For a game console, that’s really cheap. For a media streaming device, that’s sort of expensive.
When Microsoft first introduced the Xbox One in May of 2013, it focused on the $499 box’s non-gaming functions, such as TV streaming, Skype phone calls, and the voice-activated Kinect. The audience of gamers was largely confused—a video mocking that “TV and sports”-focused event is now approaching 8 million views on YouTube. By the time Microsoft got around to really talking about games at E3 months later, it was too mired in controversy surrounding the online check-ins and DRM on the system for many people to notice.
In introducing the new Apple TV, Apple also focused on non-gaming functions first, such as TV streaming, Apple Music, and a voice-activated Siri search. The ability to play games was a secondary concern, given only a modicum of stage time after a thrilling demonstration of searching for Sean Connery’s James Bond movies using only your voice.
What was disastrous for Microsoft’s rollout may actually be appropriate for Apple’s. The $150 Apple TV doesn’t seem to be positioning itself as a direct competitor to the more expensive and more powerful gaming consoles from Sony and Microsoft (or even the likes of the Nvidia Shield). Instead, Apple is positioning the device as a more powerful, more expensive alternative to popular media-streaming devices like Chromecast, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV—a competitor that just happens to have the ability to play some cool games on the side.
Limited hardware, limited controls
Hardware-wise, the A8 processor inside the new Apple TV isn’t even top of the line for the iPhone line anymore, much less anything that’s going to give the likes of the Xbox One and PS4 (or mid-range Steam Machines) a run for their money at the high end of the gaming spectrum. But it’s powerful enough to run “console class” graphics in games like Disney Infinity. That’s probably enough for an audience that sees gaming as an added bonus, rather than a core feature of the device, but not enough for many consumers looking to the box as their only game console.
Then there’s the included remote, which doubles as a game controller thanks to a small touchpad area and a motion sensing accelerometer. It’s hard for me to evaluate without actually getting my hands on it, but as much as it looks intuitive and well-made for simple, one-handed gaming, it seems equally unsuited for anything more complex than an average NES title, thanks to a lack of any physical gaming buttons.
Apple TV games will be able to make use of an optional bluetooth controller if they need (Transistor‘s Apple TV listing already suggests this, and Guitar Hero will doubtless use the proprietary guitar). Still, the fact that such a controller doesn’t come with the Apple TV will severely limit the audience for such titles and limit developers’ willingness to build for them. Apple didn’t even bother to mention the possibility of using standard bluetooth controllers at its press event, showing just how unimportant the company considers the feature.
An “open” TV platform
A new multiplayer version of Crossy Road may not be a killer app for Apple TV, but it’s a nice addition for sure.
The most intriguing thing about the Apple TV, from a gaming business standpoint, is the extension of the iOS development model to the living room. Sure, the iOS App Store isn’t a completely open platform; Apple can and does enforce sometimes ridiculous rules on its developers. Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony have been working to open up their own platforms in recent years, making it easier for indie game developers to get their games on those consoles.
Still, the iOS-like tvOS seems poised to be by far the easiest way for a game developer to get a game onto a TV-based console this side of the Ouya (or the upcoming Steam Machines, which are really just PCs). Unlike the Ouya, though, the Apple TV seems likely to have both a significant base of consumers drawn in by its video capabilities and buy-in from established developers that are already comfortable making and selling games through iOS’ SDK. Apple’s significant marketing muscle won’t hurt on that score, either.
While this openness means Apple TV’s gaming selection will likely be quickly filled with lowest common denominator cruft, it also increases the potential for the next surprising breakout hit to find traction on the platform. Titles like Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, Crossy Road, and countless others that became viral hits in iOS’ open pressure cooker likely wouldn’t have even had the chance to be released in the more restrictive environments of current console platforms.
That said, just porting the same kind of games that work on iOS to the Apple TV won’t always be a winning solution. Games designed for direct manipulation on a small multitouch often aren’t going to work with indirect, single-finger touchpad swipes on a huge HDTV. What’s more, many iOS games benefit from the common use case of offering a mindless distraction while the TV is in use by someone else (or just on for mindless background noise itself). Forcing those kinds of games to take up the entire TV screen is actually a disadvantage, in a way.
On the other hand, moving from iOS to Apple TV gives these previously cramped games a lot of extra screen real estate to work with. The best demonstration of this advantage at today’s press event was the new multiplayer modes for Crossy Road, which allow cooperative or competitive Frogger-like gameplay using any iDevice as a secondary controller (sorry, Android users). While this kind of mode would be technically possible on an iPad, gathering multiple people around a tablet isn’t the same as sharing a couch for TV gaming. This kind of local multiplayer experience was one of the best features of the Ouya, and it’ll likely be an attractive selling point for Apple TV gaming as well.
Who’s the audience?
Harmonix’s Beat Sports, the only Apple TV exclusive discussed at today’s press event, seems diverting enough.
For some small segment of the public, the Apple TV will probably provide all the TV-based gaming they need. For a parent with a young child begging to get into the Disney Infinity universe, for instance, an Apple TV with its intuitive remote, its suite of easy-to-use media apps, its relatively low $150 price, and its familiar Apple name could look more appealing than the likes of the Xbox One or the PS4. A social butterfly who wants to occasionally break out party games after finishing a movie might also turn into a big Apple TV gamer.
But I don’t think Microsoft and Sony have to worry about Apple TV significantly eating into their mindshare or marketshare, as the iPhone and other smartphones did to dedicated portable consoles. The iPhone’s tilt-sensitive, multi-touch screen and easy Internet connectivity allowed for gaming experiences that just weren’t possible on the portable competition at the time. The Apple TV seems less poised to offer much that can’t be done (and sometimes done better) on more powerful TV consoles (touchpad remote notwithstanding). On the contrary, it seems that Apple TV apps will face significant restrictions on size and local storage that will make game development tougher, in many cases.
The iPhone also had the stealth advantage that people who bought it for communication reasons always had it in their pockets, while they might leave a Nintendo or Sony portable system at home unless they had specific plans to play. This is less of an issue in the living room, where many people are going to have both the Apple TV and a console sitting under the same television, competing directly for easy gaming access.
It’s possible there may be an untapped market of potential TV gamers who have just been unwilling to spend the extra money on a PS4 or Xbox One (or even a Wii U). Maybe these gamers finally discover a deep and abiding need to play games on the big screen once those titles are stealthily thrust in front of them through an unrelated Apple TV purchase. And maybe some indie developer will create a breakout hit that would have never seen the light of day in a more restrictive console environment, becoming a system seller for Apple TV’s gaming side in its own right.
More likely, though, gaming on the Apple TV will probably be a nice secondary feature that doesn’t drive purchases as much as Netflix and iTunes movies do with a simple, easy-to-use interface.
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