation. What kind of wunder-kit is this? How does it work? What kind of battery life does it have? And so on.
Seamless keyboard and touch-screen interaction has been a part of my workflow for a while (to the point that I now hate using laptops), but for most people tablets have basically been content devices. They’re used to watch Netflix in bed or read ebooks in the dark. In the words of one satirical video from the first iPad launch, they have seemed to be little more than a big-assed iPod Touches.
This perception of what tablets are used for also affects how game developers approach them. Studios tend to think “mobile first, tablet second” in their priorities, and with good reason. For one thing, the install base of smartphones is much higher than for tablet. They may be exotic – cool, even – but developers reason that this also means lower sales.
So what they tend to do is create mobile version first and then embiggen them for tablet. Or just not bother with tablet at all, relying on the player to enjoy a magnified version of the mobile app. I don’t just mean for small games from tiny studios. Even comparatively big success stories like Rage of Bahamut still have that mobile-first sensibility.
A tablet is not a stretched-out mobile device. The kinds of interaction that tend to be fun within the tablet environment focus around drawing, multi-touch and direct manipulation of on-screen elements, whereas mobile is more about selecting and tilting. Tablets are also more comfortable to use in landscape mode than portrait (mobile is the reverse), and have more concentrated use-cases: In mobile gaming an individual game session should fit within the period of time spent waiting for a bus, but tablets are often used for sit-down-and-play sessions.
Tablets do not have the same problems of thumb occlusion as mobiles. Many console-style games have found it difficult to translate to mobile because they need a soft joypad, and so your thumbs block the screen. On tablet that’s not nearly as much of a problem (although it still lacks haptic feedback). Conversely, tilting on mobile is a relatively comfortable experience (such as steering in Real Racing), but on tablet is awkward. If, like me, you use stands with your tablet then tilting really does not work at all.
The fluidity of interaction with a tablet is also different to mobile. Smartphones are organised around holding the device in one hand and using the thumb on that same hand to interact. However tablets are either fully held in one hand and interacted with by index finger, or sit in a stand and accept multiple finger input. As I type this article, the screen is within reach. I often reach up to select, move the cursor, cut or copy text – and that happens with much less intermediation than a laptop touchpad.
What this means (for both apps and games) is that the kind of application that works well in one does not work so well in the other. As the market for tablets continues to expand, this also means that that tablet-centric kind of interaction is becoming more important to consider. Multi-column content, for example, and drawing verbs become predominant. Keyboard covers are not yet common for many tablets, but they will be. The first Microsoft Surface is a (flawed for several reasons) case in point. It seeds the idea of keyboard, stand and tablet together.
So if the physical case can be made that tablet games should be thought of as different to – rather than an extension of – mobile, what about the economic argument? Won’t games sell more on mobile, as they already have? This, in my opinion, is not a particularly smart strategy to adopt going forward.
In the last three years Apple has sold over 100m iPads. They still dominate the market, but increasingly there is also competition from Amazon, Samsung, Google and Microsoft. 2-3 years now there may be as many 400m tablets in various configurations out there, going at the current rate. Even the 100m mark is extremely impressive: It’s more than most video game consoles manage.
The price point of software is also an important consideration. On mobile the best price point tends to be very low (Free, or £0.69/$0.99) but on tablet it’s higher. So a tablet user is worth two or more mobile users, if you look at it that way. And given that they are likely to engage for longer periods of time, they are also more likely to be free-to-play customers if that’s your bag. Tablets are a massive market, in other words, but few are the game makers really looking at it that way.
Perhaps the first game that really took advantage of tablet was Draw Something. The mobile version was fiddly and difficult, but the tablet version was beautiful. You could draw awesome shapes, and watch other users do the same, and the size of the form factor simply made it work. Another game that is clearly better on tablet is CSR Racing. The bigger screen lets the cars really shine, and the gear-shifter and accelerator are not sources of thumb occlusion as they on mobile. These games are only just the start, and their attachment to mobile is still strong.
Understanding that tablet is more than just stretched-out mobile leads to all sorts of interesting design challenges. It also creates more of an opportunity to tell a marketing story, or at the very least garner some publicity around new kinds of game. You can delight your users in whole new ways and stand more of a chance of catching Apple’s attention by being powerful, beautiful and without regret.
The real question is: Are you ready to try? Are you willing, as Flipboard did, to go tablet-first and cut down for mobile later? Are you willing to consider game designs that actually don’t work at all on mobile? If you have a larger canvas to work with and new verbs to explore and burgeoning market, are you willing to try and explore that new space rather than the embiggened one you’ve assumed it to be up until now?
Tablets are increasingly ubiquitous, and their influence will only continue to grow. It’s time to get over the big-assed iPod Touch phase and take them seriously.