The new iPad and gaming: What will change?

Retina Display, quad-core graphics; are these enough to change iPad gaming? In some ways, yes, but in other ways not so much.

Showing off Infinity Blade Dungeons at the new iPad unveiling. CNET

So, there's a new iPad. It has better graphics. It has a better screen.

Now what? Does it change gaming?

Ever since the iPhone had its first App Store, Apple has been making waves in the video game industry. Each successive iDevice has had its own improved set of graphics, and in some cases--the iPhone 4 and 4S, for instance--a higher-resolution display opened up gaming possibilities even more.

The iPhone 4S changed gaming by setting the graphics bar so high that it's an honest rival to handhelds like the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita. (It's no surprise that Apple's iPad events have coincided with the Game Developers Conference two years running.)

With the new iPad, the screen and improved graphics bring some different capabilities, for better-looking games, of course, but also in terms of what can be shown on a screen.

Retina Display: The iPad's 2,048x1,536-pixel screen is higher-resolution than the screen on any phone, handheld, laptop, or TV that you're likely to find. That extra pixel density isn't necessarily going to be used to create more screen "real estate," though, because the trade-off would be extremely small icons.

I expect the effect will be like what the iPhone 4 and 4S had on iPhone games : the potential to refine and improve the overall look and feel to create a truly seamless experience. Gaming site Touch Arcade has already talked to game developers who have gone to work imagining how their games would be reconceptualized in extra HD.

However, some developers will choose to go with more modest boosts to graphics and resolution to save on file size and on production budget. Many of the most successful iOS games, like Angry Birds and Where's My Water, have hardly been graphics showcases. Many of the games on CNET's Top iPad Games list reinforce that point.

A comparison of the game Spirits HD with the way it might look on the new iPad screen. toucharcade.com

Quad-core graphics: The new A5X processor should offer another big boost in gaming graphics, but it's unclear how much. Certainly, some of that graphics boost is going to go toward handling that increased-resolution display.

Playing a PC game in 1,920x1,080 pixels versus 1,366x768 pixels results in a big performance hit. Going from 1,024x768 pixels to 2,048x1,536 pixels, I'd think, is bound to be a huge challenge for games with robust 3D engines. Then again, Epic looks like it's pulling it off, if we're to judge from a demo of Infinity Blade Dungeons at Apple's iPad event. Epic's Mike Capps was quick to boast that the new iPad has more memory and processing power than an Xbox 360--but, then again, the Xbox 360 is seven years old, as my colleague Jeff Bakalar reminded me. It's on its last legs. That's not to deny the accomplishments the new iPad will no doubt capable of, but we simply don't know how it will perform yet. Still, I'd expect a quality boost great enough to make some declare that the console is dead. But it isn't. Because...

The iPad still needs a controller: Peripherals like the iCade have only made hard-core gamers hungry for real controllers with real buttons. Graphics can only take you so far. My recent experience with Mass Effect: Infiltrator wasn't a let-down because of graphics; no, at least half of the problems arose from my fumbling with the awkward controls. The PS Vita is a clear-cut success case that shows how physical controls can make games better. Sure, that's not Apple's game, but the video game industry is. With Apple's footprint getting larger by the month, it's time for a universal game controller to emerge that can be used with the iPad.

Play

As always, the proof will be in the games themselves. There are many developers hungry enough to show off what they can do on the next iPad, which should translate into yet another year of improved-looking games. As for how they'll actually play, well, that's up to the developers and what they do with the physical limits of the iPad's interface--as always. I'll certainly be intently curious about how the iPad's gaming scene evolves in the next six months.

 

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