Apple is coming into the traditional gaming space. It’s not even a question of ‘if,’ only of ‘when’ and ‘how.’ And that’s the question keeping execs at Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo awake at night, and which must surely be filling games creators with a sense of impending revolution.
This being Apple, there’s no shortage of media speculation fueled by the company’s own raging secrecy. It doesn’t matter that the general feeling of confidence of Apple’s impending arrival is entirely lacking solid evidence. The media’s arguments as well as those from analysts and investors, are based more on Apple’s bulging bag of compelling motivations. In short, it just makes too much sense.
Question is, what can we expect to see?
Obviously, the idea of Apple creating some sort of disk-based graphical power-box is ludicrous. There’s more chance of the company releasing a crystal-set radio than it showing up at E3 and unveiling a shiny plastic thing alongside a first-party shooter. Consoles aren’t merely about graphical speed and tech-specs, although these are important. They are also about access and retail power and brand-trust and by these measures, Apple is a monster.
The company has long been rumored to be working on a TV set, and the idea of this being its videogame play is entirely plausible. It’s only a ‘console’ play because we’re talking about gaming through the TV screen, in the home. There’s no actual console.
Games business analyst Michael Pachter agrees, “For now this is all rumor and speculation. Nothing’s been announced. But it’s definitely going to happen,” he says. “But it won’t be a box. And don’t expect to see a giant touch-screen iPad being released. Nobody wants to clean their TV screen every day.”
A recent report once againraised the prospect of Apple’s TV-set, amplified (somehow) by Apple’s super-senior exec Tim Cook’s alleged visit to Valve. (Note: Valve now says this visit never happened.)
Apple’s TV has been mentioned in retail surveys and, only this week, was the subject of a glowing consumer survey on TV buying plans, in which 25 percent of U.S consumers said they find the idea “appealing.”
Earlier this month Jefferies analyst Peter Misek dubbed the oft-touted device as ‘iPanel’ and gave various reasons why he believes it’s happening soon, including the movement of TV-like components to Apple manufacturing partners in Asia.
Gene Munster, an oft-quoted analyst at Piper Jaffray, cited the TV in a recent projection that Apple’s share price could reach $1,000.
Not everyone is convinced, although even those who dismiss the idea of an actual TV-set are happy to note that the next big play will come through the AppleTV device, which does not preclude a games strategy. There’s always the possibility of Apple using both a TV set and AppleTV for its foray into lean-back gaming.
One leading game industry exec (who preferred to remain anonymous) told me, “We know this is happening. Apple has been slow to understand the games business but it gets it now, and it understands consumers. It sees gaps, it comes up with elegant solutions. And the games publishers are ultimately going to be happy whenever Apple opens up new ideas, new markets and new consumers.”
The idea of an Apple TV set has been in circulation for a long time, as you can find out by visiting IGN’s own Apple TV wiki, wholly dedicated to this long-running rumor. It cites Steve Jobs’ famed quote from his biography published after his death. “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”
And yet, despite the vintage of this rumor it bears scrutiny because it’s likely that when Apple does arrive, everything changes, just as it did when Apple got into the music and the mobile phones and the mobile games business.
Apple is the most important company in the games business, and yet it’s the biggest player without a hand in what we should probably still refer to as the ‘console’ market. Is Apple happy to leave TV-screen gaming to entrenched competitors? Is Apple going to sit back while the fastest growing entertainment sector in the world continues to mushroom? Hardly.
You think Microsoft and Sony are losing sleep over each other’s next-gen plans? Not one bit. They’re waiting to see what Apple does. They’re well aware that it’s been 11 years since a serious new player came into the console space, an unprecedented span of time in gaming history, especially given how much the market has grown in the last decade. Sony and Microsoft and even Nintendo also know that there’s only one company with the money, energy and power to really destroy their plans.
Apple isn’t interested in being in the TV-set business as it currently stands, because it’s a miserable scramble for tiny margins conducted by gargoyle-electronics companies like Samsung, LG and, yes, Sony. Nor is it interested in being in the games console business, which is looking increasingly archaic with every passing day.
