23 June 2009



































Is the forgotten iPod the future of gaming?

Everyone in the gaming world is getting pretty excited about the apparent runaway success of the iPhone. Big publishers are thrilled at the digital-delivery model which frees them from the huge costs and uncertainties of boxed products. Small developers are overjoyed at the speed and ease with which it's possible to create games and make big money out of them. Gamers are delirious at being able to pick up fantastic titles for literally pennies (or even for free), with even the priciest of releases still costing less than an 800-point XBLA game. And you'd have to imagine that even the miserable, greedy old men of ELSPA and the ESA are happy, since the Apple business model all but wipes out piracy, and wipes it out in the only way it ever could be wiped out - voluntarily, because when games cost 59p you'd have to be some sort of raving mentalist to mess around riskily with your console's firmware to copy them illegally.

(Mind you, you can't rule anything out where the be-suited dinosaurs are concerned. The first comments on the Peggle story linked above reflect a very common, and weepingly stupid, attitude within the industry. Even though Popcap made MORE money by selling Peggle at a sixth of the price, it still drew widespread criticism from idiots complaining that the low price was somehow damaging to the market. Because God forbid that lots of people should get to play excellent games and pay money for them, eh?)

But anyway. Today, because it's cloudy outside and there's nothing on the telly, we're going to take a look at the implications of the iPhone for the world of games, and see if it really is the future. And the first thing we're going to do is not talk about the iPhone.

Can you tell which is the iPhone and which is the iPod Touch? There's a clue in the pic.

Because the iPhone isn't the future of games. The iPhone is horrifically expensive - if you want one on a Pay As You Go tariff the cheapest model is a wallet-violating 342, increasing to a heart-stopping 538 if you want the 32GB top-of-the-range job. And on a contract you'll still pay almost 200 for the middle version, with another 630 on top by the time you've completed the minimum 18-month contract. You can get a far better phone, with a touch-screen interface, a vastly superior camera and excellent media-playing capabilities, for hundreds of pounds less than the life-of-contract cost of an iPhone. (And you wouldn't have to use iTunes, but more on that later.) Essentially, anyone who buys an iPhone in Europe is still a bit of an idiot.

But the iPhone's much-less-lauded little brother the iPod Touch is a different bottle of sausages altogether. The Touch is the forgotten iPod - as well as being overshadowed by its near-twin, it's light on memory compared to the iPod Classic (which offers 15 times as much storage space as the 8GB Touch for slightly less money), and big and unwieldy compared to the Nano (whose 16GB model is barely over one-third of the size of the Touch, and 60 cheaper for the same amount of storage). In short, you'd have to have considerably more money than sense to buy one as an MP3 player. But as a games machine the iPod Touch gets a whole new lease of life, and becomes a very interesting proposition indeed.

This feature has already gone too long without a screenshot of Flight Control.

The iPod Touch doesn't require a contract, and if you want one purely and solely as a games machine you'll be fine with the 8GB version, which will hold hundreds of games and can be bought for only about 15 more than the price of the new DSi and 25 more than the latest PSP. (Of course, if you're a WoS subscriber you can still get a 16GB Touch for just 5, but that's another matter entirely.) That extra cost is countered almost instantly by the fact that iPod games are a tiny fraction of the price of those for the other two handhelds, and from your third game onwards the iPod is actually a much cheaper gaming platform.

It's strange that Apple haven't pitched the Touch more aggressively as a games machine. Until recently I'd never even considered it in that context, and I had to do a fair bit of asking around to discover how gaming-friendly it was when not connected to a phone network, but the answer is that it's very gaming-friendly. If you have a wireless router for your computer it connects incredibly easily to your home PC network (far, far more simply than any of my other gaming machines did - getting the 360, PS3, DS and PSP hooked up was vastly more troublesome), enabling you to download games directly from the App Store in seconds. If you don't have a wireless network, you simply download the games via iTunes, then plug your iPod into a USB port and transfer them to the Touch from there with a single click.

Unlike the 360, PS3 and Wii there's no twatting around buying "points" or pre-loading your account with irritatingly unflexible amounts of money - you just register a credit or debit card with the App Store and it takes the appropriate cash when you buy something. (Unlike the PS3, where to buy something costing 99p you have to deposit a non-returnable 5 and just hope you find another 4.01's worth of stuff to buy in the future.) You don't need to remember credit card numbers or security codes, just your App Store password.

You didn't think the iPod had "proper' racing games, did you?

