A fellow co-worker who's an unabashed iOS enthusiast passed by my cube yesterday and saw me playing on a table-top arcade machine sitting on my desk. He stopped, eyes drawn to the bright colors on the sides and the top, and the arcade graphics on the small glass screen. I explained that it was an iPad sitting in the iCade, a $99 self-assemble arcade cabinet with Bluetooth joystick.
Naturally, he wanted to try it out on a few games he liked. I explained that the iCade currently only works with Atari's Greatest Hits app, which admittedly has 100 games, but lacks arcade classics like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Joust--games that are, of course, made by other publishers. I also explained that it really only worked in portrait mode (or a slightly precarious but still-possible landscape mode, by using a groove on the outside edge).
He started to sour. Eventually, he walked away.
Of course, for arcade nuts and fans of novelty bar-top/desktop toys, the iCade is still a pretty awesome little treat. But until it can support other games--which Ion, the maker of the iCade, says will happen via a shared API--its appeal will necessarily be limited. I can think of dozens of games in the App Store that would be perfect for the iCade: Street Fighter IV. Death Rally. NBA Jam. Pinball HD. Tetris. Space Invaders Infinity Gene. The aforementioned Pac-Man.
I can also, however, think of some that wouldn't be perfect. Geometry Wars. Dead Space. Or, any dual-stick shooters.
Between the iCade and flexible stick-on thumbpads like the Fling, it seems like iOS devices are heading for an age of Plastic Junk, much like what happened with consoles around the time that Rock Band hit stores. The question is, does Apple want to accept a sea of half-adequate controllers, or settle the score and make a control pad case of its own?
Here are the solutions I can see.
Apple does nothing. That's the current landscape. Gaming is huge on iOS devices, but the dissatisfaction among some parties with a lack of buttons has led to peripherals like the iCade and Fling. More will inevitably come, especially with how much money the iOS gaming industry is beginning to represent. Most people will play without controllers, and a few will try these quirky extras.
Apple releases an API for controllers. An official 30-pin/Bluetooth API or SDK for iOS 5 would open up game development with controllers in mind, and enable third parties to make better-supported accessories. A more centralized gaming landscape for controllers, like Game Center for multiplayer, can avoid patchwork device support. However, then we'll be debating which controllers to buy like we debate iPad cases.
Apple makes its own controller. This would annoy third-party peripheral makers, but Apple could control the design factor and keep a clean look. From an aesthetics perspective, lots of weird peripherals could make for lots of ugly-looking iPhones and iPads. Another advantage of an Apple-made controller could be integrated support for future features such as Apple TV cross-compatibility. If Nintendo's next Wii really does feature a tablet, why can't Apple's own iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch have buttons to become a true controller for a set-top box?
For the iPad, the solution could either be a controller/case, or a Bluetooth controller that pairs easily and works well. Technically there's no reason why Sony's PS3 controller couldn't do the trick, except for the fact that neither device currently recognizes the other. Then, of course, you'd need to prop the iPad up using a Smart Cover or other stand and use it like a mini-TV.
The iCade's crisp joystick switches and eight buttons make the few arcade games that work for it more fun to play, and it solidly makes the case for controller gaming on Apple's 9.7-inch screen. Maybe it's time for button-based gaming to be revisited on iOS, starting with the iPad.