Why iPod touch will never be a major gaming platform

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UPDATE: One year on, and my view of the platform for gaming has changed somewhat—read Why Apple is Right to Pitch iPod touch as a Games Console to Beat the DSi and PSP Go.


The iPod touch segment of Let’s Rock was particularly notable for Apple’s attempts to position the device as a major gaming platform. “It’s the best portable device for playing games,” claimed Jobs. Apple’s website now calls iPod touch the ‘funnest iPod ever’, and talks about its ‘hundreds of games’. This emphasis on gaming, along with the demonstrations we’ve seen from various developers, appears to be positioning iPod touch alongside Sony’s PSP and Nintendo’s DS, rather than talking about mobile gaming as though iPod touch has any relationship whatsoever to a certain smartphone and cell-phone gaming in general.

There are arguments in favor of this belief. Games have proved phenomenally popular on the App Store. They’re also cheap, relatively plentiful, and simple to get on to your iPhone or iPod touch. Also, crucially, Apple’s solution betters Sony’s and Nintendo’s by allowing updates to games—something owners of the abhorrent DS port of The Settlers no doubt wish were true of their platform.

The problem is, iPod touch is only ever going to be a niche concern in the gaming space. Find out why after the break…

1. A lack of controls

We’ve mentioned this in the past, but iPod touch’s lack of standard controls is a real problem. Although alternate control methods drive innovation—something proved by certain titles on the Wii and DS—forcing them on developers restricts output and hampers usability.

Case in point 1: Real Soccer 2009 was demoed at Let’s Rock, showing an on-screen D-pad and buttons. To control the game, you have to obscure part of the display. Even if you can deal with this limitation, you get no tactile feedback from the device, unlike with a standard controller, and so you must keep looking to ensure your thumbs are in the right place. Do you look at your controller while playing games on other platforms, or the game itself?

Case in point 2: Even when it comes to tilt controls, the sensitivity of many titles causes problems when using iPod touch as a truly mobile device. Playing on the train or bus can become a chore for any titles that aren’t touch-screen-only—something that doesn’t affect other major handheld gaming platforms.

2. Dumbed-down content

I’m a fan of what’s now hatefully called ‘casual gaming’—I can’t be bothered reading a manual or learning how to play something. I just want to jump right in, and for that iPod touch appears great. However, games to date have an overt lack of depth, and are often driven by gimmicks. Instead of the full experience, most of the titles are like the mini-games found on other (even handheld) platforms, and the limited control methods compound this problem—tilt, tilt, tilt, meh.

3. Expensive hardware

Gaming isn’t just for kids, but kids sure have a lot of gaming devices bought for them. iPod touch is simply too pricey, fragile and problematic (such as with its other applications, not least the web browser) for parents to give one to their kids. The PSP suffers with these problems to some extent, too, but it’s notably more rugged than the iPod touch, and the DS is comparatively bullet-proof. And when it comes to the inevitable ‘device being dropped down the stairs or on to the tarmac’ followed by the equally certain ‘kid crying until a replacement is furnished’, you can bet most folks would rather stump up 130 bucks for a new DS than almost twice that for the cheapest iPod touch.

4. Not fit-for-purpose

The Nintendo DS was designed as a gaming device, and despite Sony’s ‘media player’ rhetoric, so was the PSP. iPod touch was designed as a media player (or, you could argue, as a smartphone, with the phone bit subsequently being wrenched out). Apple is usually very focussed, designing devices and software for specific purposes, but this isn’t one of those occasions. It’s unlikely a device not designed for games can ever become a truly major gaming platform.

5. Apple’s track record in gaming

Apple’s never been terribly interested in games, and when it has entered the market, it’s been a disaster. Pippin, anyone? Even with Apple’s gaming boasts of late, the selection for the Mac is mediocre, and rumors suggest that Jobs himself just isn’t interested in this market. This puts off developers, making them overly cautious of supporting the platform.

This is the one thing that could conceivably change rapidly, not least when dollar signs start lighting up in front of eager executives’ eyes, but the other points mentioned hamper any hope of iPod touch being anything but a distant third in the battle for handheld king—at least unless Apple has more than one fairly major change of direction.

13 responses to “Why iPod touch will never be a major gaming platform”

  1. theguycalledtom says:

    I’ll think you find that a lot of the highest selling titles on the Nintendo DS rarely require precision controls.

    The touch screen can be great for a lot of games, you have to remember there are a lot of different genres out there.

    I’m sure you can play card games, chess and other board games quite successfully without traditional controls, and you can play wirelessly with all your other mates with wifi or 2g/3g on an iPhone.

    I think point and click Adventure / RPG games like Diablo and Myst could be huge on the iphone. They don’t require a traditional controller. The App store is perfect for releasing episodic games like Sam and Max and Penny Arcade adventures.

    There is a lot of potential out there because the end of the day, few people are going to always carry around a dedicated gaming device all the time when you can just have your iPhone which makes calls, emails, surfs the net, plays video, plays music and much much more.

  2. breitigam says:

    Not a major gaming platform? Isn’t that kind of like how everyone was saying the Nintendo Wii was not a serious contender in the game market? Sure, there are a lot of existing games that we won’t see on the iPhone/iPod. But it is definitely on its way to becoming a MAJOR gaming platform. What does that mean? It means that more adults will be playing games on this mobile platform than any other mobile platform – That is a major gaming platform.

  3. tervorblanco says:

    So wrong. The Apple gaming platform is going to tap into all the people that are casual gamers. The games are inexpensive. The games are plentiful. Games are fun. Not everyone needs or wants to play Solid gear metal on a handheld. That is not the ONLY market out there.
    It’s fun to touch the device rather than pressing buttons. An 8G touch is under 200 for a refurbished model that does SO much more than a DS for the extra money. You didn’t think this out to well which is why your not in marketing and writing for a blog.
    I expect the touch to influence future DS’s and PSP rather that the other way around.

  4. Craig Grannell says:

    “Not everyone needs or wants to play Solid gear metal on a handheld”

    True, but on iPhone you can’t even play a decent game of Pac-Man or Tetris. And, for the record, everyone, I never said the iPhone/iPod touch wouldn’t be a success in the gaming space – I said it has no chance of competing with the DS or PSP, despite what Apple seems to think.

    Oh, and FWIW, Trevor, I did used to work in marketing. I was pretty good at it, too. However, that means I also have a pretty good bullshit filter and can therefore see through the garbage certain companies say. Garbage like “iPod touch is the best portable device for games”.

  5. Guan says:

    Consider me – a 39 year old yuppie in Singapore, who has shunned traditional console games for the time and expense they involve in learning to use/master them (I boxed my 1st Gen xbox because I was spending too much time in front of the TV with Fable/Doom 3), and has balked at the idea of spending $$ for a dedicated potable gaming platform like DS or PSP. Since I got my iPhone 3 weeks ago, I have downloaded about 20+ apps from the Apps store, shelled out some $$ for games, and have spent more time on my Iphone playing games than I have ever done on any device before, period. It’s the adult casual gamers who have no interest in dedicated gaming devices who are going to drive demand for games on the ipod touch/ iphone, not the kids, not the dedicate gamer types weaned DS etc. And that demand is going to drive innovation. Who said anything about competing with the DS or PSP? Casual games are the sweet spot.

  6. Craig Grannell says:

    “Who said anything about competing with the DS or PSP?”

    Steve Jobs, when he stated iPod touch was the “best portable device for playing games”.

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