Tablet Gaming Today and a Look at The Future

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One of the most dramatic shifts in portable gaming history has been the surge in popularity of smartphones and tablets in the past two years. In 2009, Android and iOS devices accounted for ~19 percent of game revenue. In 2010, their combined share nearly doubled, while Flurry Analytics estimates that the two platforms will account for 58 percent of gaming revenue in 2011.



This shift, combined with the rising popularity of "freemium" distribution models in which much or all of a game's content is provided free of charge while a subset of top-tier content is available for a nominal fee, has been hailed in some quarters as a sea change that'll ultimately rock the entire gaming industry and transform the way we play.

We decided to round up a hefty batch of tablet games on the Toshiba Thrive we reviewed earlier this year and see where they led us. Are fingers the future of gaming?  

Maybe -- but there's a lot of work to do.

Ergonomics:


Ergonomics: The study of how to build things no one thinks about while using


It's impossible to talk about handheld gaming without discussing ergonomics and ease-of-use. The Toshiba Thrive's 1.6lb weight is average for an Android tablet and 25.6 ounces doesn't sound heavy. We were surprised to discover just how clumsy the tablet was when it came to gaming when seated in anything but a comfortable chair, however.

Portrait mode is awkward with just one hand, no matter what. Landscape mode is easier to hold one-handed -- it doesn't require the same bending of the wrist -- but there's a significant dead zone in the center of the device where our thumbs couldn't comfortably reach.


Our test vehicle: Toshiba's Thrive 10-Inch Android 3.2 Slate

The 16:10 ratio favored by most non-iPad manufacturers isn't ideal for gaming. The Thrive is 6.97 inches tall and 10.75" wide. The iPad 2, which offers a slightly smaller 9.7" screen, is 9.5" tall by 7.31" wide. While we aren't comparing the two platforms directly, there's no part of the iPad 2's 4:3 screen that's difficult to reach, which translates into more surface area available for gaming. A thinner bezel would improve this situation, but it's also an example of how tablet manufacturers who want to attract gamers may need to re-think their dimensions.

One of the challenges facing tablet gaming is the inherent difficulty in scaling interfaces to suit a variety of devices. What works on a smartphone or small tablet may not translate well to a larger one. Riptide GP, a game we'll show you later, has a particular problem here. The player's movement is controlled via tilting the tablet to the left and right, and while this might work perfectly on a smartphone, it's far too cumbersome for a tablet nearly 11 inches wide. EA's Need for Speed: Shift HD has a similar problem.

User Interface:

Touch control is an intuitively simple concept that's extremely difficult to execute effectively. First, there's the fact that the device is directly controlled by hand while simultaneously supported by them. This makes it difficult for a player to use more than one finger (typically the thumb) per hand.


Fancy, hi-tech interfaces are easier to design when no one actually needs to use them for anything

Another tablet-specific challenge is that the control surface also functions as the game's display. Grouping buttons and functions to the sides helps prevent one's fingers from blocking important game data -- but this doesn't always work. In some titles, (Dungeon Defenders is one), defense tower upgrades are displayed near the tower itself, typically at the center of the screen. Defender is a basic defense strategy game where moving a finger to effectively aim at closer enemies leaves the rest of your hand blocking the display.
 

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