Tablets with Side Effects: New Usage Models and Game Design

As a game developer working on mobile platforms, I was very interested to read AdMob’s recent survey into the use of tablet computers, and noted the ways it correlated with anecdotal knowledge I personally had gleaned from having owned an iPad for a few months.

It’s an interesting time for anyone designing games for tablet platforms. On the one hand, certain things are now known; the question at the iPad’s launch, of whether these things could catch on at all, is now definitively answered, with around 15m iPads sold since launch, and credible competitors from other manufacturers finally appearing in stores in volume.

Analysts iSuppli are predicting a sell of almost 40 million iPads this year, with Android tablet sales steadily rising, and then taking over the market share lead in 2013. Clearly, tablets are here to stay as a mass market device.

On the other hand, we still have very little data on the shape of the market for tablet games, and arguably more significantly for the games designer – what the usage patterns of these things are.

The AdMob survey doesn’t specify what tablet computers it’s talking about.  Perhaps, as AdMob is now owned by Google – whose Android Honeycomb tablet OS is the first serious rival to Apple’s iOS – this is something the Google head office would rather gloss over for the moment. Apple still hold around 75% of the tablet market by sell-in, according to Bloomberg, with Android tablets accounting for around 22%, and it seems likely that sell-through to end users is skewed even further in Apple’s favour for the time being.

Still, unless you believe that there really is something “magical” about the iPad, it’s reasonable to assume that the AdMob data provides some generally applicable insights.

Firstly, and most hearteningly for game developers, was that gaming is currently the most popular use for tablets, as reported by some 84% of respondents. However, this is one area in which iPad “magic” may be significant. Here at Connect2Media, we’ve taken a look at some of the low-end Android devices appearing on the market, and while it would be unfair to name names, we’re not all that impressed with anything below the £400 price point yet.

It’s a speculation, but I strongly suspect the tablet gaming market will initially not grow linearly with the overall tablet market. Many of these devices are fine for web browsing and email, but the horsepower doesn’t seem to be there for good gaming experiences at the low end of the market. However, the recent sensible price reduction of the Motorola Xoom and Samsung’s forthcoming 10-inch Galaxy Tab will likely initiate a specs and price war that can only benefit the end consumer, so we expect this landscape to be a rapidly changing one.

The other thing in AdMob’s data that jumped out at me was that 82% of respondents said they primarily used their tablets at home, rather than “on the move” or “at work”.

This tallies with my own experience to a very great extent, and ties into something we’ve discussed a lot within the company. Where the modern smartphone is a truly mobile computing device, it’s also a very personal one; living in your pocket, and used primarily for solitary activity.

Tablet computers, we speculate, will become far more part of the shared home environment than either the hyper-personal smartphone or the home office-bound desktop or laptop. I find I generally leave the thing lying around on a table or in the kitchen, and people pick it up, pass it round and put it down with an unconscious casualness. The technology might not be all that radical, but the form factor seems to lend itself to entirely new behaviours.

The behaviour I’m most intrigued by, which people seem to do without even thinking about it, is shared simultaneous usage. During a recent family visit, the nephews and nieces were quite happy to gather into a big huddle on the couch, playing ostensibly single player games like Plants vs. Zombies and ByteMark’s Jaws game as a group, all merrily poking away at different objects on the screen, with none of them being the “main” player. Of course, this isn’t the death knell for traditional gaming, and it’s important not to overstate the case. As soon as all the girls started playing Jojo’s Fashion Show from our brilliant casual gaming partners iWin, my nephew Alex and I sloped off for a gratifying blast through Halo Reach on the Xbox 360, a kind of gaming experience to which tablets are not well-suited.

While the adults were less interested in gaming, the usage model remained the same, with the grown-ups sitting together flicking through photographs, or watching video clips. And while such actions are entirely possible on touch-enabled smartphones, the small form factor makes sharing a non-obvious, somewhat tricky usage model. On a tablet, however, people seem to slip into it without even really noticing what they’re doing.

Such a significant difference going unnoticed by users is precisely the kind of thing a designer should be noticing. This is something a mouse / keyboard paradigm could never really achieve, as those devices fundamentally lean towards being under the control of a single user, in a fairly static location. Even the smallest laptops don’t really lend themselves to being passed around and shared in this way.

That aside, perhaps the biggest harbinger of change in AdMob’s report is that a whopping 77% of respondents said that their laptop and desktop usage had decreased since owning a tablet. Again, this tallies with my own experience; booting up a PC for anything other than serious work now seems like an absolute chore, compared to sitting in bed on a Saturday morning reading the news and poking around the internet. Add to that the brilliant simplicity and hyper-casual nature of games like Words With Friends and Smurfs Village, and the non-work computer is increasingly in for lonely weekends.

Observant readers will have noticed that I’m not actually drawing any big conclusions, and, well, that’s because I don’t have any yet. But I am increasingly persuaded that there is a kernel of truth behind Steve Jobs’ characteristically over-cooked hyperbole about tablets. Technically, they are in many ways unremarkable, but to focus on that is to miss the point, or at least the point anyone in the app-development business should care about: tablets are driving the biggest changes in user behaviour of the last 20 years.

Some may lament the move away from the general purpose computer, and indeed, it’s a phenomena that will be unkind to the wallets of anyone who, like me, will always have a use for a big as-much-power-as-I-can-get PC; the high-powered desktop looks set to return to its roots as an expensive professionals’ device.

But back in the mass market, we finally have home computers that fit the home, not office computers with bolted-on media features. This is a change developers of all kinds should be paying close attention to.

John Tatlock

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