If it's successful, Apple's iPad will demand - and reward - creative thinking from game developers
The media circus which has attended the launch of Apple's iPad has had one unfortunate effect - it's made sensible discussion of the pros and cons of the device all but impossible, buried under a mountain of emotive, knee-jerk reaction from all sides of the field. Apple is a company that polarises opinion more than almost any other, and it will be some weeks before the device, its capabilities and its possible market impact can be assessed dispassionately.
As such, I don't want to talk about whether or not the iPad is going to be a success. What is more interesting, from a games perspective, is to look at the "what if" question - to make the assumption that this device will be successful, that it will hit the optimistic sales targets set out by market researchers, and to ask what happens to game development if and when that occurs.
Already there are competing theories lining up across the industry - a testament to just how important the App Store has become in a very short space of time. Although the iPhone / iPod Touch platform is still in its infancy in terms of market penetration, and does not enjoy the kind of tie ratio for videogame sales which you would see on a more focused handheld console device, the App Store is already making a lot of money for game developers with the right ideas.
The numbers are chickenfeed compared to a retail blockbuster, of course, but the development costs, too, are miniscule - and the App Store market grows in leaps and bounds, making it hard for any games company to ignore.
So what, then, of the iPad - the first "bigger" device to build in access to the App Store? Apple execs describe its launch as a new gold rush for App developers, but then again, they would. Elsewhere, opinion is split. Some agree with Apple, with plenty of successful App Store developers lining up to profess their love for the new device and the new games it will allow them to develop. Others suck at their front teeth and ponder whether a more powerful device with a bigger screen will damage the prospects of the smaller companies and bedroom developers who have thrived on the more limited iPhone.
The latter concern, I suspect, is extremely overblown - a direct consequence of applying thinking from the world of console development to a market which has repeatedly shown itself to be radically different. We're all used to the march of console technology, which increasingly demands larger and larger development teams, more money spent on increasingly high resolution art assets, and so on. This has, indeed, had the effect of pushing smaller teams by the wayside, making the retail console market into a sandpit in which only the big boys can play.
The App Store ecosystem, however, is radically different. For one thing, digital distribution to a mobile device with limited storage intrinsically limits how big your game can be, in data terms, while the relatively low prices which the market is likely to bear put a cap on how much can sensibly be spent on developing that content. Those two elements impose a glass ceiling on development costs which will ensure that smaller teams can continue to compete effectively with big publishers.
Perhaps more importantly, the case simply isn't proven as yet that throwing money at development equates to success in the App Store market. Thus far, success has come not to the highest budget games on the App Store, but rather to those which effectively utilise the form factors and capabilities of the device to create a compelling experience. On a new platform with radically different control methods and functionality to existing consoles, innovation is prized over shoe-horning existing franchises onto the system - not just by critics, who always fetishise innovation, but by consumers, who have voted with their wallets for games which truly understand how to make fun happen on an iPhone screen.
This will, of course, change - but not because of the iPad. It will change simply because developers will start to understand how to speak the language of these devices, turning today's innovation into tomorrow's defaults, at which point skill at turning out polished, professional games could begin to outweigh brilliant new ideas. Yet lower price points militate for innovation, even as the sector matures - customers who treat their purchases as throwaway, low-cost "toys" are arguably more likely to try out a weird new idea for $1.99 than they are to buy yet another straightforward racing game for $4.99. Marketing, too, is going to have an increasing impact - although again, with the low price points limiting how much can realistically be spent on customer acquisition, marketing is going to have to focus on intelligently driving word of mouth, and word of mouth is very hard to drive if your product isn't actually very exciting.
Fear that the iPad is about to draw the curtains over the age of indie iPhone development is, therefore, misplaced - not least because of course, the iPhone form factor will remain the dominant one for App Store users for several years, even assuming iPad is a fabulous success.
What a successful iPad would actually do, however, is to fragment the market. This has already happened to a small degree, since Apple's various iPhone and iPod Touch devices do have different functionality, but iPad will be a major new branch on the tree - a different form factor, a different screen size, more powerful chipset and different usage profile.
At present, the assumption is that developers will simply have to create versions of their games for both iPhone and iPad - and it's not entirely clear how the business model for that will function, whether the App Store would, for example, allow owners of an iPhone version to get a discount on the iPad version, or if a universal binary that works on both devices will be plausible.
Yet I suspect that this approach will not deliver the kind of gold rush for which Apple and its developers are hoping. The iPad is, fundamentally, a new device. It's not a pocketable device like an iPhone, which you can take out and use whenever you have five minutes to kill on a train journey. It's not designed to be held in one hand and used with the other for long periods of time; realistically, it's not designed to be used standing up, at least not for significant periods of time. You hold it further from your face, propping it on a desk or your lap, and that changes interaction in a more meaningful way than simply putting a bigger display on the thing ever could.
In other words, developers need to start thinking again about how they approach App Store games. Some games, of course, seem to work on every device under the sun - I'm thinking specifically of things like Bejeweled and recent favourite Peggle here - and they will undoubtedly make decent sales on the iPad. However, an approach which simply makes high resolution versions of existing iPhone games and pushes them out with a new price point is unlikely to be a successful one.
Here, once again, smaller developers can have the edge. The glass ceiling inherent in this device will keep the playing field broadly level; the big upsets are going to come from great ideas which properly leverage what the iPad can do to make experiences fun. Helpfully, there's no corporate monopoly on great ideas. Assuming that the iPad is a success, I anticipate that those fearing an end to the indie-led iPhone market will be pleasantly surprised - Apple's new gold rush will once again see small, creative teams striking the richest seams.