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MMObility: What Microsoft Surface means for mobile gaming


This week, Microsoft announced Windows Surface, a new tablet that comes in two basic flavors. Immediately the social mediasphere lit up with speculation, but specifications were limited. We know that there will be a lighter, more affordable version that will run Windows RT with an Tegra-based Arm chip, and a chunkier, more expensive one that will run on a Intel Core i5 (Ivy Bridge) processor and sport a nicer screen. It seems that the Core i5 will come with at least a few gigs of RAM, but here's my question: Don't we need to be moving in the direction that we talk about experience more than hardware specs? I imagine that someday the specs of the machine will be largely unknown... ask an iPad user what's in his.

It makes sense if you think about it. This basic, $500 laptop that I am writing on right now has enough power to do certain things, but it runs those same common apps like Twitter or email services as fast as any other gaming PC in my house. When it comes to basic internet usage, does it matter that one device runs an app quickly while the other runs it seemingly at the same speed? Fast is fast.

Still, I wonder how the new Surface devices will fit into the tablet gaming sphere.

Microsoft Surface screenshot
Gaming is obviously one of the main forces driving the tablet takeover. iPads still dominate the tablet scene, but one of the first things you hear a potential customer ask at the local Best Buy when shopping for a new tablet is "Will it play games?" This new device from Microsoft will run games for sure, and the higher-end model's chip is capable enough to run many client-based MMOs too. Now, will it run Darkfall or Vanguard on high settings? No. We'll get there someday very soon. For now, though, we mobile gamers seem to have a limited choice when it comes to MMOs.

It is important to note that while we have had some choices in Windows-based tablets touchscreen devices (like my Inspiron Duo, a "transforming" netbook), they have either been bulky, hot, expensive, or (like my netbook) not as powerful as I would have liked. I have been playing with the Windows 8 previews, however, and they literally made my touchscreen netbook much, much faster, more responsive, and more of a fluid experience. Windows 8 is made for touch, so I can only imagine he fun of being able to play on a Core-i5-powered tablet with Windows 8.

"Oh, I admit that along the way I have played with some finer tech, and the rush of having more power at my fingertips is a bit thrilling."

Over the last year, I have worked to simplify or minimize the games I play by choosing browser-based or mobile MMOs. It has not been easy, but I now have scores of choices -- even more when you count the wonderful world of MUDs -- that will run on my netbook, my phone, or a basic laptop. Oh, I admit that along the way I have played with some finer tech, and the rush of having more power at my fingertips is a bit thrilling. But as that feeling passes and I want to get up from the desk, I realize that pushing graphics is the main reason behind power. I don't care about graphics to the point that I will spend more money on crafting a gaming machine, so I ended up finding all of these MMOs that are very clever at getting around the graphical boundaries. Many of them use strategy instead of literal three-dimensional fighting, or they employ representational graphics instead of state-of-the-art trees and lighting. In other words, I am having a blast playing MMOs that do not require a gaming machine to play. You'd be surprised at what you might find on my list.

But even so, when I see the i5 "Pro" version of this Windows Surface tablet, I do drool a little. We've yet to get a solid price, but it will be "comparable" to a new Ultrabook (around $800 to $1000?), so I think that will be enough of a roadblock to keep people away. The smaller version just doesn't seem powerful enough for PC lovers to want, especially when they can get a full laptop or netbook for the same cost and have access to more power and RAM, and we all know that one of the first things we, as PC owners, would do is push that little guy to its limit. We might not like the feeling we get on the return. Sure, it will run plenty of the netbook MMOs on my list, and will probably have a nice, zippy feeling to it when running apps and basic internet tools, but will that be enough? Let's not forget that the iPad is the monster it is because of the app store and how simply it works with email and browsing. I gave one to my mother, who fell in love with it. She has found so many apps that she needs no more help; she knows where to go to find cool stuff.

Microsoft Surface screenshot
Unfortunately, iOS- and Android-based MMOs are still a small group. This is where having a more powerful (even if costly) Windows-based tablet could rule the day. Sure, I would still be playing my less-demanding MMOs on it, but if I needed to, I could actually download something that required a bit more power, or I could enjoy browser- and Unity-based MMOs like Milmo or Battlestar Galactica Online. With more power, ironically, comes more ability to enjoy a more mobile lifestyle.

"I think the attachable keyboard that comes with the Surface is certainly cool, but when you have more power, you will want to try more powerful things, things that require a bit more control."

One of the problems I can see, however, is that the touchscreen does not always work well with MMOs. Playing a MUD, for example, requires a keyboard, even with excellent clients like Gemstone IV. At some point, that keyboard is required. I think the attachable keyboard that comes with the Surface is certainly cool, but when you have more power, you will want to try more powerful things, things that require a bit more control. I just don't know whether sitting on your couch with one of these while trying to enjoy many different mobile games would work out, mainly because they were not designed around the product like a game from the iOS app store is. So you'll find yourself jockeying for a flat surface (no pun intended) to work with an actual mouse and keyboard. Non-tablet or non-mobile users might not understand why mobile is important; after all, why can't mobile fans just sit down at a desk like everyone else? It's hard to explain. Having the ability to move around and play games from anywhere is obviously very, very popular, though.

I'll have to wait to get my hands on the higher-end Surface tablet to make any calls. How hot will this little device get? How bulky will it feel? Reading specs is one thing; picking it up in your hands is another. It's easy to feel even slight differences in weight and thickness, so I imagine that if the Surface is much bulkier, feels more "plasticy," or gets warm at all when compared to an iPad, it will be noted over and over. What concerns me more is simply how it performs when doing the things I want it to do, and I think it would excel as part of a mobile gaming lifestyle.

Now, about that price...

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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