My source added, “Look, the last thing on Apple’s radar is squeezing tiny margins out of consumer electronic devices. The play here is about owning everyone’s media buying experience. If you are connected to Apple through your phone, your computer, your tablet and your TV, there’s just no way out. It becomes too painful to go anywhere else.”
In fact, Apple’s play is well beyond words like ‘TV’ and ‘console’. It’s in the business of installing a retail outlet in your house, one which connects with all your other devices. It gets to the point where it’s virtually impossible for you to leave Apple’s entertainment retail combine for a competitor. And gaming is a huge part of that plan.
The company is interested in owning the entertainment business through this crucial portal, the TV screen. It wants to complete the circle of handheld Phone and desktop computer and portable in-house iPad and TV
Speculation on the nature of the TV is not hard to find. It will attempt to re-invent the TV experience through an app-like online environment which will also integrate traditional viewing and economic models. It will feature a new kind of interface that takes us beyond the remote control, using a mixture of Siri voice control, Kinect-like manipulation and iPhone / iPad integration. It will be stylish and expensive, very obviously aimed at elite urban media consumers.
It will be heavily geared towards the connected, social generation, not as an afterthought but as a core principle. Asmedia commentator Brian Solis says in an editorial today, the future of TV is all about integration with other screens, like the computer and mobile devics, and it’s here where Apple has the most to gain. Solis writes, “Connected consumers don’t just expect online, on-demand streaming optimized for each device. They expect to engage in each screen differently and in a dynamic way.” There is currently a hole in Apple’s multi-screen strategy, right in the corner of your living room. Unless you believe the TV is going away, it’s a screen that Apple needs to own.
The screen must come with some sort of traditional games controller. Rumor has it that Apple has been visiting core game developers to talk about a new controller and while it’s possible that this might be restricted to the company’s handheld gaming business, some alternative to the limitations of touch-screen, this does not preclude a standardized games controlling device.
It isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that the iPad, or some version of it, will be the controller. A touch-screen controller is an idea Nintendo has already jumped on with Wii U.
It’s tempting to consider again the so-called connection between Apple and Valve. Is it right that iTunes has something to learn from Steam, that Apple (like the rest of us) has something to learn from Valve’s extraordinary culture? The idea of a Steam-cloud hovering over Apple devices is pretty neat.
Apple understands that retail is finished as far as game distribution goes, and it is not about to allow some other Steam-like outfit to out-iTunes its own ambitions. Steam is now the biggest retailer of PC games in the United States. The console companies and the likes of EA and Activision are gearing their business plans towards selling content through the screen. If games is the biggest entertainment business in the world, it takes the biggest company in the world to step in, dominate rivals and change everything with a bold stroke.
As well as offering games as downloadable apps, it may also consider an OnLive / Gaikai- style streaming service for top-end games.
This is where Apple’s likely plans become especially murky. If the Apple TV comes with a good enough chip to play, say, games of an iPad 3 graphical quality, that will satisfy a large proportion of the market. But it won’t satisfy the kind of players who want to play Crysis 3. Will Apple seek to handle this kind of game through a cloud-gaming solution, or will it cede the hardcore end of the market to established players? As yet, we just don’t know, although Apple’s history with games suggests that it isn’t especially concerned with the Call of Duty player, when there are so many Angry Birds players ready and willing to part with their cash.
Michael Pachter says the company may decide to hedge, beginning with a fairly basic ‘casual’ play and then ramping up with more intense tech solutions as the infrastructure becomes available. Undoubtedly, cloud gaming is evolving rapidly and solves a lot of the issues Apple might have with stuffing its gadget with graphics chips.
Owning screens is what Apple has been doing this past decade. More to the point, it (along with Facebook) has created a massively successful communication platform in which games are the dominant factor. If they enter the console / TV market, the guys at Apple face tough competition. But do you want to bet against them?