GDC 13: Wikipad Looks to Bring Console Controls to Tablet Gaming

If there was one thing clear at GDC, it was the impact mobile development now has on the game industry. For every Fuse or Remember Me, there’s a hundred endless runners, shooters and arcade titles on Android and iOS. While the merit of these games can (and should) be debated, there’s quality games releasing on a weekly basis. Playing on cell phones or tablets is one of the most convenient ways of gaming, but it has a major flaw: no physical controls. Using the touchscreen is fine for some games, but many can prove frustrating for anyone old enough to exist before the dawn of smartphones. Wikipad, a new venture into the tablet market, thinks it has this problem solved. While the device is a standard 7 inch tablet, it’s unique in the fact that it comes with a slide-in gaming controller, allowing mobile games to be played with full console controls.

Appearance and function-wise, the tablet is fairly vanilla. It looks like a standard, run-of-the-mill device and without the Gamepad attached, would be nearly impossible to distinguish it from similar tablets. Running on Android iOS with a standard interface, its functionality doesn’t differ from other tablets very much. Internally, however, it’s a beast. Running on Tegra 3, the most powerful mobile processor, it boasts a 12-core NVIDIA GPU, Android 4.1, a gig of ram and weighs under a pound. 16GB of internal storage is included and it can accommodate up to 32 additional GB via an SD slot. All of the games we tried on it, including graphically-intense ones, ran lightning-fast with no problems besides a crash or two (hopefully an early bug or simply the app itself).

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Games-wise, three are included out of the box: ShadowGun: Dead Zone, Hockey Nations and Dead Trigger. These games have been optimized for the Wikipad. Outside of that, it supports hundreds of titles, including some of the most frustrating touchscreen ones, like Sonic 4 Episode II, R-type and Metal Slug 3. Unfortunately, none of these are “officially” supported by the device, which is its biggest problem. While WikiPad has done a tremendous job finding out which games work with the GamePad and have put up a slick list with control outlines, it needs to officially partner up with publishers to be sustainable. While we were assured it was coming, it’s current model a bit of a low-rent solution when compared to something like the MOGA, which has multiple partnerships nailed down. Luckily, what we’ve tried out of these “unofficial” games seemed very smooth, but seamless compatibility will be an issue.

A big advantage the Wikipad has over the MOGA, however, is the fact that the Gamepad connects via a proprietary port and not over Bluetooth. It’s patented and if you’re curious why they simply didn’t create a Gamepad for pre-existing tablets, it’s because of the port and its location directly in the middle of the side of the device, something that other manufactures would have to re-wire to support in future models. Basically, it’s an impossible outside of a proprietary device as the market stands.

At first glance, the Wikipad Gamepad may seem bulky. While it’s certainly not slim and won’t win any beauty contests, it feels comfortable in my hands and a female with much smaller hands than mine seemed to have no issues holding it. The only gripe with its footprint I have are the speakers that protrude from the front of the unit. While these do amplify the sound, it would be preferable to flatten it a bit and simply include an accessible headphone jack or include a loud speaker in the tablet unit itself. Logistically, it might need this added bulk to accommodate the pad, but it still takes away from the sleekness.

All of the buttons feel nice, with some Xbox 360-esque analog sticks that feel akin to playing that console. There are proper trigger buttons on the rear of the unit, a commendable design choice and standard face buttons up top. The tablet slides easily in and out of the game controller and feels very snug once in — like a cohesive unit. In use, the tablet is firmly in place and seemingly impossible to slip out.

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Near the end of the meeting, we were lucky enough for the Wikipad founder to show up straight from China and give us the literal first look at the unboxing of the final retail units. While it may be an upstart, the packaging is first class. I literally “oooh’d” when the box was opened, revealing a beautiful blue shell and intuitive layering of the enclosed contents. It matches something that Apple would do and affirms that the product is far from a second-rate knockoff.

When released within the next few months, the Wikipad will retail for $249.99, a price that includes the tablet and game controller. No carrying case is in the box, but they will roll one out that includes room for both devices. Gaming-wise, there’s no better way to play games on a tablet that I’ve encountered. It handles them perfectly, looks great and seems well-made. Its success is hard to read, but if can work through a few caveats, it could be a sleeper hit. As many already own tablets, gamers will have to be willing to purchase a secondary one, something that could prove to be a tall order. As far as gaming is concerned, there needs to be more official partnerships to optimize games for the platform. If it can jump over these hurdles, however, the Wikipad could prove to be the solution for tablet gamers who can’t stand touchscreens.