Game Changer?

If successful, Apple's iPad will demand and reward creative thinking from game developers.

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The media circus which has attended the launch of Apple's iPad has had one unfortunate effect - it's made sensible discussion of the pros and cons of the device all but impossible, buried under a mountain of emotive, knee-jerk reaction from all sides of the field. Apple is a company that polarises opinion more than almost any other, and it will be some weeks before the device, its capabilities and its possible market impact can be assessed dispassionately.

As such, I don't want to talk about whether or not the iPad is going to be a success. What is more interesting, from a games perspective, is to look at the "what if" question - to make the assumption that this device will be successful, that it will hit the optimistic sales targets set out by market researchers, and to ask what happens to game development if and when that occurs.

Already there are competing theories lining up across the industry - a testament to just how important the App Store has become in a very short space of time. Although the iPhone / iPod Touch platform is still in its infancy in terms of market penetration, and does not enjoy the kind of tie ratio for videogame sales which you would see on a more focused handheld console device, the App Store is already making a lot of money for game developers with the right ideas.

The numbers are chickenfeed compared to a retail blockbuster, of course, but the development costs, too, are miniscule - and the App Store market grows in leaps and bounds, making it hard for any games company to ignore.

So what, then, of the iPad - the first "bigger" device to build in access to the App Store? Apple execs describe its launch as a new gold rush for App developers, but then again they would. Elsewhere, opinion is split. Some agree with Apple, with plenty of successful App Store developers lining up to profess their love for the new device and the new games it will allow them to develop. Others suck at their front teeth and ponder whether a more powerful device with a bigger screen will damage the prospects of the smaller companies and bedroom developers who have thrived on the more limited iPhone.

The latter concern, I suspect, is extremely overblown - a direct consequence of applying thinking from the world of console development to a market which has repeatedly shown itself to be radically different. We're all used to the march of console technology, which increasingly demands larger and larger development teams, more money spent on increasingly high resolution art assets, and so on. This has, indeed, had the effect of pushing smaller teams by the wayside, making the retail console market into a sandpit in which only the big boys can play.

The App Store ecosystem, however, is radically different. For one thing, digital distribution to a mobile device with limited storage intrinsically limits how big your game can be, in data terms, while the relatively low prices which the market is likely to bear put a cap on how much can sensibly be spent developing that content. Those two elements impose a glass ceiling on development costs which will ensure that smaller teams can continue to compete effectively with big publishers.

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