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Tablet Gaming Today and a Look at The Future
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Date: Dec 12, 2011
Section:Mobile
Author: Joel Hruska
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Introduction
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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Angry Birds, B&G, Dungeon Defenders, Fruit Ninja
We tested Angry Birds, Blood and Glory, Defender, Dungeon Defenders: Second Wave, Fruit Ninja Free, Galaxy on Fire 2: THD, Need for Speed: Shift (Demo), Pinball HD for Tegra, Riptide GP, Samurai II: Vengeance, Shadowgun, and Sprinkle. We should thank NVIDIA for providing us with access to some TegraZone titles, but we also took care to test games available for download in the regular Android Market.

Tegra Pinball is...pinball. It's noteworthy mostly because it's the only game we found that uses the Thrive's portrait mode to good effect. The others, we'll discuss below.


Sprinkle's design uses fluid dynamics to manipulate the environment and fight fires

Angry Birds and Sprinkle (the latter tasks you with putting out fires) are both brain teaser games where the goal of the interface is to provide an invisible translation layer between you and the game. Pick a trajectory / adjust the sprayer, and watch the results. Complexity is added through creative physics and fiendish puzzles.


Fruitality!

Fruit Ninja is another highly popular title that utilizes an interface so minimal, it scarcely deserves the name. In Fruit Ninja, your finger is a blade. You slash fruit. Slashing more fruit simultaneously = more points, while slashing a bomb = instant death.


Blood and Glory: Sword and sandals meet Infinity Blade

Blood and Glory is a free Infinity Blade-style gladiatorial combat game with gorgeous graphics and a mostly touch-based combat system, but the game has trouble differentiating between offensive and defensive combat moves. It was the one title that felt a bit jerky on our Toshiba Thrive. (Reviews of the game itself vary)


Dungeon Defenders: Second Wave features all campaigns and game modes of the PC Steam release

Dungeon Defenders: Second Wave is an amazingly good free action/RPG 3D tower defense title. The interface, menus, and in-game commands are all well designed and player control, while somewhat awkward, doesn't require a high degree of finesse. DD's graphics and level design are both excellent; any fan of tower defense games who want a little RPG action on the side should grab this one.

DD's interface stands out as one of the better examples we encountered. It's not perfect -- the game badly needs a 'Confirm' button when launching the next wave of attacks, and falling into lava pits due to clumsy character controls is downright annoying. Despite these flaws, DD is a great game and a good example of how complex functions can be mapped to touchscreens, even if the formula isn't perfect yet.

Tenets of Touch:

Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, and Sprinkle directly map movement to in-game results. Whatever direction you move your finger, that's the direction of your sword cut / bird trajectory. Sprinkle modifies this slightly--putting your finger on top of the crane moves it up or down, while resting a digit anywhere else adjusts the hose trajectory.

Blood and Glory still maps touch directly to action, but there's a bit more symbolism involved. Gestures are translated into certain specific movements and must be timed appropriately to be successful.

Finally, there's games like Dungeon Defenders. Unlike the other titles we've discussed thus far, DD essentially emulates a conventional control scheme on a touch pad, and does so rather well. This approach makes sense -- any time a new medium is invented, the first works created for it tend to be "ports" of existing projects -- an awful lot of early movies were films of preexisting stage plays, for example.

There are, however, significant limitations to a touchpad's ability to emulate a controller.
 
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The Games: Shadowgun, Samurai II, Galaxy on Fire 2
The FPS Shadowgun, meanwhile, is as notable for what doesn't work as for what it gets right. As far as graphics go, Shadowgun is absolutely gorgeous. It packs more eye candy than any of the other games we tested. If we had an award for the Title Most Likely To Be Mistaken For A Console Game award, Shadowgun would win.


Shadowgun - The fire and reload buttons are both visible above.

The game's interface also deserves credit as being the most flexible, innovative attempt to mimic FPS functionality that we've yet seen. The left-hand side of the screen is a dynamic D-pad that automatically maps itself to wherever your finger happens to rest. Move your hand up the side of the tablet, and the D-pad moves with you. Movement speed is determined by how far your finger moves from the "center" of the D-pad. Shadowgun, Galaxy On Fire 2, and Samurai II: Vengeance all use this basic control scheme, but only Shadowgun remaps the D-pad on the fly. In the absence of tactile feedback, this is a welcome feature.

The right hand aims and handles the two buttons dedicated to reloading and firing; the former remaps as a contextual "Use"button if there's something in the environment that needs to be manipulated. Move close to cover, and John Slade, the titular character, obligingly hides.

It's clear that the game's developers spent an enormous amount of time developing its UI, which is why we regret having to label Shadowgun a bit of a snoozer. It's an unintentional example of how certain game designs don't translate well when converted to new mediums. If controllers are lousy for aiming in an FPS, Shadowgun proves that fingers are worse, even with aim sensitivity turned all the way up.

The problems go deeper than a reticent reticule. Modern first-person shooters, even the console versions, make considerable use of cover, dodging, crouching, and sprinting. Shadowgun makes limited use of cover, but can't incorporate the others due to fundamental limitations in its UI. Circle-strafing is literally impossible -- the game only recognizes two simultaneous button presses. Even if it were possible, it would require the player to move both hands simultaneously in opposite directions with no tactile feedback for guidance while different fingers on the right hand handled shooting and reloading.

