Tablet games hit prime time with iPad 2

With the release of the iPad 2, playing videogames on wireless tablets is reaching a greater level of sophistication and immersiveness.
A man tests the latest iPad 2 at the Apple store on Fifth Avenue in New York. Apple's second-generation tablet will be better equipped for gaming. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

There was a time when I doubted whether anyone would want to play video games on an iPad. It is, after all, just a small screen with a fraction of the horsepower of a console or computer.

Then I discovered the GameForCats app and tried it on my kitties. It’s a simple game where a red dot (or mouse) darts around the tablet’s screen. It’s completely mesmerizing to felines, who are powerless against the urge to swat at it. If they connect, they score points and move on to the next level.

If iPad games can amuse cats, surely they can do the same for humans, right?

Indeed, and there are several indications that tablet games are taking off. For one, the wireless games market – which includes tablet and similar smartphone games – is expected to grow in North America by seven per cent per year to $1.3 billion by 2014, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers. That would amount to about 10 per cent of what consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 will pull in over the same time frame – but it’s not a bad showing for tablets, given the first iPad launched only a year ago.

There’s also the fact that developers are increasingly putting resources into creating games for the format. Electronic Arts, the world’s biggest games maker, has set up an entire arm dedicated to designing apps for phones and tablets. EA Mobile started out simple, with digital versions of popular board games such as Scrabble and Risk for the first iPad. Such apps found an audience with many casual gamers, including the mighty Oprah, who listed Scrabble on the iPad as one of her "favourite things" for 2010.

With the iPad 2, which launches in Canada on Friday, the games are getting considerably more complex, thanks to more power under the hood.

EA’s Dead Space, a sci-fi shooter based on the console franchise, takes advantage of the second-generation tablet’s faster processor and graphics capability, which Apple boasts is nine times more powerful than its predecessor.

A scene from the Epic Games title Infinity Blade, which will be available for play on the iPad 2. (Epic Games)

Having tried the game out, I can report that it looks great – it’s not quite as polished as its console brethren, but the graphics are astounding for something that you hold in your hands. Other releases, such as the role-playing title Infinity Blade from Epic Games and id’s Rage HD shooter, also look good and play more smoothly as well.

It’s pretty clear that with the improved hardware, developers are starting to produce the sorts of titles that even hard-core gamers – who are normally married to their high-powered consoles – will find appealing.

Andre Lauzon, executive producer at EA Mobile in Montreal, says this is due to the fast pace of improvement in what is a relatively new category of electronics.

"The difference in processing power between an Xbox and a tablet is disappearing," he says. Not only is the horsepower getting better, but tablets such as the iPad 2 also offer some experiences that traditional console and PC games generally can’t.

Touch screens, accelerometers and gyroscopes all add physical interaction to games. Racing titles such as Gameloft’s Asphalt 6: Adrenaline HD and Firemint’s Real Racing 2 let gamers steer their cars by tilting the iPad back and forth, while shooters such as N.O.V.A. 2, also from Gameloft, allow players to pan around by actually moving the device.

EA’s Command and Conquer, a long-running turn-based combat series found on both PCs and consoles, also has some advantages on the iPad. Tanks and other units can be placed and controlled simply with a touch, while scrolling around the screen can be done much faster with flicks.

Google's latest Android operating system, Honeycomb, is shown on a Motorola Xoom tablet, which is set for a wide release in April. (Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

"It’s like having a pointer," Lauzon says. "It’s even better than playing on a PC and it’s more intuitive than using an Xbox controller."

So far, Apple has been running away with the tablet games market, but that may soon change. Motorola has announced its Xoom tablet, which runs Google’s Android operating system, will be available in April, while Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion is launching its BlackBerry Playbook on April 19.

Other Android devices have preceeded Xoom, but Motorola’s will be the first to use Honeycomb, a version of the operating system that has been optimized for tablets. The two devices pack impressive hardware features and will likely give the iPad 2 a run for its money, but both are fighting an uphill battle as far as apps and games are concerned.

While none of the app store operators break down how many tablet-specific games they have or will have, Apple has the clear overall lead with more than 350,000 total; of those, 80,000 are games for the iPhone and iPad. Android, in comparison, has only 100,000 total apps, while RIM has more than 15,000.

With the competition heating up, it’s no wonder tablet games are on the verge of explosive growth. It won’t be long before there are hundreds of titles to cater to everyone’s tastes, whether they’re casual or hard-core.

Don’t worry about my cats, though – they’re already covered.