Monday, March 12, 2012

Smartphones and tablets as gaming platforms

Will Greenwald of PCMag wrote an article entitled "The New iPad Will Not Be a Real Gaming Platform". It some several interesting insights on the smartphone and the tablet as a mobile gaming device. I think though it misses some key points. 

One issue cited in the article is that smartphones and tablets do not use dedicated buttons for controls, but instead use on screen keys to control a game. These leaves your thumbs blocking a portion of the screen. This really applies to "console type" games only, but we will get back to that later. While I have done very little gaming in a decade and my last console was the original Xbox. The only gaming I have done lately has been on a smartphone. Still having several smartphones sitting around, I decided to weigh in the issue. 

The Huawei U8150 Ideos which has a small 2.8-inch screen. You can play games like Angry Bird and Cut the Rope. But touchscreen gaming on 2.8-inch display is really not something which I consider enjoyable. Even Angry Birds is difficult and playing Robo Defense requires keeping the game at full zoom. Even before we get to the issue of thumbs blocking the screen part, the 2.8-inch screen is clearly not suited as a gaming platform.

Next the Samsung Galaxy Ace. The Samsung Galaxy Ace comes with a 3.5-inch display, which is a lot larger than a 2.8-inch screen. Arcade like games, tower defense games and even racing simulations are playable on a screen these size. Fire up a first person shooter, and you start to see what Will Greenwald wrote about. Having two thumbs manipulating the on screen controls, and my hands are covering almost half the screen. 

Moving up to larger devices like the HTC Desire HD with a 4.3-inch screen and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus with a 4.65-inch screen, your thumbs really do not block all the much of the screen. On the 7-inch Galaxy Tab, I do not even notice the my thumbs are blocking a part of the screen. 

So  basically, thumbs blocking the screen is a valid issue. Though I think once you go north of 4-inch it starts to become less of a problem. 

Another issue mentioned is the lack of tactile controls. This is an issue which a pure touchscreen cannot avoid. The best it can give for now is haptic feedback. Never mind gaming. Even something simpler like typing text is easier with a physical keyboard. But well designed games have a pretty good way out of this problem. Dead Space requires the user to touch a particular part of the screen for opening doors and picking up objects, but for moving and pointing it does not require that you press a particular button on the screen. Making the correct gestures on the correct side of the screen is enough.

Devices like the Sony Experia Play have a more direct response to the issue. Slide out physical gaming controls.

This is where I would like to get back to the issue of why the problem is more pronounced with console style games. Console style games were designed around physical buttons. Touchscreens would be better off with games designed for personal computers. Replacing the W-A-S-D keys and the mouse in a touchscreen is not a big issue. Two hot zones which recognize gestures will suffice. But that does mean that smartphones and tablets will require more processing power. Games like Neverwinter Nights and Starcraft would be better suited for the touchscreen than games designed for the console. Touch to select. Encircle to select all.

A problem not pointed out in the article is weight. The Nintendo 3DS weighs in at 227 grams while the PS Vita which has a larger display starts at 260 grams. The 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 plus weighs in at 345 grams.  The 9.7-inch Apple iPad weighs in a 652 grams. The problem with tablets as gaming platforms is that they are heavier than your typical handheld console. Playing Need for Speed on the iPad gets tiring fast. 

The current third generation iPad is already "a real gaming platform", but not the powerhouse platform that will take more ground  from consoles and desktops. While it has more graphics power, allowing for better console type games, it still wont allow for the porting of games made for the PC.

On the other hand, 7-inch or so tablets, now coming with quad core processors could evolve to be the next generation gaming platform. With more power, you might see PC type games coming to the tablet. Light enough for games designed for handheld consoles. They have screen large enough so that the onscreen controls are not distracting. 

Imagine the possibilities if Google has Sony build its Nexus tablet, the Google Nexus Play, or if Apple were to release a 7-inch iGame,  and got companies like Blizzard and Bethesda on board.

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