Sunday, May 11, 2008

iGame - Apple's hand held console, Part II


As you may have noticed, there has been a substantial amount of advertising for Apple’s iPhone.
If there’s one thing that is easy to notice about the device, it’s the large screen.
It comes with a resolution of 320 x 480 pixels (with a ratio of 160 pixels per inch, for 3.5 inches), which makes it wider than the PSP’s (but is still inferior, for example, to Etencorp’s Glofiish X500+’s screen).

A handheld console should be easy to carry. I think we can all agree on that. However, if there’s a thing that the PSP (and even the GBA SP) have proved in my opinion, it’s the fact that a handheld can (and should) have a large screen. I do not follow the train of thought that says splitting a screen in two with a disgraceful sausage-wide plastic hinge is a smart thing.
When it has crappy graphics, it doesn’t help either (as long as you’re going to get some 3D stuff on your console, there’s a minimal level of quality to reach, and that is what the PSP got right).

Back in early 2006, EGM made an April Fool’s with the iGame. Arguably, the console’s design was very poor. However, it was preceded by another artwork, much more convincing, posted by a certain Linkman2004 on Engadget.

As you can see, the qualities of this design are the size of the screen, how it folds back into a more discrete system, and the presence of two Click Wheels, which is rather a good thing, since the four action buttons could be located under a ring. This would offer even more control opportunities in games. Imagine playing Katamari Damacy with those rings! :)

The major and rather obvious problem with this design would be the balance once you nudge the screen up to reveal the controls.
The mockup presented as the gPod seemed much better, in the sense that the controls were on each side of the screen, which is the most logical way to handle the device, as it would be a rather advanced handheld console, therefore heavier than a DS. The other error in my opinion is the redundant touchpad, which should be merged with the screen.

See, as it goes, the iPhone’s screen is actually a multi-touch high quality LCD device, which is superior to the DS’ touch screen, as it can record two contact points at the same time. It enables a form of dragging which can be scaled up or down, depending on the finger’s motion, so it’s not a far fetched option at all.
It even comes with a light sensor, gauging the amount of ambient luminosity, and adjusts the screen’s one accordingly.

Now, would this feature be necessary? Well, I’d give it a resounding yes. It’s cool and much engaging from an interactive standpoint. Going backwards from there would sound like a defeat. Would it need a pen? It would definitely help.
I can imagine holding and sliding a virtual paper with one finger, and drawing on it with the pen.

Nevertheless, the screen alone wouldn’t be enough if you didn’t bring the necessary horsepower to really do such a screen minimal justice.
One thing for sure is that Apple has proved to be a reliable brand when looking for powerful and stable systems.

Their operating systems demonstrate this (an unique hardware helps as well, but this is going to be true with the console as well). Therefore, it's conceivable to think that the console could use a gaming oriented OS X.

Technically, the iPhone’s specifications regarding RAM and CPU were more or less hard to find for quite some time, but dedicated adventurers dug numbers which were somewhat close enough to the details associated to the ARM1176JZF-S core, used in the phone (minus the lack of performance due to the ARM nature of the CPU), with the bus possibly being a limiting factor, but still promising a decent architecture, if Apple would push the boundaries for the console a bit further.

Hey, we could have drooled about the prospect of cramming the equivalent of a Dreamcast inside a portable device.
After all, Sega’s console has benefited from an active homebrew scene.
The system is appreciated by gamers, is roughly as powerful as the Playstation 2, even superior on certain terms, and still has some good exclusive titles.
Of course, considering how both Sega and Nintendo are working hand in hand now, this would be most unlikely.

Yet, Sega likes to maintain independence
Besides, there are talented developers out there who have acquired some hefty experience on the Dreamcast, and the system isn’t exactly brand new now, so a similar architecture wouldn’t be like advancing through a fog of war. Now, I'm afraid the PowerVR architecture isn't the most efficient one in certain calculation domains, and inferior to the architectures used by Sony for example.
However, the massive drawbacks are piracy and the fact that the console’s OS had much more to do with a trimmed down Windows than a Mac OS. But, well… the OS wasn’t extremely complex either. A transition at such a level could be considered.
Now, why would they care? Apple knows its stuff about operating systems, and they “just” need to slap decent graphic processors to their small machines. That said, it’s not too far from what the DS can do.

Realistically, their aim should probably be a system worth a Dreamcast, if not something between a PS2 and a Wii.

New challenger enters the game…?

Consequently, Apple has been acting with a strong resolve to break frontiers and impose their multiple products as successful brands. Their iPods, iPhones, iMacs, iBooks and iElse are tantamount to that determination.
In relevance to the gaming platform, the iPhone could bode well for Apple’s future, if they were to make a true handheld.

Following David Perry’s thoughts about the PSP Slim & Lite, some people - maybe a bit too quick to blow the horn, chant the death of the old retail system and praise the merits of the digital market - would probably agree that Apple has the infrastructure, power and resources to build their own iTunes for games, say iPlay.
It’s certainly not risk-free, but seems to be worth the try.

The UMD format is a running joke, and as far as Apple is concerned about enforcement, Steve Jobs is probably pulling what’s left of hairs on his scalp, as his attempt at trying to control too much of the mobile market turned out to be a slap in the face of the phone providers which Apple signed deals with. I’m talking about the cracked iPhone business.

Now, it’s not like advertising is Apple’s weak spot. The firm has scored series of great marketing successes throughout its life, so that’s less of a problem.
The real big challenge would be to get strong IPs on the console. Without good games, you can giggle and parade as much as you want, but your system is fated to fail. So this means finding third party developers, as well as acquiring at least one promising studio for the first party branch.

That’s the very hard part. They’ll have to compete against Nintendo and Sony.
One would look at Sony’s attempt with the PSP, belittled by the DS, and resign.
But that would be without factoring the multiple flaws of the PSP, which are rather easy to study, and eventually, avoidable. From the moment you are making a video game console, think in terms of games first, and if possible, don’t overdo it.

That said, simple games are already accessible via iTunes. It doesn’t stop there though;
Sega’s Sonic is on iTunes, as a port of the original Genesis version, showing Apple’s attention for gaming, and will to get valued IPs on their systems.
The hardest part here would be to decide which other games they want on this service, and if they’re ready to support a sort of larger Steam–like system.
The combined announcements of the iPhone SDK’s release, the coming of Spore and Super Monkey Ball (more info) show that Apple is definitely getting into the gaming segment seriously, and not only by welcoming rehashes. Spore is new and anticipated. It’s quite a thing that the iPhone would be capable of supporting such a game.

Apple has the advantage of being a brand that sells very well. Its Achille's Heel, on the other hand, is that it’s hardly well associated to video games at the moment, but things change.

Remember, both Sony and Microsoft also had to break into the video game industry while they were not particularly associated to games either, as far as the average Joe was concerned.
Sure, both companies were already involved through partnerships with Nintendo and Sega, but if anything, the iPhone has shown that it’s already one step towards the video game industry, and we couldn’t say that Apple computers are oblivious to games either. It isn’t exactly new stuff to them.

Besides, if Microsoft can dress up a PC, remove some irrelevant bits, and call that an Xbox, why can’t Apple do the same with a handheld?

Oh, I saw you coming, you Adam nerds. Time has passed since the Pippin, and that short lived love affair with Bandai. For sure, it must have taught Apple a thing or two about certain pitfalls to avoid, no?

Read Part I | Part II | Read Part III

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