So it's easy to buy games. What about playing them? iPhone/iPod games are often criticised for the limitations of the no-buttons interface, and it's true that the touchscreen simply isn't suitable for certain types of game. For example, while the format has a lot of wannabe Geometry Wars clones, they all suffer from the lack of tactile feedback. Having two virtual joysticks on the screen just doesn't work properly, because there's no way of sensing when your thumbs are about to stray out of the input zone and leave your ship heading off on its own initiative. (And in most cases, your thumbs also obscure important areas of the screen.)

But assuming a modest degree of developer intelligence, almost all game genres can be adapted to work very successfully, using various combinations of the touchscreen and tilt sensors. Driving games, for example, can use tilt to steer and onscreen pedals for accelerate and brake. Or they can use the touchscreen for steering (either by touching the edges, or moving a slider or an onscreen wheel), and tilt forward and back for the pedals. Or in many cases, you can opt for automatic acceleration and control your speed by braking alone. (Pictured above, as one of several control choices in the rather fine Ferrari GT Evolution.)

My personal favourite example of lateral interface thinking, though, is the brilliantly ingenious control in the excellent colour-flipping platform puzzler Shift. Running and jumping is handled with just two context-sensitive buttons - if you're running left (as in the picture below) the right button instantly and automatically switches to a jump button, and vice versa. (Because after all, you never need to run both right and left at the same time, do you?) It's a fantastic bit of design, and makes the iPod version of the game about ten times more enjoyable to play than the Flash PC original with its awkward four-fingered layout.

There's still the occasional blind spot, of course. Despite several pretty respectable attempts like Siberian Strike and iFighter - and of course Platypus by WoS' own Anthony Flack - the iPod isn't really built for the control precision of scrolling shooters. Then again, there are hardly any of those on the DS or PSP either. The fact is, the iPod's controls are easily capable of handling the vast majority of modern genres, and the format offers quality examples of most.

Shift is absolutely lovely, and just one of the many great iPod games sold for 59p.

It's pretty clear, then, right? We've established beyond reasonable doubt that the iPod is the finest handheld games console known to man and you should rush out and buy one right now, yeah? Well, kinda. But so far in this analysis we've overlooked at least two crucially-important features, and both of them make a fairly substantial dent in the iPod's gaming credentials.

The first is battery life. The iPod takes portable gaming almost all the way back to the dark days of the Game Gear and the Atari Lynx. Even at a pretty modest brightness setting, you'll be doing well to get more than a couple of hours of gaming out of a full charge before the iPod conks out. (And unlike the Lynx and Game Gear, you can't just carry a couple of spare packs of AAAs with you.) It's a nasty surprise, given that the machine will play music for most of a day without needing a mains power lifeline, but that backlight really burns up the battery, and while recharging takes barely half an hour that's a fat lot of use if you're stuck on a train. At under half the playing time of a DS or PSP, it's a serious shortcoming if you plan to do most of your handheld gaming outside of the home. (Though to be fair two hours between charges is probably plenty for the average commuter working in an office.)

The second of the two big issues set against the iPod is that realistically you need to own a computer if you're going to play games on it. But although you COULD, strictly speaking, just wait until you were within a public wi-fi access point to buy games - and I don't suppose having to go to the local library to buy iPod games is really any different to having to go into town to buy DS or PSP ones - that's not the real problem anyway. The real problem is that most people who own a computer have a PC, and Apple really, really hates people with PCs.

Apple desperately attempting to fend off PC owners trying to give them money.

Apple's hatred of PC owners mainly manifests itself in the form of iTunes. Apparently a lovely and friendly utility when in its natural habitat on the Mac, iTunes on the PC is one of the most abominably wronged-up and evil pieces of software ever to achieve widespread use.

iTunes is bad enough when it's just trying to manage your music library. As WoS discovered to its cost, literally a single mouseclick two pixels away from where you meant to click on an innocent playlist screen will completely destroy your entire music and video library without so much as a single "Are you sure you want to do this?", and with absolutely no means of recovery unless you buy expensive third-party software and back it up in advance. But when it comes to handling your games, astonishingly iTunes somehow contrives to achieve levels of cretinous, spectacularly incompetent stupidity that are even worse than that.

WoS recently bought a new PC, and diligently and carefully backed up its entire iTunes library (including all apps and games) before attempting the transfer. Restoring everything to the correct folders on the new machine, WoS loaded up iTunes, took a deep breath and clicked "Sync iPod". 1000 of 1100 songs made it across safely, with only one folder having to be rescanned manually, for no very good reason but still only a few seconds of effort. A glance at the iPod's screen, though, revealed that a very different fate had befallen the games folder.

iTunes and the iPod itself are essentially at war, like Tron and the MCP.

