The controller can make or break a gaming platform. Consoles and controllers progress at roughly the same pace, with each new generation introducing new and improved input methods with increasingly powerful hardware. The iPhone, which has quickly become one of the most popular gaming platforms, is no exception. With a multi-touch screen, accelerometer, microphone, and Internet connectivity, gamers have more ways to control what happens in a game than ever before.
And they hate it. One can find thousands of reviews bemoaning the controls of a variety of games, from platformers to first person shooters. The latter category is especially prone to criticisms of on-screen controls, as many gamers are forced to grapple with on-screen controls in a genre that was developed when there was nothing but physical controllers. For everything the iPhone does well, many view the touch screen as a limiting factor of many iOS games.
Bladepad, an iPhone case that also serves as a hardware controller, is the latest of many products attempting to change the way iPhone gamers interact with their devices. To make this goal a reality, the company has turned to Kickstarter and institutional investors to raise awareness for its product and gain developer support.
CEO David Baum’s interest in building a controller for the iPhone was the result of seeing a friend playing a game on the device. He later watched YouTube videos of gamers playing on their iPhones to get a feel for how people were reacting to these games. “[The controls] were called clunky, slow, frustrating, just… lots of negative comments all across the board for touch screen controls,” he says. Bladepad was born. After raising an undisclosed amount to develop a working prototype of the Bladepad concept, the company turned to Kickstarter.
“Kickstarter is a little bit tricky. It’s not really a great way to get funding, because you need to get funding before you start a Kickstarter,” Baum says. “Kickstarter is a good way to launch a product, and they give you some pre-orders and marketing, but they require a lot before you can start your project.” The reality is that Bladepad’s Kickstarter is less about raising money than it is about gaining support from game developers, who have a rocky history with iPhone peripherals. Baum says that he has committed to releasing Bladepad even if the Kickstarter project doesn’t meet its funding goal, and is in talks with investors to raise money and bring the product to market should the project fail.
“Game developers attitudes on this are kinda weird. They think ‘that might be nice for people that have already downloaded our apps, but it won’t drive sales,’” Baum says. It is, at its core, a chicken and egg problem. Developers don’t want to spend their time building for an unproven device with a small userbase and customers don’t want to purchase peripherals like the Bladepad without having a number of games available.
Shaun Inman, who has released several games for iOS and the Mac, is one doubtful developer. “it just seems like if you’re going to design for a medium you should design for that medium without any external dependencies,” he says. “You’re going to want to make your game playable for people that don’t have that device, otherwise you’re going to cut yourself off from a huge market.”
It’s hard to deny the appeal of the Bladepad from a gamers’ view. The iPhone as an input device is still relatively new, and many games released on the iOS platform have simply taken the physical controller and created a virtual facsimile with on-screen “buttons” that are often too small and imprecise. This mimicry is bewildering, and I have installed and deleted many games because their controls were not up to par.
The question that needs to be asked, then, is simple. Is the iPhone’s hardware the problem, or is the problem uninspired design and failure to embrace a new platform? If it’s the former Bladepad could be a hit, the peripheral to rule all peripherals. If it’s the latter it doesn’t matter how much money Bladepad raises. If developers haven’t figured out how to work with a five-year old device, why would they suddenly embrace a new and optional addition to that device?