Apple's next iPad is a tremendously powerful device. It boasts a gorgeous screen and some pretty impressive hardware. One prominent game developer even bragged that its specs trump those of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 gaming consoles.
"People are always talking about blurring the line between handheld and console," Chillingo co-head and director Chris Byatte told Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo during an interview at the Game Developers Conference this week. "This is a landmark device where it's already happening."
Maybe it is. But it won't totally win over the hardcore faithful, the console gamers who are dedicated to their televisions and controllers. It can't. It just doesn't have the controls.
I have no doubt that Apple's iPad will be a wonderful tablet. It will sell millions and usher in a whole new era of entertaining (and often surprisingly deep) games and interactive experiences. I just don't think it's a landmark device. I don't think it blurs the line between handheld and console. And I certainly don't think it can change the face of the gaming industry, as some of the buzz has suggested.
Don't get me wrong: the touchscreen can be fantastic. I've lost quite a bit of time to iPhone games like Tiny Heroes and Ziggurat. Even ported console games like Square Enix's Final Fantasy Tactics feel wonderful on a touchscreen, when they're handled correctly. More and more developers are starting to find unique ways to design controls for the system, and more and more console gamers are starting to realize that it's not just good for Words with Friends (though Words with Friends is pretty awesome too).
To console gamers, Apple's tablet can't come close to mirroring that feeling, no matter how powerful its guts are.
But in an industry where touching is everything, touchscreens can't be the only thing. As subtle as it can be sometimes, haptic feedback is an integral component to most interactive experiences. The tiny click you hear when you push a button. The vibration of your controller. The slight resistance as you pull your triggers to a game's rhythm, shooting soldiers and aliens along with the pulse of your screen. To console gamers, Apple's tablet can't come close to mirroring that feeling, no matter how powerful its guts are.
Nintendo recognizes this. That's why the controller for its upcoming gaming console, the Wii U, blends an iPad-like touchscreen with the joysticks and buttons of a more traditional device. Perhaps it's also one of the reasons Nintendo has been steadfast in refusing to bring some of its massively popular series—games like Mario and Zelda—to mobile platforms. Maybe it realizes that those games need haptic feedback to work.
Either way, I'm not picky. I'll happily play games on both my iPhone and my consoles, both portable and stationary. They're separate entities—almost separate genres. An iPhone game can be just as wonderful as a console game. It's just wonderful in a different way. A less mashy, more rubby way.
With this new device, just like with its last two tablets, Apple will challenge the dedicated handheld gaming systems on the market. And it will do a very good job competing for console gamers' wallets. But I don't think it'll compete for their thumbs. Not full-time. Not without a set of new buttons.