Intention vs. Utilization

Filed under: Rants, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — halbyrd @ 01:42

I recently had a conversation with a friend of a friend at the movie theater, and as conversations among geeks will, the topic circulated around to gaming.  I mentioned how laughable Steve Jobs’ claim was that the iPod Touch was a “gaming device”, in his recent explanation for why it doesn’t have a camera.  In response, the friend of  a friend insisted that the iPod Touch was indeed a gaming platform, and worthy of respect.  This bothered me in a rather fundamental way, but at the time I couldn’t pin it down any further than to say that that didn’t really sit right with me.

In true l’esprit de l’escalier, I finally came up with the answer I was trying to formulate several hours later, as I was idly surfing the web.  The fact is, there is a real, measurable difference between a device that can play games, and a device designed for playing games–a difference of intent, as reflected in design.  The iPod Touch is a PDA running a general purpose OS.  Like any general-purpose computer, it can be used to play games, and there’s ample evidence to support the notion that making games for this popular platform is a profitable enterprise.  Despite all this, however, the iPod Touch is not a gaming device.  It is a device that can play games, among a plethora of other tasks.

The distinction might seem overly fine at first, but there’s a point to be made here.  When we call something a “gaming device”, we are asserting that this is a thing that is first and foremost designed for the playing of games.  Whatever other functions it may perform are to be considered secondary, however well it may perform them.  The Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP are gaming devices, and they make no bones about it.  Sony’s brief misadventure with UMD movies aside, neither of these devices are marketed as anything else, despite the fact that both can be made to do quite a lot besides just playing games.  The form factor, the interface, the inputs; everything about these units is designed around gaming, and both are very good at what they do.

The iPod Touch, on the other hand, is a very confused little device.  It’s named after a music player, but hardly anyone seems to care about that functionality, except when it doesn’t work for some reason.  It’s built like a smartphone, except it lacks the cellular radio and GPS that give the iPhone most of its usefulness as a networked mobile device.  It seems to fall into the much-neglected niche of PDA, but no-one in Cupertino dares call it that.  And now, after some prompting by the tech press, Word of Jobs says it’s a gaming device.

Alright, Steve, I’ll bite.  Let’s pretend that the iPod Touch is a gaming device, and evaluate it accordingly.  First up is graphics.  For a gaming device to succeed at what it does, it needs a decent-or-better screen, and enough horsepower to fill that screen with good looking visuals.  The latest generation of iPod Touch succeeds on this front, mating a 3.5″ QVGA screen to an Open-GL 2.0 ES capable graphics chip.  The PSP beats it with room to spare, and the DS probably out-powers it as well, but Nintendo’s already proven with the Wii that you don’t always need hyper-turbocharged hardware to succeed.  You also want some sound to go with those graphics, and the iPod Touch is certainly no slouch there.

The third thing you need, and one of the most important, is good controls.  Nintendo set the bar with the original Game Boy, and has since raised it with successive refinements to the controls.  Sony’s a relative newcomer to the portable gaming arena, but their experience with the PlayStation and PS2 have served it well–the PSP has a set of solid, responsive controls.  Sadly, however, this is where the iPod Touch falls hardest.  It gives you a fingers-only touchscreen, some accelerometers…and that’s it.  PopCap-style puzzle games work well enough, but most others are forced to make use of on-screen buttons, and they suffer for it.  Three and a half inches diagonal measure does not make for a large screen, and forcing people to put their thumbs over top of it only makes matters worse.  Accelerometer tilt controls help to alleviate this some, but forcing me to hold my iPod Touch at precisely the right angle in order to steer is just asking for long-term neck strain.  Put all this together, and you still end up two or three buttons short of what most games need to give you proper control of your avatar in-game.

In short, while the iPod Touch is quite a capable PDA and PMP, it is not a gaming device.  Its UI, design and controls are almost completely at odds with how a gaming device needs to behave.  I have no doubt that Apple could produce a proper gaming device, if they really tried, but this simply isn’t it.  Sorry, Steve.


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