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Thursday, October 25, 2012

[NEWS] Could the iPad Mini Be a Gaming Game-Changer?

Unsaid at Wednesday’s Apple AAPL +0.57% press conference unveiling the new device is that it could well be a game-changer in iOS gaming – and maybe one day, the console-gaming — arena. Call it a stealth capability, but the iPad Mini is suddenly an extremely viable controller for iOS gaming. It also ups the ante as a pretty powerful seven-inch gaming platform, in and of itself. While I haven’t held one yet, looking at the specs, it should fit comfortably in one hand at 7.9 inches long by 5.3 inches wide. It’s not particularly heavy, at .68 lbs., and it has AirPlay streaming capability.
A quick word about iOS gaming: It’s huge. While the Xbox Live and PlayStation Network garner a lot of attention, ballpark figures show it’s no longer just about console gaming. Apple says its Game Center has over 160 million active accounts. It’s not a complete Apple-to-apples comparison, but the Game Center’s headline number is bigger than the combined subscribers for Microsoft MSFT -0.52%’s Xbox Live (over 40 million) and Sony 6758.TO -1.14%’s PlayStation Network (around 90 million).
Apple said it has had 35 billion app downloads since launching its app store. There are over 600,000 apps in its store, including over 250,000 for iPads. Just look around and you’ll see a lot of iOS gamers slashing away at their screens, playing Fruit Ninja or slinging Angry Birds or even playing high-octane, graphically beautiful racing or adventure games.
That said, the iPad’s chip and graphic specs, to date, haven’t been screamingly good enough to offer anything like the PS3 or Xbox 360 experience, and the iPad Mini, at its relatively low price of $329, won’t be next-generation on the chipset or graphics fronts. But compared to other tablets its size, the iPad Mini, with its dual-core A5 chip, packs a punch greater than nearly all rival Android tablets of similar dimensions.
Apart from time-wasters and some graphically interesting, but not particularly deep or intense iOS games, the iPad — and to some extent, the iPhone — have been interesting second screens for console games. So far this year, companion apps to new games are “in,” with several publishers including them in the Apple app store to build community and further bind players to their game’s virtual universe Electronic Arts EA -2.74%, for example, lets you check virtual hockey and soccer scores and stats from your NHL 13 or FIFA Soccer 13 leagues. You can also trade players and sign free agents via the iOS app in NHL 13. This second-screen development, I’d characterize as “nice-to-have,” but not “must-have.”
A more-interesting development will come later this week, when Microsoft releases its SmartGlass application alongside the launch of its new Windows 8 operating system. The app, which Microsoft says will sync Windows 8 devices with the Xbox 360 via user accounts, moves mobile devices from second screen to first screen. At the very least, it creates interesting possibilities to use a Windows phone or Windows-powered tablet as a game controller or to enhance a console game experience.
With the impending launch of the WiiU, you can already see the elevation of the “dumb” plastic controller into the realm of “smart” controller, by adding a color touchscreen to the buttons and joysticks. Overall, you can foresee the day when it’s not clear where your phone or tablet ends and your gaming console or computer begins.
It’s not that Apple has lagged behind, but because of its proprietary hardware and software, it tends to exist in its own tightly controlled universe. Integration in that universe has already begun. It began several years ago, in fact. My home TV in Hong Kong displays my U.S DirecTV DTV -0.45% feed via Slingplayer on a Macbook using my apartment’s Wifi. On that same Wifi network is my iPhone 4S, which, via an app called “remoteMouse,” serves as my TV remote control. Friends of ours in Hong Kong and elsewhere stream photos, music or movies wirelessly to their TVs, using the AirPlay function in their iPhones, iPads or Mac computers via their AppleTV box or to devices, like special AirPlay speakers or receivers.
The iPad Mini quietly promises more convergence, especially on the gaming front. While SmartGlass is being tabbed as a Windows 8-Xbox 360 binder, it will also be available as an iOS app. Playing a car road-racing game like Forza Horizon, which just came out Tuesday, you can turn your iPhone or iPad into a GPS device that syncs with your console game account. It’s not a stretch to see more of that from console game developers, who will like the 7.9 inches of screen real estate the iPad Mini will provide.
I don’t know if the timing was coincidental, but 2K Games, while not specifically mentioning the new Apple device, announced just hours after the iPad Mini press conference from Apple, that it had begun development of a Borderlands game for iOS.
As well, for specific iOS games, I can see the day coming very soon when I will play a game on my TV, via Macbook, controlling the action with my iPad Mini – or even having what happens on the screen of my iPad Mini factoring directly into the game on the bigger screen.
I’m certainly not the first to point out the iPad Mini’s gaming potential, and it’s not a great secret, though exactly how it will develop into a controller or a first-screen “must-have” gaming device, will take some time and developer acumen. Since Apple’s announcement Wednesday, the Web has been abuzz with thoughts about what gaming niche the device will fill.
Chris Buffa, at Gametrailers, wrote that the iPad Mini’s $329 starting price point and small size means more iOS games in the hands of more gamers.
Dean Takahashi of Venturebeat spoke with developers, who see multiple opportunities for the iPad Mini to extend Apple’s reach in the gaming sector. One of his sources noted the iPad Mini essentially becomes the first 7-inch tablet that can render 3-D games comfortably.
And to my point about the iPad Mini’s role in the future of AirPlay, CultofMac’s Rob Lefebvre calls the new device, “the perfect gaming controller.”

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