Video game tablet companion apps have a long, long way to go

December 5, 2013

As Microsoft and Sony launch their next-gen consoles, each is touting the benefits of their respective tablet companion apps—Microsoft especially. And the SmartGlass app for Xbox One really does have some useful functions; you can navigate the console with an Android, iOS or Windows tablet (or phone), where the Xbox One's UI is rendered natively so there's no lag.

SmartGlass for Xbox One can perform a number of other functions, like browsing your friends lists and sending messages, without you having to exit the console game you're playing, which is great.

But Sony's PlayStation app is far more limited and less polished, and as such far more representative of the state of tablet companion apps as a whole. PS4 users who open the PlayStation tablet app shouldn't expect something as advanced as SmartGlass, since Sony never advertised it as such. But it would be nice if it at least worked consistently.

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Half its functionality doesn't even take place within the app; when you try to browse the PlayStation Store or even sign into your PlayStation Network Account, the app sends you to your tablet's browser. You'd think out of everything the app does, they'd want to make those functions easiest of all, but apparently not. When you do sign in, the app often has trouble staying synced to your PS4, and it's obvious that communication between the console and your tablet is spotty. There isn't even a native tablet version; just an upscaled phone app.

Companion apps go further than mere UI assistants, though, and how they interact with console video games themselves is where the true potential lies. Unfortunately, the game-specific apps that are currently available range from nonfunctional to, at best, unnecessary.

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Let's start with the latter: the app for Microsoft and Crytek's Xbox One exclusive Ryse is, like some other Xbox One game apps, rolled into SmartGlass for convenience. The app features extra story info, strategy and hint videos, and social elements. It's a virtual strategy guide and stat tracker. Some hardcore fans may appreciate the extras, but others will never open the app and will be none the worse for it.

Then there's the companion to Dead Rising 3. It suffers from some of the same cardinal sins that plague Grand Theft Auto V's offensive "iFruit" tablet app—namely, the interface is horrible and it looks like it was designed in Flash. At least Dead Rising's app doesn't feature any mini-games where your pet dog rips the bikini bottoms off unsuspecting women, like GTA V's does.

Dead Rising's tablet app does, however, feature a map you're meant to glance at while playing the Xbox One game. Except the map features just a fraction of the information that the in-game map does, and it actually makes the much more helpful in-game mini-map disappear when you open it. De-syncing the app and turning off your tablet isn't enough to get the mini-map to re-appear; you have to quit and re-open the game on Xbox One. And that's the last time you'll try to use Dead Rising 3's companion app.

The companion to Assassin's Creed IV features a map as well, but unlike Dead Rising's at least it works.

These apps show just two of the many paths companion apps can take, though many others attempt various trivial variations. EA's "Battlelog" app for Battlefield 4 lets you view stats, buy DLC, change your equipment, and supposedly view a mini-map while you play, though I couldn't find that last option during the heat of battle. Maybe it's in the separate "Battlefield 4 Commander" app? But my iPad mini is clogged enough with these things.

The companion to Quantic Dream's PS3 exclusive Beyond: Two Souls shows another curious potential direction for these apps; it lets you control the actual game using a tablet. But it leaves much to be desired, and features, audaciously, a link to "buy" (buy what is unclear) that sends you, for some reason, to sign into Facebook in your tablet's browser.

"Knack's Quest," meanwhile, is simply a mediocre match-three game (like Candy Crush!) dressed up as a companion to the PS4 launch game Knack. And like the PlayStation app, there's no native tablet version.

With tablets in so many gamers' homes already, tablet companion apps have the potential to truly add something to players' gaming experiences. Ryse's SmartGlass app features a wealth of knowledge, and though unnecessary it may be the best available. Madden NFL 25's companion has promise too, for hardcore footballers. Meanwhile apps like Dead Rising 3's and Grand Theft Auto V's, which actively detract from the actual game experience (and in the case of the latter are in extremely poor taste), are undoubtedly the worst.

Maybe developers should look to Nintendo's Wii U, where almost every game uses the console's touchscreen-equipped GamePad controller in some way, for inspiration. There is hope on the horizon, as well: the companion to Tom Clancy's The Division, a Ubisoft-made online open-world game scheduled for 2014, lets tablet-bound players control powerful in-game drones in real time. I've seen the app in action, and it's very, very cool.

If that's really the future of tablet companion apps then bring it on, but otherwise we definitely have a problem.

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