iPod Gaming: Great Idea, Good AV, Bad Controls

Years before I became involved with iPods and iLounge – more than ten years ago, actually – I founded and served as Editor-in-Chief of the Internet’s first real video games publication, which was ultimately turned into a print magazine and purchased by Ziff-Davis Publishing. Games were my personal passion before iPods even existed, and to this day, our Backstage page features some game-related coverage, mostly for handheld systems. So when Apple reportedly began some time ago to seek out game developers for iPod games, I was naturally excited: could the company possibly revolutionize gaming in the same way that it transformed the music industry?

Yesterday, Apple released new fifth-generation iPod firmware that enables these iPods, and presumably future models, to play “real” games; not the black and white or simple color titles we’ve been seeing for years on earlier iPods, but rather full-color, high frame-rate, and music-accompanied games that could at least approximate the experiences had by owners of Nintendo and Sony handhelds. Several outside developers have released software alongside Apple, resulting in an initial slate of nine games: Vortex and Texas Hold ‘Em by Apple, Tetris, Mini Golf, and Mahjong by Electronic Arts (EA), Bejeweled and Zuma by PopCap Games, Cubis 2 by Fresh Games, and Pac-Man by Namco. Though the titles aren’t awesome – Apple’s generally tone-deaf when it comes to picking great software – the idea of a store for iPod games is a great idea, and one that will no doubt blossom as further titles are added to the collection.

Naturally, a couple of iLounge’s editors have spent time checking out some of the iPod games, and our initial conclusions are these: first, from an audiovisual standpoint, the iPod has great potential as a gaming platform. It’s clear that the video chip in the iPod can create better-than-cell phone quality visuals – quite a few steps below Sony’s PlayStation Portable, but at least on par with, and quite possibly better than Nintendo’s past-generation Game Boy Advance. Though there’s no way to output the iPod games to a TV screen – a shame, and one that would give the iPod an instant advantage over existing handhelds – the device’s 320×240 screen clearly shows individual pixels and thereby details in artwork, which when used by the right developers can lead to clean redesigns of older titles such as Tetris, or bland but arcade-accurate presentations of older titles such as Pac-Man. Three-dimensional text and graphic effects are also available to developers in a Macromedia Flash level of quality, while brightness settings are adjustable by the user.

The iPod also plays back music during the games that is acceptable by current-generation standards – remixes of classic Tetris songs are found in Tetris, while Vortex has its own original techno-style soundtrack. Of course, iPod library-style access to your music within each game would be great, though probably more challenging on the iPod’s battery, RAM, and hard disk. Apple’s only real audio problem here is that that everything needs to go through the iPod’s headphone port – unlike Nintendo and Sony handhelds, the iPod lacks a speaker, and can’t play back music.

However, history has demonstrated rather conclusively that audiovisual horsepower isn’t the driving force behind the success of a handheld console; fun, easy to play games and low hardware/software price points are the key. And it’s here that the iPod delivers mixed results, primarily because of its Click Wheel controls. It’s obvious that Apple has been struggling with mapping classic joystick-style controls to the Wheel, because classic titles like Tetris and Pac-Man just don’t feel right. One would think that these games would be easy to translate: press “up” on the Click Wheel to make Pac-Man go up, or use the rotating touch-surface of the Wheel to make Tetris blocks rotate, but the iPod’s controls are all backwards. You move Tetris blocks by scrolling and press the buttons to rotate the blocks. Because the touch surface moves Pac-Man, the game requires an on-screen picture of a joystick to show you which direction you’re currently positioned in.

In simple terms, this is bad control design. There’s something wrong when a one-joystick, no button, 1980-vintage game like Pac-Man becomes hard to play on a device that has up, down, left, and right buttons. And it’s rendered worse by the fact that developers could easily have added multiple control schemes for each game, just as they do on handhelds and full-sized game consoles. Could a joypad-style game accessory with integrated speakers be in the works?

On some of the iPod’s new games, such as Vortex, control isn’t as big of a problem. Apple has essentially redesigned Breakout (aka Brick) as a 3-D title, letting you break walls by shooting a ball down into a 3-D well with circular walls. Moving the block-busting paddle is just like the original arcade game Tempest, smooth and easy with the touch-sensitive pad, and you don’t technically need buttons to enjoy the game at all. Vortex’s good looks are bolstered by some subtle 3-D effects and decent audio, leading to a much better overall gaming experience – the sort we expect will be more common on the iPod going forward.

There’s one other interesting thing about these iTunes-vended games: their prices. We don’t have an issue with the across-the-board $4.99 pricing for really great classic games, and think that many casual players will be willing to spend that much for mainstay titles such as Texas Hold ‘Em no matter how good or bad they are. But looking broadly at the marketplace, it’s obvious that the iTunes Store (and thus, the iPod) has none of the superstar titles people would want, from any of the world’s best developers. Right now, the iPod looks more like the eMusic of gaming than, well, iTunes, and that’s bad news for any serious gamer looking to use the iPod as a Game Boy/Nintendo DS/Sony PSP replacement. Great developers are key to making great games, and Apple should open the floodgates to iPod game developers soon – a Software Development Kit and some specs would rapidly make the iPod a superior gaming platform.

If you like Apple’s idea but don’t like the games, you’ll obviously have other options. Nintendo plans an iTunes-like Virtual Console service for its Wii game console; titles will likely eventually be downloadable for the Nintendo DS or a successor platform, as well. And Sony is planning to make many of its original PlayStation games available as paid downloads for its PSP game platform in the near future, a very similar idea. Apple may be one of the first out of the gate with a game download store for a handheld multimedia device, but further tweaks are necessary to make the iPod the truly superb gaming platform it needs to be to compete with the big boys.

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