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Issue #9: The iPad as a gaming device

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We’re taking a wee break from typical productivity related things in this issue, to talk about something that’s quite the opposite, namely gaming. Mobile gaming has gotten huge thanks to iPhone and the App Store, and most games support iPad as well. With controller support having evolved from expensive MFi labeled peripherals, to proper support for Xbox and PlayStation controllers, an iPad might very well be the better choice for some.

My name is Thord D. Hedengren, and I used to make a living playing and writing about games. The first gaming machine I had was actually a computer, the Commodore 64, and after that follows a long line of Nintendo, Sega, Sony, and Microsoft consoles, as well as gaming computers of all kinds.

I clearly think mobile gaming sucks in comparison with that background, right? Well, it certainly is different – at least if you look at it from a distance. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s dive in and see what we’ve got to play with (pun intended).

The state of play

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Mobile and tablet games are games. You have to say these things, because some people seem to think that it has to be a World War II shooter to count as games. A simple match 3 game is also a game, so is Wordfeud and Good Sudoku. What you enjoy playing is your business, the only thing that matters is if there’s an option for you available.

And that, I guess, is the problem with games on the App Store. While there are games looking (sort of) like Call of Duty, including Call of Duty Mobile, there aren’t any options that can compete. There might be, sooner or later, but for now, traditional AAA console games are rare, albeit not non-existent.

What the App Store has in terms of games is more akin to indie games on PC, or found on Nintendo Switch’s eShop. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but – again – if you’re looking to play typical AAA titles, you’ll be disappointed.

Free to play and premium

Mobile gaming is, unfortunately, associated with free to play titles utilizing timers, gems to unlock things, and so forth. Pay up to get more game time, or even pay to win – you might need something further down the line to even advance, and that requires you to buy things with real money. While there are plenty of free to play titles that aren’t evil – like The Elder Scrolls: Blades or Hearthstone for example – others are, so research properly before investing too much money in a game.

Not all free games rely on timers and the like to get you to open your wallet, simpler ones will throw ads at you instead. Sometimes you have an option to get rid of the ads by paying a one-time amount, a reasonable solution if you ask me. Other games limit the features within until you unlock the full game. All of this feels honest to me.

Then there are the premium titles, asking for money – more or less – up front. A game like Dead Cells is available on all the modern game consoles, and also on the App Store, asking for $9 (on sale right now though). Then there’s Civilization VI, which lets you get started but costs a small bundle to unlock, with DLC to boot. These games are similar (or, in Civilization’scase, superior if you like strategy games on touchscreens – which I do) to their PC or console counterparts.

Pricing can be a bit tricky though, especially when games are sold bit by bit, as in-app purchases. Check the in-app purchases tab in the App Store description to get a good idea of what sort of investment you’ll be looking at, should you get hooked on a game.

🖇 Cross-platform
Some games are cross-platform, meaning that you can continue playing it on other devices, and I’m not just talking about Apple’s offerings here. This is typically online games like Hearthstone, but not exclusively so. Being cross-platform is often a good sign that the developer is taking iPadOS seriously, free to play or not.

Controller support

Let’s skip the history lesson and the mess that was is the Made for iPhone (but really, “for iOS”) program that gave us a bunch of overpriced crappy controllers which we could use for almost no games whatsoever on the App Store. The only true exception to the rule was the Steelseries Nimbus controller, which is still available as an updated, but there’s really no point considering it, or any other MFi controller. The need for that whole program disappeared when iPadOS got support for both Microsoft Xbox One (the v2 version) and Sony DualShock 4 controllers. They’re both superior any MFi offering. Period.

Connecting a controller is easy. Just set the controller to scan for devices, open Settings > Bluetooth on your iPad, and pair the controller, just like any other bluetooth device. And what do you know, now you have a great controller for the growing amount of games supporting it.

Now, both the Xbox One and DualShock 4 controllers are great options. You’re not limited to them though, because many bluetooth controllers made for Xbox One or PlayStation 4 will work, they’ll just show up as “Wireless Controller” or its official equivalent when you connect them. Personally, I keep the 8BitDo N30 pro in my bag, which – if you’ve updated your firmware – is recognized as a DualShock 4. Sure, in-game references to buttons will be off, but it works perfectly fine. When you realize that, you also realize that 8BitDo and other controller manufacturers might be an option. Just make sure you research them first, because not all bluetooth controllers will work out of the box.

