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iPad Gaming: Mobile Games Grow Up

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Since its release in 2010, the iPad has gone on to become one of the most successful consumer electronic devices of all time. It wasn't long before game developers started making use of the iPad's larger screen and additional processing power to take mobile games far beyond the ten minute time wasters found on many smart phones. Brandon Cackowski-Schnell discusses the advantages and disadvantages of gaming on the iPad as well as some of the best gaming options on the device.

The iPad has turned into a runaway success for Apple while at the same time changing the way users consume media. With capabilities that exceed those of smartphones, yet maintaining a simplicity not shared by laptops or netbooks, the iPad has carved out its own space in consumer electronics since its release in April 2010.

Ask anyone who has purchased one and you'll probably get the same story: namely that the iPad doesn't do anything that other devices can't do, but it does these tasks so well and is so accessible that once you have one, it's hard to imagine getting by without it.

It took all of about 30 seconds for developers to turn their attention to gaming on the iPad.

At first, gaming on the iPad was limited to iPhone games that, while certainly playable on the iPad, did not take advantage of the system's features. The tablet's big, beautiful screen is wasted on games run on the same real estate as the iPhone, the default way of playing iPhone games on the iPad.

Sure, you could bump up the size of the app to twice its iPhone size, but that would result in blocky graphics. At the time, early dedicated iPad games were upscale versions of existing iPhone games, which didn't exactly cement the iPad as a player in the portable gaming space.

Fast forward over a year, and the gaming landscape on the iPad has changed considerably. The popularity of the system has resulted in a greater variety of games developed for the iPad, with a considerable number that call the iPad their only mobile home.

In addition, the iPad 2's significant upgrade in processing power means that iPad developers can do more with the platform than ever before, creating games that rival what you can find on dedicated gaming consoles. In a short amount of time, the iPad has gone from a device that could play games to one that can easily be used as your primary gaming platform.

To do this, though, it helps to first see where the iPad excels and where it falters as well as discuss a selection of games that best show off what the tablet can do.

Figure 1 Infinity Blade shows off the surprising graphical prowess of the iPad 2.

One of the biggest advantages of the platform is the tablet's expansive screen. At 9.7 inches, no portable gaming device on the market can hold a candle to the iPad in terms of screen size or resolution. Unfortunately, this screen size also works against the iPad if you're looking for a truly portable device.

While the DS or PSP can be stowed away in a pocket or purse, there's no such option for the iPad. Similarly, the iPad's size and weight can make it uncomfortable to hold for extended periods of time, particularly the original version of the hardware, making the iPad more in line with a laptop in terms of portability and less like a true handheld device.

The iPad's touch screen makes playing games a simple affair and makes the device far more accessible to those new to gaming. What you get in accessibility you lose in flexibility, though, and the lack of dedicated buttons makes it harder for developers to bring certain game genres to the iPad.

Any genre traditionally controlled by a mouse, namely puzzle games, adventure games, turn-based strategy and role playing games, as well as tower defense games can all be played on the iPad with little or no loss of functionality. Games that require joysticks, or a mouse and keyboard combination, such as first and third person shooters or action games, require concessions to be made for the lack of buttons. Developers have worked around these limitations by placing virtual buttons and joysticks on the touch screen, but it's still not perfect, particularly in first person shooters where there's a need to use buttons for firing while moving and aiming at the same time. It can be done, but it's hardly ideal.

One of the biggest advantages the system has over other portable platforms is the hardware. The iPad had a powerful processor when it originally launched and the A5 processor included in the iPad 2, combined with a doubling of memory makes the iPad 2 an even more impressive device.

Developers have taken notice of the extra power under the hood and have used this power to make existing games look better, as well as make large-scale games that traditionally would be released only on the PC or Mac. The addition of multitasking brought the ability to stop playing your game, switch over to answering some emails, or surf the web (maybe to see how to get past the level you're currently stuck on), and then switch back to the game you were playing[md]a task that you can't do on traditional handheld gaming platforms.

The iPad also beats the current lineup of handhelds in the battery department, easily going up to ten hours on a single charge, close to twice as long as what you'll get from a charge on the Sony PSP or Nintendo 3DS. Add in the networking capabilities of the device, whether it is over WiFi or 3G, and you have a hardware platform that easily beats dedicated handheld gaming devices.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the iPad as a gaming platform is the economics, which also happens to be the platform's biggest disadvantage. At $499, the least expensive iPad is twice as much as a 3DS, more than twice that of a PSP. and more than three times the price of a DSi. In fact, the cheapest iPad is more expensive than any video game console currently on the market, handheld or otherwise. Sure it does more than just play games, but if you're looking at it as a gaming platform, cost is a consideration.

Luckily, the games are significantly less expensive than handheld games for other platforms. Games range from 99 cents all the way up to 10 bucks with most games exclusive to the iPad landing around the 6-dollar range. Even better, iPad games will frequently be offered free of charge or at significant discount when initially launched, or follow a freemium model, in which the game is free to download and game elements, from items that help with playing the game all the way up to the full game itself, are unlocked as an in-app purchases.

With many games for other handheld platforms starting at 30 dollars, you can fill your iPad with several games across different genres for the cost of a single PSP or 3DS game. Best of all, these games can be backed up to your PC or Mac via iTunes so that you can swap them out as space demands.

Figure 2 Hunters: Episode 1 HD exemplifies the kind of deep and involving game you can play on the iPad, while paying a fraction of what a similar game costs on a traditional handheld console.

One thing to keep in mind is that due to the low price point of the games, as well as the convenience of the App Store being installed on the iPad, it can be very easy to rack up a sizable bill. Using iTunes prepaid cards rather than tying your iTunes account to a credit card can help with this and also act as a natural limit for in-app purchases.

Having discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the iPad as a gaming platform, here is a selection of games that represent some of the best that the platform has to offer. Because some of them are best run on the iPad 2, original iPad owners may find that the performance lags behind a bit.

One way to ensure that the games run as smoothly as possible is to close down any other running apps on the iPad. To do this, double-tap the home button and then press and hold any of the apps shown on the bottom of the iPad screen. The apps will vibrate and a minus sign will appear above each running app. Touch the minus sign to close the app. Although time-consuming to do if you have a lot of "open" apps, this process ensures that all the iPad's resources are dedicated to running the game at hand.

Now, to the games!

Back to the Future (Adventure)

Telltale Games brought its adventure game series based on the adventures of Marty McFly and Doc Brown to the PC and Mac at the end of 2010, and this year the iPad gets in on all of the time traveling, adventure gaming fun. Christopher Lloyd reprises his role as Doc Brown, with voice actors providing spot-on impressions of Marty and Biff. At $6.99 each, the episodes are a little pricey, but you can frequently get the first episode on sale or free to see if you like the series.

Figure 3 Bring back Doc, Marty, and the whole gang with this brand new Back to the Future adventure.

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