Apple irritatingly insist on "authorizing" each computer on which you want to run iTunes, presumably as some sort of DRM cobblers. While in itself that's a simple matter of typing in your account name and password, iTunes doesn't bother alerting you if you're running it for the first time on a new machine, even if you've just told it to do something as potentially disastrous as run a sync operation. (In which anything on your iPod which isn't also on iTunes gets deleted without any confirmation, even if you've ticked the box that says "Alert me if I attempt any operation that will change more than 5% of my total content".)

Instead, what iTunes does is this: it wipes your app folder completely, and then casually says "Oh, this computer wasn't authorized, so I deleted everything off your iPod. Hope that's okay".

(WoS has had to take a short breather to calm down again just after typing that. Imagine the scenes when it actually happened, if you think you can handle it.)

And amazingly, viewers, that's not the worst of it. Because I'd made a backup I still had all the original app files, so it wouldn't be too much of a palaver to re-sync them back on once I'd authorized the PC, right? Well, up to a point. But the worst of it wasn't even the three solid hours of faffing around with the absolutely dreadful Applications window in iTunes. Nor was it the slow, painstaking deletion from that same Apps window of countless unwanted apps that I'd previously deleted from the iPod itself - in order to prevent them from being reinstalled by a new sync - that were necessary before I could get all my games back onto the iPod.

WoS lines up the bombsight over the Apple firmware-development campus.

Y'see, unlike the DS or PSP, which store save games as separate files, the iPod keeps the data... well, I don't know exactly where it keeps the data, but the relevant point is that if you delete a game from your iPod, the save goes with it. Forever. It doesn't matter if you reinstall the exact same game file 30 seconds later, your save has vanished for all eternity. That one single "unauthorized" sync lost WoS three weeks of progress, unlocked game modes and highscores, without warning. (Locked game modes should be banned on iPod anyway.)

(All this was an even bigger problem, incidentally, until last week's release of firmware 3.0, which at least means you don't have to delete apps - taking their saves with them - when you reach the limit that can be displayed at any one time. Now you can keep undisplayed apps on the iPod and still access them from a search menu. In a breathtaking and unprecedented display of petty, naked greed, the new firmware actually costs 6.)

WoS has owned its iPod for barely a month, and has already suffered two enormous, enraging screw-ups at the hands of iTunes, both of which took almost a full day's work to put right. (And obviously the loss of the save files was never put right at all. Those aren't ever coming back.) If you're thinking of getting an iPod, be aware of how bitterly Apple will try to punish and torture you for running it via a PC rather than a Mac.

Flying games, like FAST here, are especially well-suited to tilt controls.

So where does that leave us? Well, the iPod certainly has the capability to be the future of videogames. We're currently in the middle of a great schism in gaming, as the "mainstream" (the people still buying big triple-A boxed titles on the 360 and PS3) becomes increasingly marginalised by the misleadingly-named "casual" market. For the reasons outlined in the first paragraph, the real talent in games design is heading away from the creative straitjacket of the big-publisher model. Why would you take a production-line job as one of hundreds of people spending two years individually tooling wheelnut physics on Gran Turismo 3 or sock textures on FIFA 2011 for a modest flat wage with no royalties, when you could realise your own vision single-handedly on the iPod in six weeks and make 10 times as much money?

As well as up-and-coming coders with heads full of new ideas, most of the individual designers who made us love videogames in the first place are working in the "casual" market now too. They date all the way back to the likes of David Crane, who's been coding games since 1978 and was one of the first indie developers ever when he helped found Activision to work on the Atari VCS. Now he's leading Skyworks and knocking out lots of cute little iPod titles selling for around a quid each. WoS particularly recommends World Cup Ping Pong.

Traditional gamers are also increasingly drawn to the "casual" market. People who loved the pick-up-and-play fun of arcade and 8-bit games in the 1980s and early 90s are now grown-ups with full and busy lives who don't have tens of hours at a time to devote to wading through Gears Of Haloshock 4, and are some years beyond sitting alone in a dingy bedroom playing World Of Warcraft. But they still love games, and the opportunity to kill 20 minutes aiming for a new high score at Harbor Master or clearing another level of Geo Defense on a slim little gaming device that slips unobtrusively into a suit or trouser pocket is an irresistible one.  