Without these options, Shadowgun is little more than a series of long runs down gorgeous hallways with frequent pauses to kill enemies who duck behind cover but don't otherwise move much.


Samurai II Vengeance - Cell-shaded slaughter

Samurai II: Vengeance is a cell-shaded (mimics cartoon rendering) game with an emphasis on hacking and slashing your way through armies of Japanese ronin. The game features a number of slow-motion decapitations and improbable eviscerations. It's extremely linear and offers limited combos and other fighting moves, but it's fun -- provided you don't mind hearing the same three grunts repeated over. And over. And over.



The original Galaxy on Fire 2. Note the relatively simple texturing on the space station.

Before we talk about Galaxy on Fire 2, we need to explain the game's different versions. The original flavor of the game shipped for Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play when that phone launched earlier this year, at a price of ~$12. Next came Galaxy on Fire 2 THD, which is a Tegra-optimized version of the game that's free for Tegra owners. That's the one we used for our coverage.


Galaxy on Fire 2 - The updated version for Tegra 2

In November, developer Fishlabs released Galaxy on Fire 2 HD;  a full remake for the iPhone 4S and iPad 2. The developer rebuilt all of the 3D models used in game, added new backgrounds and images, additional lightmaps, and native support fort both 1024x768 and 960x640 at a price of $9.99.

Mac owners can also buy Galaxy on Fire 2 Full HD, a further redesign aimed at pushing the hardware of a modern PC. The price is $19.99 and a PC version is coming soon. This is one of the first times we've seen a title debut as a mobile game only to scale upwards so aggressively and quickly, and it could be a sign of things to come as the gap between consoles and tablets narrows.

GoF2 is easily the most ambitious of the games we tested and offers the closest thing to a real story. The voice acting is...well, frankly, it's absolutely terrible, but this could be spun as "charmingly retro" to anyone who remembers the early days of voiceovers. Unfortunately, the storyline is pretty darn thin;  there's no sign of the space opera plots that defined games like Wing Commander or the Freespace series. GoF2 is more akin to games like Freelancer. Visually, it's gorgeous.

Galaxy on Fire 2
is noteworthy for its cross-platform scaling, its attempt to create a fully realized universe in a genre that's seen far too little fresh material in the past decade, and its graphics on all the various platforms. Its virtual control pad, however, remains a weak spot. It offers even less customization than Samurai II or Shadowgun; players can only adjust the height of the buttons and D-pad, not the distance from the edge of the screen.

The difference between these three games and the other titles we've discussed is that none of them manage to feature an interface that's more than adequate. That's not a slam on developers. It's just proof of how new the market is and the need for solutions that match the interface rather than a crude approximation of physical controls.
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Conclusions
The best thing about tablet gaming is the amount of experimentation being done between various developers as they explore the best ways to deliver great games with a new medium. The worst thing about tablet gaming is that some experiments don't work out that well, while others are limited by current hardware, though that is changing rather quickly thanks to companies like NVIDIA.



Best of all, there's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to tablet gaming, even if you stick to the free titles. Venture outside that area and you'll find a huge assortment of dirt-cheap games priced at about $1 to $5. This reduces the financial impact of betting on a stinker.  At least if you try a game and turn out not to like it, you aren't out $50.

If you're set on buying a tablet specifically for gaming, there are particular considerations we recommend you take into account. The Toshiba Thrive tablet that we used as a test vehicle, while great in many respects, is slightly heavy and awkward to recommend as a gaming device.  You could, however, make a go of it with the help of an external game controller, should the titles you're interested in offer such support.

Regardless, if you're interested in a 10-inch Android tablet, we strongly recommend you visit a store that carries the model and will let you walk around with it a bit. Experiment with carrying it in one hand, and holding it up and away from your body. Check to see how much of the screen you can comfortably span with your thumbs, and how easy it is to hold the tablet in one hand while performing gestures with the other.

Those of you with large hands and particularly strong wrists may find that the dimensions and weight of your typical 10" Android tablet are not an issue.  Sub-10" tablets based on Tegra 2 are a bit more difficult to find, especially now that Dell has killed the Streak 7, but Sony's Tablet S (9.4") or Samsung's Galaxy Tab 8.9" might be good options. All of this assumes you're interested in tablet gaming and planning to buy something other than an iPad 2--which, statistically speaking, may not be very many of you, at least for now.  The holiday shopping season is upon us though, so we'll take a look at the stats again in the first quarter.



So, after all of this, would we buy a tablet specifically for gaming? Not quite yet, though we also doubt that many of you are considering a tablet for gaming as a primary function. Are there great handheld games for tablets? Yes. More than we expected. It's clear that entertainment and game development will be a major force behind tablet sales in years to come; anyone who buys a tablet now can expect more than enough titles to occupy idle hours.

The biggest reason we wouldn't buy-in quite yet is because so much of the underlying technology and research is still so new. We're not concerned about graphics performance per se, so much as waiting to see if screen responsiveness, accelerometer control, and the possible inclusion of physical buttons becomes a part of the landscape.  We'd like to think that's the case and there are some bright, talented people doing the research and development now, but much still remains to be seen.
 


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