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iPads, iPads everywhere, so whatever happened to tablet gaming?

Is the dream of games made specifically for tablets over?

iPads, iPads everywhere, so whatever happened to tablet gaming?

Whatever happened to the idea of tablet gaming?

The idea that developers could create games that work better on larger screens, and are friendlier for longer play sessions – with the added advantage they could make more money by charging more up-front or encouraging more/higher in-app purchase spending?

It never really got a chance to take off.

And it's not going to change unless tablets change – and it's possible tablets are soon to become a marginalised form factor anyway.

Remember when the iPad was first announced almost five years ago? The joke was that it was really just a big iPhone?

Well, it turns out that was kind of true. Tablet gaming has literally just become mobile gaming but on bigger screens.

Look at the top charts on the iPad, and compare them to the iPhone. It's pretty much the same games, maybe there's a reason why the ranks differ slightly, but nothing that looks too dramatic.

Universally speaking

Granted, part of this is because of the universal app (with Android apps not having a real separation between phone and tablet apps the way iOS does), and games more than apps can often work on whatever screen size you put them on.

Really, however, there's a lack of viability for games that only really work on the larger screen and games that require longer experiences to truly enjoy that a tablet could provide.

Fates Forever - for iPad or tablet?

I think the biggest representative of the failure of tablet gaming is demonstrated with MOBA game Fates Forever. Here we have a game that doesn't compromise for tablets too much.

Matches are slightly shorter than many PC MOBAs but still much longer than the average mobile game session would be. The game has made virtually no money despite using a similar business model to League of Legends, and no other MOBA has really taken off on tablet despite its massive popularity of the genre elsewhere.

Coming up trumps

The other side of argument comes with a game like Hearthstone, which is doing well for itself despite itself being iPad-only (and PC) and not being based around short sessions.

However, Hearthstone is the ideal tablet game: it is simple enough to pick up and get into, and requires a focused experience, but isn't overly lengthy and is easy enough for casual players to get in to.

Tablets will always be the awkward middle child unless things change.

Of course, Hearthstone also existed before it launched on iPad and it has Blizzard's marketing muscle behind it. I bet Scrolls from Mojang, which is coming to tablets, is going to do okay for itself.

Also, if a game like League of Legends or Dota 2 ever got ported to tablets (assuming there was a way to make them work), it would probably make a lot of money.

So it is possible for bigger games to work well on tablets, but right now only as hand-me-downs, or as supplemental to other devices.

The middle child

That, in a nutshell, is the problem: tablets will always be the awkward middle child unless things change.

Apple has zero incentive to change the status quo that it created, particularly since it can sell you a phone, tablet, and a computer.

Part of the problem is also to do with tablet hardware. Apple made it so that the iPad is about as powerful as the iPhone - and it's been a very profitable decision. It's also encouraged competitors to aim at a similar level of power or less, to undercut Apple on price. 

In contrast, you could get something like the Surface Pro or Razer Edge, which are extremely powerful devices – to the point of being ridiculous – when you compare them to an iPad.

Is Microsoft's Surface a game changer?

Nevertheless, this would have to be where the shift in tablet gaming would have to start – Apple will only be forced to up the design, to up the power, if devices capable of offering experiences iPad and Android tablets can't deliver became affordable and mass-market.

Even so, I barely use my Surface Pro as a tablet, but as a rather portable laptop – or, if we're being picky, a tablet that can play Steam games.

Maybe tablet gaming won't actually work unless the computer truly dies off, and tablets wind up replacing laptops. Right now, the phone serves as a portable experience, computers are sit-down experiences, tablets are kind of somewhere in that awkward middle. The end result of that is, tablets could soon be made obsolete.

Microsoft rarely gets much credit these days, but it and laptop manufacturers have reacted to the rise of tablets with their latest range of laptops. Just try and pick up a laptop without a touchscreen down at your local store – it's far, far harder than you might imagine.

With more powerful devices, longer-form experiences that developers could charge money for would be possible.

A device akin to the Surface Pro – or, dare I say it, the latest Surface 3 – could, in the years ahead, become a mass-market device and cause Apple to jump into the tablet-laptop hybrid game.

With more powerful devices, longer-form experiences that developers could charge money for would be possible, as opposed to the current status quo where there's little incentive to differentiate between a phone and tablet game.

Dead on arrival?

Maybe, however, the tablet will be killed by the phone.

Phablets are a burgeoning market, and when you have a big enough phone, it can make owning a tablet less necessary.

With Apple jumping into the phablet market with the iPhone 6 Plus and Google making a phone the same size as a small Amazon tablet with the Nexus 6, it's quite possible that people will compromise with a device that has the portability of a phone coupled with some of the size benefits of a tablet.

The new iPads change nothing for developers

Tablets might just be a stopgap, something that exists because neither the phone nor the laptop could provide quite the same experience, and maybe it just takes someone making a serious push into addressing the deficiencies of phones and/or laptops compared to tablets in order to kill them off for good.

So what I'm ultimately saying is, the idea of tablet gaming being a separate entity from mobile is dead. Or, perhaps, it was actually never even born.

As for developers, unless you're specifically bringing a game from one form factor to tablet, there's no reason to worry about tablets being anything more than just another platform to put your smartphone game on.

Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!

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Wilf Smith
Can't say I really agree - tablets are open to a different form of mobile gaming that smaller forms can't do. A really successful example of this is the constant stream of board game and card game ports that are ending up on tablets. Rich. Vibrant. Cool. And in many cases something you couldn't pull off on a smaller device, but ends up being great on a portable tablet. From Settlers to Agricola to Eclipse and more. Agricola in particular is beautiful on a tablet, perfect form factor.
Carter Dotson
I agree that it's possible to create cool tablet experiences – I just think that the examples of tablet financial success are the exception, not the rule, unfortunately.