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Is iPad gaming living up to the hype?

Two months after the iPad's launch, the games available in the App Store are expensive and not exactly magical. But surely it won't be long before they wow us.
Image: Zen Bound and Zen Bound 2
Many iPad games are revamped iPhone/iPod Touch games. Secret Exit has done a superb job bringing one of my favorite iPhone games — "Zen Bound" — to the iPad. The iPad's large screen and beautiful display allows this arty puzzle game to truly shine.Secret Exit

With its beautiful, expansive screen, its multi-touch input and tilt sensitivity, not to mention its access to the wild wonderland that is the App Store, the iPad is poised to be a truly intriguing game machine — one that could even change the way we play games.

And yet, two months after the iPad's launch, the iPad-specific games available in the App Store are kind of expensive and not exactly game changing. That is, I'm still waiting to be truly wowed by an iPad game.

Cruise the App Store and you'll find that the vast majority of iPad games are simply iPhone games that have been given some upgraded graphics, a heftier price tag (sometimes triple the price of their iPhone counterparts) and not a whole lot more. The best of them have added some features and perhaps some new play modes … but I can’t help but wonder, ?

I say this and yet, at the same, believe that while iPad games may not be awe-inspiring now … it probably won’t be long.

As I sit here champing at the bit, high on iPad promises and jonesing for the kind of innovative gameplay the machine suggests its capable of, I have to remind myself that Steve Jobs' newest baby is only two months old. So perhaps asking game developers and publishers to deliver the wow as this point is a little like asking a toddler to do algebra.

And despite my wow-less reaction to the current App Store offerings, this much I do know: Playing games on an iPad has made me reluctant to go back to playing games on my iPhone. The iPad’s gorgeous display and generous screen real-estate are just such a lovely breath of fresh air. Games I've loved on my iPhone — “Angry Birds,” “Zen Bound,” “Words With Friends” — may not be drastically different in their new iPad form, but they are significantly more enjoyable to play on the iPad.

Ahhh … the breathing room, the high res imagery, the zippy touch interface — it’s a delight to the eyes and fingers. While I may spend short bursts of time amusing myself with games on the iPhone, the iPad sucks me in, makes me want to dig in deeper and keep right on playing.

Baby steps
“I think the iPad has the potential to change gaming,” says Tony Leamer, VP of Marketing at I-play, a casual games publisher that is bringing some of its PC and iPhone games over to the iPad.  But he points out, "we’re still in the early days.”

Indeed, the iPad just hit stores in Australia, Canada, and parts of Europe and Asia on Friday. And on Monday Apple announced that it had sold two million of the devices worldwide. While that number is certainly impressive, it's still tiny when compared to the 85 million iPhones and iPod Touches currently out there.

And so right now game developers and publishers are playing it safe. They’re primarily upgrading the games they already have, either upsizing them from the iPhone or porting them over from the PC. There’s very little in the way of games created from the ground up with the iPad in mind.

Alas, original iPad-inspired games are the games most likely to deliver something new and exciting to players — deliver that wow factor I'm waiting for.

"There's a good reason for this and the reason is, there simply aren't that many iPads out there yet," says Steve Palley, editor-in-chief and founder of and . "The install base just isn’t where it needs to be for people to start making original iPad games and making money at it.”

Image: Herod's Lost Tomb for iPad

Leamer agrees. Though he's excited about the iPad's gaming possibilities, moving forward cautiously on this largely unproven device only makes good sense right now.

“The primary difficulty is not knowing a ton about the audience yet,” Leamer says. “The question is: Who is using the iPad and what does that demographic look like? All we have are early adopter numbers and we have to see how that matures and changes.”

I-play has dipped its toe in the iPad waters by bringing its popular hidden object game “Herod’s Lost Tomb” to the iPad and will launch its puzzle/match-three game “Paradise Quest” for the iPad later this month. Both games got their start on the PC and, after spending time with them on the iPad, I can say they fit very nicely in their new home. But like most iPad games, they don’t present me with anything I haven’t seen before.

But that day will come, Leamer says. “Creating a game from scratch is not a trivial task,” he says. “We want to make sure that when we do that — and it is when not if  — we want to know very clearly who we’re making these games for and what they’re interested in seeing and how we can translate those things into great experiences on the device.”

Travis Boatman, vice president of worldwide development for Electronic Arts Mobile, says all of this is simply par for the course for almost any new platform launch.

“When a platform first comes out a lot of the development communities are learning what works and what doesn't work," he says. "The more time you have, the more time you have to experiment and to improve. I think you’re going to see a lot of great improvements coming into the market down the line."

iPad's got game
No matter what the current state of iPad gaming, spend some time with Apple's latest device and one thing is certainly clear: It has enormous potential as a gaming machine.

“This thing is really powerful, it has great graphics, great sound and an amazing screen,” Palley says. “It’s extremely portable and the battery lasts for a really long time.”

One of his favorite games is “” — a game that’s been on the Xbox 360 and PS3 and moved to the iPhone but really finds a nice home on the iPad. The touch screen seems a perfect way to interact with a turn-based strategy game like this. And while managing “Civilization’s” many details on the iPhone’s small screen can make the game feel cramped, the iPad gives it the room it really needs to soar.

In addition to strategy games, Palley thinks point-and-click adventure games like "Sam & Max Episode 1 for iPad" fit  especially well on the device as do hidden object games and traditional board games.

I agree wholeheartedly. EA's “Scrabble for iPad” has sucked me in like no other game on the iPad. The entire game board fits superbly on the iPad screen. Why would I lug around cardboard boxes full of my favorite board games when I can download them all on one highly portable device?

But what will iPad games do that hasn't been done before? A few of today's early iPad games suggest some of the interesting possibilities to come.

Boatman sees the iPad’s social nature as one of the ways it will deliver wow-worthy gaming down the road. With its large screen and light weight, it’s the kind of device that begs players to spend more focused time with it and to share it with friends. It's what he calls a "destination device."

Image: Mirror's Edge for iPad

For example, take EA’s “Mirror’s Edge for the iPad.” In this parkour-based side-scrolling game, two players can use the same iPad to compete against each other at the same time — racing their characters head-to-head by simultaneously swishing their fingers across two different sides of the touch screen.

And Boatman believes it's that touch screen that's going to be the key to the unique iPad games of the future. "If you look at the screen on the iPad, it’s a beautiful blank canvass," he says, "It provides a surface in which creative people can create any interface they want for a game."

Meanwhile, I'm especially intrigued to see what kind of interesting gameplay arrives as developers start creating games that connect the iPad with iPhones and iPod Touches in unique ways. In fact, “Scrabble for iPad” already makes use of this combo. In the game's Party Play mode, four people can use one iPad at the same time. You simply download the free “Scrabble Tile Rack” app from the App Store to your iPhone and then use your phone as your private tile rack while everyone shares the iPad as the game board.

Ultimately, “this is still an experimental device in many way,” Palley says. “We’re in uncharted territory.”

But while larger publishers and developers may be taking baby steps as they explore the iPad’s gaming possibilities, he predicts that the smaller indie developers — the guys with the unique ideas and the risk taking spirit — will be the first to bring wow-worthy gaming to the iPad.

“I think an indie developer might come up with something really cool because it’s a labor of love for them,” he says.

I hope so. It's just so hard waiting for the to happen.

You can find Winda Benedetti making magic.