Just to be crystal clear here: You don’t need a controller to game on the iPad. All games must work without any peripherals, so an action platformer will have on-screen controls for example. Other games neither needs nor make sense with a controller, like some strategy games, so the decision to get a controller or not is more about what sort of games you primarily enjoy playing. Me, I like adventure, platform, and strategy, with a touch or RPG in there, so it’s a mixed bag. You might just want to play word games, then the controller just isn’t necessary.

🖱 Mouse support?
Now that iPadOS has pointer support, you’d expect to be able to play those shooters with a mouse and keyboard, right? I’m afraid not, that kind of tracking isn’t available (yet). The pointer support in iPadOS is basically an emulation of your finger hovering and pressing on the touchscreen, so no strafing with mouse and keyboard just yet.

A few words about Apple Arcade

Apple offers a gaming subscription service called Apple Arcade. It’s been available for some time, and has a couple of really great games. You can’t buy these games individually, you need the subscription to play them, which can be seen as daunting, but it’s truly great value for the money ($5/month after your free trial). We’re talking about over 100 games with great production value. I’ve found that I buy fewer games after signing up for Apple Arcade, which obviously makes sense, because I know that the games there will be both ad and in-app purchase free. It’s just games, made to be enjoyed, and that feels like a good place to be.

The games on Apple Arcade has another thing going for them too: They’re available across Apple’s platforms. That means that you can start a session of Outlanders on your iPhone while out and about, and then pick it up on your iPad when you’re home. You can even play games on Apple TV and a Mac, although your mileage will wary. I truly enjoyed Card of Darkness (co-designed by Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward) for example, but the Apple TV experience wasn’t great – it’s clearly a game meant for the iPad in portrait mode. Still, it’s a great feature to be able to pick up where you left off on another device.

ℹ️ Apple Arcade exclusivity
While you can only get the Apple Arcade games for your Apple devices with a subscription, some – like Yara and Takeshi and Hiroshi – are available for other platforms too.

5 games I’m currently playing

I figured it’d be a good idea to wrap up with a couple of games currently in rotation on my iPad. Gaming is one of those things I don’t do solely on the iPad, I also play games on my Switch, and occasionally on the gaming PC or PS4. Still, with Apple Arcade and some really well done indie hits reaching the App Store, I think it’s a valid platform for gamers. Proper controller support helps, obviously.

Right, the games!

  • Outlanders is a calm town builder that’s on Apple Arcade. It’s quite great, with no wars or natural disasters, just about getting your town to work and complete challenges.
  • Horizon Chase – World Tour is a retro-styled racing game (think Rad Racer or OutRun but modern) with a synthwave vibe. It’s free to try with unlocks, and great fun.
  • Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is a new release on Apple Arcade. It’s a 2D/3D action platformer that could use a little more polish, but I’m gonna keep going with it.
  • Dead Cells is a roguelite metroidvania. I wouldn’t play this without a controller though.
  • Stardew Valley is another indie darling that’s available just about everywhere. I’ll be honest, I’m having trouble getting hooked on this, but I really want to, so…

What are you playing on your iPad? Let me know, either by hitting reply or tweeting to @tdh.

Mobile games, and that’s where most iPad titles will get lumped into because of their iPhone versions, is a hot potato. The moniker is still plagued by cash-grab pay to win games, but it hardly feels like an universal truth anymore. I mean, you have titles like The Witness and Sky: Children of the Light on there, alongside remasters of the classic Baldur’s GateCRPGs and JRPGs like Final Fantasy. Then there’s Minecraft and Fortnite(if Epic and Apple ever comes to terms again), ROME: Total War and Farming Simulator 20. That last one might be less impressive, but still! We’ve come a long way from Candy Crush – which is still there in various version, and profitable by the way.

I hope you enjoyed this little excursion into entertainment territory. The 10th issue is scheduled for Wednesday next week, and will focus on ergonomics. Because yeah, take care of your body when working (and playing) on your iPad.

Until then, take care!

– Thord D. Hedengren

In the wild…