On its surface, Apple's iPad may seem like a glorified e-book reader, but developers working on games for the system say they see within its extra-large screen and faster processor, great gaming potential.
"Our creative teams are really just digging in and brainstorming ideas that the power and specs of the iPad might bring to life," said Andrew Stein, director of mobile platforms for PopCap games, maker of Bejeweled and Peggle. "Nobody could have anticipated the huge blossoming of creativity engendered by the iPhone and iPod Touch and I think the iPad could easily take this to the next level."
The iPad is essentially an over-sized iPod Touch. The device features a 9.7-inch re-engineered multi-touch screen, a 1Ghz processor and 16GB to 64GB of storage. The device will be available either with WiFi only support or with the ability to connect to the Internet through a 3G AT&T cell service. The iPad, which hits this March, will sell for $500 to $830.
Game developers looking to support the new device have two ways of doing so. Because the iPad will run the same sort of operating system as the iPhone and iPod Touch, it can also run the same apps built for those devices. But those apps will either have to run at their original, smaller size, or lose a bit of fidelity when they are artificially enlarged. Developers could also decide to develop games specifically for the device or to develop a higher-resolution version of their iPhone or iPod Touch games for the iPad.
Firemint, which has a community of 6 million people playing their games Flight Control and Real Racing GTI, say they are already working on an "enhanced for iPad" version of Flight Control.
"We want to do more than just up-size the art assets to the higher resolution," said Alexandra Peters, Firemint's community manager. "When we design a game we always think about the fundamental and unique qualities of the platform and how we can best work with those."
But, Peters says, they can't forget that there are 75 million people with the iPhone and iPod Touch and currently zero with the iPad.
"We wouldn't be surprised if people line up at Apple stores around the world on the day iPad is released but even so, there's a logistical limit to how quickly devices can be manufactured and sold, so it will take a while for the iPad installed base to ramp up," she said.
"Apple has a tough act to follow in the iPhone and iPod touch – they really rewrote the book on portable gaming with those devices," Stein said. "From a technical spec, the iPad looks like it could be a phenomenal gaming machine and I would expect games to be the leading revenue category of apps. Commercially, the iPad is in an interesting niche and we'll have to see if Apple has hit another home run a la iPod and iPhone."
The team behind one of the iPhone's most talked about gaming success, Trism, have no such doubts about the success of the iPad, they're already at work on two titles for the device.
Trism 2, a sequel to their best selling puzzle title, is being developed for both the iPhone and iPad and Trism Spinoff is being developed exclusively for the iPad, said Demiforce founder Steve Demeter.
"Trism Spinoff is intended for a larger footprint device because of certain characteristics such as a higher count of trisms as well as an onscreen metagame," Demeter said. "Trism 2 was originally going to be exclusively for iPhone and iPod Touch. However, when we realized it would be so easy to cross-compile apps for the iPad, we decided to do Trism 2 for it as well. It will look more resolute on the iPad, but other than that, it'll be the same game."
Namco Networks were already thinking of what they would do with more screen real estate before the iPad was announced, now they're moving forward on a number of their "concepts and plans," said Jon Kromrey, general manager of Namco Networks Apple Games division.
That includes updates to existing titles like Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, which will get new capabilities and have social gaming features added, he said. And, Kromrey adds, Namco has a "big announcement" planned for March's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
iPhone game publisher Ngmoco think the device will push developers to make more substantial games for the iTunes Store.
"It is easy to imagine that gamers will be more engaged and less snacky on the iPad," said Simon Jeffery, Ngmoco chief publishing officer. "Games like Eliminate which are perhaps more time and focus intensive will benefit from couch play. We envisage that the iPad will take game time away from the frontline videogame consoles, and drive the usage of those devices to be yet more hardcore."
While more processing and screen space could mean more complex games, the feature developers seem most excited about is the iPad's ability to allow the portable device to become a platform for multiplayer gaming.
"It's the perfect device to have in the lounge room," Firemints' Peters said. "There's something very satisfying about a group of people sitting in a circle with a single shared focus point, whether it's gathering around a camp fire, around the kitchen table or around an iPad. At the moment multiplayer games are physically distancing, either because you're in completely different places as with (massively multiplayer online games), or because you are all facing a large screen instead of each other, as with lounge room consoles. Once a family has gathered around an iPad to play a board game, they are far more likely to try other kinds of games as well, so it could open up yet another huge new audience for all game developers."
Demiforce's Demeter, Ngmoco's Jeffery and Namco's Kromrey also see the potential for single-device multiplayer gaming as the iPad's biggest addition to the realm of portable gaming.
"We are looking closely at extending the Mobile gaming experience to the couch in a transparent, frictionless way," Jeffery said. "It's important that one of our customers can get off the bus after playing an iPhone game and then pick it up again seamlessly on the couch."
Much of the iPhone's surprising gaming success was driven by its ability to tap into a group of people who had never played or even considered playing games. Rather than cannibalize those customers, the iPad could achieve that a second time because the audience picking up this e-reader and video and music playing tablet are likely to be made up mostly of an entirely new audience.
But Apple's past successes have almost always been driven by its ability to stay focused on a single message, a single device. The iPad's launch though, diffuses that message, coming at a time when the iPhone still enjoys rocketing success and the potential market needs convincing that they need a device that fits awkwardly between laptop and iPhone.
Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.