The widely-admired Thrust/Gravitar clone Dropship. Pretty lights!

This reporter is certainly one of those people. As someone who's been playing games eight or more hours a day for the last 30 years (so who the hell are you calling "casual"?), with every passing day I feel more and more distant from the trainspotting fanboy nerdfest that is the gaming mainstream. I flip listlessly through the pages of GamesTM or Edge, desperately hoping for something, anything, to catch my eye that isn't Grey Space Marine Apocalypse 12 or yet another glorified 21st-Century version of Dungeons And Dragons but played with a joypad instead of 20-sided dice and a rulebook. The search is rarely successful.

I literally don't remember the last time I bought a boxed game for more than 17 or spent more than 20 on them in any given month, but in the five weeks or so that I've owned an iPod Touch I've spent 81 in the App Store, on games which between them probably cost far less to develop than a single average Xbox 360 release, and with none of the risk. (For either the publisher or me.) It's obvious to anyone with a brain in their head where the smart money is.

Videogaming is going to change radically in the next five years, on that pretty much everyone is agreed. But the people who are currently predicting the total death of the boxed-software market are silly fantasists. The 360 and PS3 and Wii will be with us for a good few years yet, and we might yet even see one more generation of physical-media consoles. (Though probably not from Sony, who can't afford it any more and will have to desperately try to make the PS3 last another decade.) There's still money to be made catering for the ultra-conservative, ultra-predictable 13-year-old-fanboy audience that wants more of what it already knows with incremental improvements, new costumes and lots of fanservice.

Beyond any reasonable doubt, though, the industry's focus is going to shift dramatically in favour of the "casual" demographic, because it's far bigger, far less expensive to develop for, far less risky and - and here's the kicker - has far more cash to spend. Now that the main barrier to accessing that market (the hellish nightmare of non-standard hardware and abysmal distribution structure that previously crippled mobile-phone gaming) is gone, stand back and watch the games business descend on the "casuals" like a pack of starving wolves.

This pic should not be taken as an endorsement of Real Football 2009, which is dire.

As it stands, the hardware still isn't quite up to he job. As noted above, battery life is still too poor and the (perceived) cost of entry is still too high. But Apple are constantly developing the system along intelligent upgrade routes, and some day soon they're going to employ someone with the sense to aggressively market the iPod Touch as a handheld games machine which also just happens to smash the DS and PSP to pieces as a media player as well.

Nintendo's machine is showing its age now, and the PSP has been dead as a gaming platform for two years. The comically, insanely overpriced PSP Go will ironically probably serve only to draw people's attention to how relatively attractive the iPod is as an option, and Nintendo have painted themselves into a bit of a corner with the DS - what could you do to improve it while still retaining backwards compatibility? (Which Apple, almost alone among the belligerents in the games market, has realised is so vital to building a brand.) As brilliant as the DS is, the half-arsed and cynical tweaking represented by the DSi illustrates just what a tricky position the world-beating format is in when it comes to moving forwards.

Within the next year to 18 months (can you really see the DS still being a significant force by Christmas 2010?), Apple will to all intents and purposes have the handheld market to itself. Microsoft and Sony, meanwhile will be ensnared in a python-like trap of ever-tightening circles, unable to focus more strongly on the "casual" market through XBLA and PSN for fear of alienating their core market. (Because if you make downloadable games too good you destroy the boxed-game sector and the hugely lucrative licensing fees it brings in. Plus you need to address the severely-limited hard disk space currently available, which in turn either lands your consumers with off-putting additional expense and facing a lot of faffing to copy their existing content across to it, or fragments your market horribly.)

They'll be left serving up the same increasingly tired and stale products over and over again to a demographic that can see fashion moving elsewhere, and is already intimately familiar with interacting with electronic devices in their pockets. Slowly but surely, gaming is going to drift further and further into the mobile arena.

GTA on the DS: 30. GTA on the iPod: 1.79. You decide.

Apple still needs to smarten up its thinking a bit. It needs better battery life, maybe a gaming-focused model of the iPod with a tiny real d-pad and a couple of buttons (there's already room within the form factor without making the machine any bigger) and some games-focused marketing, and/or some more accessible contract options for the iPhone. And ideally, it needs to kill whoever is responsible for the PC version of iTunes with a brick. But make no mistake, the games market is there for the taking, and sooner or later Apple - which until recently had still been taken by surprise by the success of the App Store - is going to turn its heavy guns on it. If you care about videogames at all, viewers, get yourself an iPod.


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