iPad Games

Transcript of the podcast published November 8th, 2011.

After talking last time about the surge of electronic board gaming through devices like android, iphone and ipod let’s now look a bit closer at the device that in my opinion has accelerated the development, and that is the ipad.

Mobile phone games (or “Handyspiele” as they are inexplicably called in German) have been with us a long time already. The first of these games were little better than the first Ataris or Nintendos that graced our childhood, with choppy graphics reminiscent of the 8bit games of ye olden times. But even when the processors and the mobile devices became more and more like mobile computers the biggest hindrance to the playing of board games on them was simply the small and tiny screen.

Things improved somewhat with the introduction of the iphone – not because its screen was that much bigger, but because it was now possible to enlarge sections of the screen with an easy movement of your fingers. Map scrolling was never easy on a mobile phone – anyone remember playing scrolling games on Nokia phones? That was a fiddly nightmare! – but suddenly it was possible to simulate a board. The first game that really did it for me was the now already famous “Carcassonne”-App – a faithful conversion of the classic boardgame that works really well on the iphone and all related devices. But still, once you tried to do more complicated games like “Settlers” the screen tended to become crowded and you needed magnifying glasses to tell what was going on.

Along came Steve Jobs’ last great invention – the Ipad. First this device was ridiculed because of its inability to act like a normal computer and its limited freedom for the user. But quickly game developers understood that having a device that basically is a  Star Trek – Next Generation computer interface come true created new possibilities for the avid gamer. Has anybody ever analyzed how much the set design of this series has influenced actual developments in  the computer world? I bet many people working at Apple are former Star Trek fans who tried to make parts of the series come true in reality…But I digress.

I first was not at all interested in the ipad – it seemed like a useless rip off to me, a toy for rich people who have nothing else to spend money on. But then a friend introduced me to “Small World” on the ipad, and I was instantly converted into believing in the endless possibilities this device had. Suddenly it was possible to play a real board game with real board game rules and the feel of pieces to be moved around. The ipad is large enough for both players to act like a little game board, and “Small World” actually is a good choice for a conversion as it is a relatively easy but also challenging game with many subtleties. The designers of the “Small World” app also took great care to make the App feel and play like the original board game, using the original design and animating it to some effect.

Today the “Small World” app has aged a little and some things will now be considered lacking in it, for example the impossibility of having more than 2 players, lack of online play and the relatively weak AI. But it was a pioneering app that showed the way to go for other developers. And it made me buy an ipad, a decision that I have never rued, because of its potential for gamers.

In the times of PC games only good board game conversions were a rarity. It seemed like there were only two kinds of boardgaming conversions – either overproduced ones, where each little element of a game turn featured endless and silly animations that got on your nerves quickly, or underproduced ones, with graphics so ugly and amateurish that one always preferred to play the original boxed game.

But the haptic interface of the ipad changes everything – now programmers don’t have to constantly dazzle us with quirky visuals because the main focus of the players is the direct interaction with cards, pieces or gameboards, an interaction that wasn’t possible and not as much fun as with a mouse. Also programming has developed in such a way that even small and independent companies can manage to make very decent and good looking apps.

Let’s look at a new game that has just come out: “Elder Sign: Omens”, the app conversion of Fantasy Flight’s new Lovecraft game. This is a really slick production that manages to bring the visual quality of Fantasy Flight’s games to the electronic format. As the game it is based on is cooperative there was no need to program an AI, and the game works perfectly as a single or multiplayer game. It is clear that a professional company like Fantasy Flight is at the front of such a development qualitywise, but if one looks at the sheer number of really interesting projects of board games for mobile devices it seems like a revolution has started. Even specialty games are in the works – GMT games has developers working on apps of games like Twilight Struggle and Dominant Species, which I find really exciting. Even a small but highly praised developer like Victory Point Games has several of their titles in the works.

As electronic board games – which now for the first time really feel more and more like board games instead of electronic distractions – don’t have to be stored or shipped production costs are actually lower than for a normal game. And it is only a matter of time until we see the first hybrid games with both physical and electronic elements that integrate second generation mobile devices. And one should also mention that the Android market is developing as well, which I think is actually very good, as one company should not dominate everything. Interesting times for the gamer indeed! Let’s look at some games in detail next time!