Can the iPod ever be a great gaming device?

Gadgets, Gaming, MP3 players

It’s perhaps no surprise that Steve Jobs announced iTunes beefed-up gaming capabilities right at the start of yesterday’s Showtime event. After all, being able to play Tetris and Pac-Man on your iPod is cool, but it won’t cause as much of a stir as downloading movies. And in today’s press coverage of the launch, the gaming angle is a footnote at best, and justifiably so.

Yet if you own an iPod – a recent fifth-generation one, anyway – and are into games, it’s a pretty significant development. There are nine games available initially on the iTunes Store: Tetris, Pac-Man, Zuma, Bejeweled, Cubis 2, Vortex, Texas Hold’em, MahJong and Mini Golf. Each game costs £3.99 to buy, and once downloaded you transfer them to your iPod just as you would for music.

It’s a brave new world for iPod gaming, and a huge evolution on the basic games that were previously preloaded in Apple’s devices. As you’ll guess from the launch titles, the iPod clearly isn’t taking on PSP and DS as a fully-fledged gaming device. Yet can it even compete with mobile phones for the fingers of casual gamers?

At first impressions, Apple has certainly been doing its research. The £3.99 price point ($4.99 in the US) compares well to mobile phone games, which most of the iPod titles appear to be based on, albeit with improved graphics. Companies like EA Mobile, Namco and PopCap Games are involved, and there’s an option to buy all nine games for £35.91.

Nosing around the iPod Games section on iTunes, the next thing that struck me was the size of the games. Texas Hold’em is 47.5MB in size, Mini Golf is 37.2MB, and even Tetris is 14.4MB. The version on my Nokia N70 phone is 70KB!

This could mean one of two things: either the games are bloatware, or Apple has ensured developers don’t just port across basic-looking mobile games. The screenshot of Texas Hold’em (right) indicates that the latter is the case.

The iPod games section on the iTunes Store seems pretty good too. Each game has its own page, with notes on the game and any exclusive features for the iPod version. There’s also a Preview button to see a rolling video of the game in action – which is more than the vast majority of mobile operators offer on their portals. So far, so good.

But. And yes, there’s a but. There has to be a doubt over how well suited an iPod is to playing games, particularly with its scroll-wheel. IGN Wireless’s news story on the announcement picks up on the fact that user reviews on the iTunes Store are already mentioning control issues, quoting them saying Tetris is "weird" while Pac-Man is "difficult to control".

In fairness, I can’t find any comparable reviews on the UK iTunes Store, and several people mention that the controls are great. The scroll-wheel could be a hidden advantage for iPod if developers create games that play to its rotating strengths. And no, that doesn’t mean endless Shot Putting sims. Apple will hopefully be nudging developers to take a leaf out of DS’s book, to create games that make use of a new (for gaming) control mechanism.

As a keen mobile gamer and the owner of a battered second-generation iPod, I’m excited about Apple’s new devices. Not just for the games – the battery life, brighter screens and movie downloads (when they eventually make it to the UK store) are big pulls too. I still think I’d rather play Tetris on my phone, mind, but if Apple can bring a steady flow of cool iPod games – including some original titles – that might change my mind.

Football Manager 2007, please. With my tunes playing in the background of matches. That would be marvellous. In the meantime, those of us who, ahem, have just placed an order for a brand new iPod will have to wait and see if the launch titles herald a bright new future for iPod gaming, or a short-lived novelty.

Stuart Dredge
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