Debate Club: Are Tablets Viable as Controllers/Peripherals?

Steve’s stance: YES, they are a viable as peripherals

From the first moment I saw an iPad, my mind started racing.  I immediately envisioned all the cool ways that it could be implemented into traditional gaming. Now, I realize that the iPad was by no means the original tablet, and I realize that so far the gaming industry has not shared my enthusiasm for the idea, but I’m still holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, the tablet could become an extension of the TV.

The companion app for Battlefield 4. I’d love to see more like this.

From mostly anecdotal evidence – conversations with friends, opinions stated on podcasts, etc… – I believe that I’m in the minority in even wanting to use my tablet as part of a traditional game.  Arguments against the use of a tablet include the fact that there is no standard OS, no standard size, and no guarantee that users will even own one.  Tablets also tend to have wildly different specs, making it difficult to create a companion app that would work well on all devices.

Given all of those arguments I can see why I’m in the minority here.  It’s not easy to integrate a touch device into a game given all of those problems, and if people aren’t clambering for it, why bother?  If it’s hard to do, and no one is asking for it to be done, why waste the time and resources to even explore the possibility?

The above is testament to why my grand vision will probably never come to pass, but allow me to present it anyway.  A great many of today’s games have complex mechanics helping to create the rich experiences that we’ve grown accustomed too.  Some games, typically RPGs, can have such detailed mechanics that they become incredibly unruly to manage.  As a long-time World of Warcraft player, one of the most notable criticisms I hear about the game is how cluttered and horrible the UI is.  The traditional UI, when coupled with many of the “required” UI addons can become so unruly that even as a player and a fan I’m sometimes flabbergasted that I put up with this.  For me, it would be a dream to move some of that visual information to a second screen that I could monitor during gameplay without sacrificing massive amounts of screen real estate.

This isn’t even the worst one I found!

The applications are far greater that just WoW though.  Games like Civilization 5 or SimCity, where there are many interconnected systems would benefit greatly from displaying some extra information on a tablet.  What about your trusty Pip-Boy.  How cool and immersive would it be if it felt like you actually had one?  And let’s not forget about survival horror games.  What if in the upcoming Alien Isolation, you had a radar, but it was on your tablet, so you had to literally take your eyes off the screen to check and see how close the alien was.  How immersive and terrifying would that be.  You would constantly have to decide if you wanted to keep your eyes on the screen or check that radar to see how close the alien was.  As it got closer, you’d get more and more tense, wanting to check but knowing that looking away could mean missing that critical second of reflex time needed to survive.  To me, that sounds amazing.

It would be cool and you know it.

I can think of many other examples of cool ways to use a tablet as an extension of a traditional game.  I realize that, for all the reasons I mentioned above, none of this may ever happen.  That said, I can still dream.  Or, I suppose I could just buy a Wii U…


Chris’ stance: NO, tablets will never be a truly viable gaming peripheral

I generally am of the mindset that playing a game should be as simple and streamlined of an experience as possible. That isn’t to say that games themselves should be super simplistic, but the actual playing of a game should be mostly effortless. To me, the optimal gaming experience is one where you aren’t even really aware of your controller/keyboard/etc and you are just experiencing the game the way you’d experience a movie or a TV show. It’s not that games should feel like a passive experience, but you shouldn’t have to be thinking about the control method. You should just be reacting. Your finger should just reflexively flick the analog stick or mash the A button when you need to, without having to stop and think “Okay, I need to hit the A button now. Let’s see…A button, A button…ah, there it is. Pressing A…now.” That is exactly how I envision playing games with a tablet, per Steve’s vision, to feel.

When you are dealing with a touch screen that offers zero tactile feedback–which at this point in time is all of them–taking your eyes off the touch device becomes a non-option, therefore swiping away that simplicity and second-nature-ness that I look for in my game controlling. Taking the HUD clutter of a game like World of Warcraft and moving it to a tablet is obviously a great idea on paper, but the problem is, you still need to actually see where all of those buttons are. So now you’re still staring at all that same clutter, only it’s in a different place, and meanwhile you have completely taken your eyes off of the actual game screen.

That issue carries over into most uses of a tablet as a second screen, since it’s impossible to look at both at once. The DS and 3DS work because the screens are right on top of each other. It is essentially a single, extra-long screen with a small horizontal split in the middle. Unless you rig some setup where your tablet is mounted either directly on top of your computer monitor, or just under the line of sight of your TV, it isn’t practical to be able to visually multitask across both screens. What happens when you look at your Pip-Boy in Fallout? The rest of the game pauses, because that’s the only feasible way to be able to do what you need to do without Super Mutants attacking you while you do tedious, slow-paced stat and inventory management. Do that with your “real life” Pip-Boy without the handy auto-pause of the game world and you’ll be dead in short order, which may be more realistic but it’s also a lot less fun.

Using the tablet as a radar in a horror game or in some other fashion where managing your real world time between the tablet, and the TV becomes an actual device for the game itself, is certainly an intriguing idea. There’s just one small problem: That involves also then using the tablet as the game’s controller. Unless you’re talking about a Wii U pad with analog sticks and hard buttons, I don’t think anybody is too keen on the idea of playing hardcore games like Alien Isolation with an iPad as their controller. We clearly still haven’t completely solved the problem of replicating true console and PC gaming experiences on a touch screen without awful virtual joysticks and buttons, or completely altering the game to be an on-rails shooter or Infinity Blade clone, so I’m not too optimistic about a tablet serving as a fully functional game controller for a AAA console/PC game–especially when most of the screen is a radar or map already anyway, not leaving much room to be a controller.

All that said, what about games like SimCity where you’d be able to take your time and look down at your tablet and manage things from there? Sure, it’s hard to find fault with that. But the number of games that would truly work with is rather small, and pretty much every debate like this falls apart if your argument is built around the niche, which is all I feel that the type of real time tablet-assisted gaming Steve is talking about will ever be.

Now, I do feel that tablets could serve a purpose in complementing the console or PC experience–beyond the Wii U, of course–but in a more separate, asynchronous way. I’m talking about games that have a companion mobile version that feeds back into the main game in various ways, and vice versa. I would love to be able to just have battles in a console RPG I’m playing while I’m on the bus or in a waiting room or something, and take the items and experienced earned back into the main game. Or make roster adjustments to my Madden team. Or make modifications on the cars in my Forza garage. Or build Little Big Planet levels to play on the PS4 version. Or play poker or bowling for money that I can take back to my GTAV game. And so on. Of course, some of that is already possible, and we’ve been hearing promise of that type of thing for years, but I feel it is still far too underutilized and rarely works as well as it should in practice.

For most of us, finding the time to be able to sit down and play a game for any significant length of time isn’t easy, so when we do, we want it to “count.” We don’t always want to waste what precious little time we have to play games on minutiae like that. So to be able to utilize all of the time we are glued to our mobile devices anyway to do some of that tedious but necessary crap, so that when we do sit down to play the game proper we can just dig right into the meat of the game, would be ideal for most of us. That is the way I’d like to use my tablet as a “gaming accessory.”