Watch for an Apple Sneak Attack on Living Room Gaming
How could Apple possible take on Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PS4? Sneakily. The Apple TV doesn't have to be the hardware processing brains of the gaming system -- your iPhone or iPad or Mac could be the processor, which is, when you think about it, the ultimate console gaming sneak attack. Boom. New rules for gaming in the living room.
Despite all the cool updates Apple promised to bring the world at its Worldwide Developers Conference -- iOS 7, OS X Mavericks, a new Mac Pro -- the most tantalizing new possibility wasn't described at all: games. Gaming. An Apple-made gaming console. A new vision for living room gaming delivered via home WiFi and an Apple TV. Since Apple wasn't out there on the stage talking about this specifically, why bother diving into the vaporous chance of a new class of Apple living room product now?
Two reasons: One, the lackluster and downright silly Anki Drive demonstration; and two, Apple released to its developer partners a new game controller framework with instructions and stipulations for building a physical game controller. If you're an Apple developer, you can access the document here.
These two essentially isolated events could mean everything or nothing, but this I know: If I were Microsoft or Sony trying to launch a snazzy and expensive new game console late this year before the holiday season, the thing I'd fear most is any Apple product that puts a physical gamepad in the hands of kids -- and worse yet, lets them gather around an HDTV in the living room.
What's Going On in Front of the Couch
There is so much going on right now in the space between your couch and your HDTV that it's hard to find a place to start. First, let's describe the landscape. Microsoft and Sony produce the popular Xbox 360 and PS3 dedicated gaming consoles.
Microsoft has been transforming its 360 console from a game-playing device into a television, movie, and music playing set-top box. If it weren't so clunky and hampered by Microsoft interface design and desperate attempts to squeeze revenue through its disingenuous Xbox Live system, it would be used by everyone in the household instead of Minecraft-playing tweeners.
Sony does better in international markets than in the U.S., where the Xbox 360 reigns, but the Sony ecosystem lacks vision and vitality. Its core reputation starts and ends with smart, dedicated console gamers.
Both companies will launch their next-generation powerhouse gaming consoles late this year in time for holiday sales.
Microsoft's Xbox One starts at US$499 and includes a mandatory Kinect so your gaming console can watch you move and speak, see your skin flush with excitement or fear, and generally give you a futuristic way to interact with your TV viewing and game playing. Sounds cool until you realize you have to trust Microsoft, which is hard to do.
Have you ever tried to disengage a credit card from your Xbox Live account without entering in a new credit card? There's a reason Microsoft doesn't make this easy, and it isn't a technical challenge a multibillion dollar corporation can't figure out. Oh, and by the way, your Xbox One requires an always- on Internet connection. If you lose your Internet connection for more than 24 hours, no more game playing for you. And used game sales? Ha ha. The hoops a player will have to jump through are many, small in diameter, and on fire.
Microsoft does have Xbox Live, which it is constantly enhancing with new apps and services, including SmartGlass that extends the Xbox Live world to and from smartphone and tablet screens. If you're cool with constantly sending money to Microsoft, the Xbox world will let you play all day and night.
Sony, on the other hand, isn't trying to control your entire world, won't impose wild DRM restrictions on pre-owned games, doesn't force the PS4 to call home or threaten to deactivate, costs $100 less ($399), and has a good library of titles to play. The problem with Sony is that it's next-generation console is a predictable, safe, old-school solution with a better haircut and faster running shoes.
Back to Apple
Most of the Apple TV hoopla has been centered on movies and TV shows, on figuring out how to replace cable and satellite television with something better, in addition to the notion that Apple could build a prettier big-screen HDTV worthy of a placing upon a pedestal of worship.
I've got problems with that.
First, I doubt Apple can shake loose the TV and movie industry from their traditional delivery models -- at least, not any time soon. There's just too much money tied up in broadcast television, hundreds of cable channels and commercials. Second, I doubt Apple can produce an HDTV that's price competitive. So, instead of a hobby, Apple would be heading toward an expensive hobby.
Unless it figures out living room gaming.
The Sneaky Backside Beatdown
Apple's iOS has already proven itself to be a freakishly popular gaming system, both due to its touch controls and despite them. The iOS gaming library is fantastically huge and has titles for every age group -- from toddlers learning ABCs to grandmothers playing Words with Friends. There are action titles, dark and scary thinker games, and even a version of Minecraft, which is both a travesty as well as a triumph of creative purity.
Apple has hundreds of thousands of developers and Apple has millions of screens.
The only thing Apple really needs is the connective glue -- the method for taking iPad, iPod touch, and iPhone games and screens and applying them to the land of dark carpeted basements.
There are multiple ways this could happen, and all of them would take a bite out the Xbox One and PS4.
First, Apple could beef up its Apple TV with a bigger processor and storage capabilities, letting customers buy and store games directly on the Apple TV. Personally, I'd like to see this, even at a price point approaching $499. The Apple TV is amazingly simple but woefully underpowered when it's time to explore the living room.
Plus, it needs a controller. Of course, you don't have to use the cute little aluminum remote control -- you can use an app on your iPad or iPhone. Nice. Even today, you can AirPlay games from your little iPhone to your HDTV via an Apple TV. The problem? Tactile feedback. You don't have it with a touchscreen. What else? The point. Why look at a big screen TV if you need to touch and tap your way along while navigating a screen to play many iOS games? Why not just look at the bright little screen?
A smarter Apple TV could connect multiple players, locally or remotely, to an Apple TV screen for new forms of collaborative game play.
Even simpler than this would be creating a set of controllers -- game pads -- that would let a gamer slip either an iPad or iPod into the controller and dive into a fast-paced action adventure using tactile controls. For an iPad, having a wireless traditional-style controller gamepad would permit you to easily play a game from your Mac's screen. . . or while watching an iPad on a stand. . . or while AirPlaying the iPad screen to your HDTV.
If you're following all this, it means the Apple TV doesn't have to be the hardware processing brains of the gaming system -- your iPhone or iPad or Mac could be the processor, which is, when you think about it, the ultimate console gaming sneak attack. Boom. New rules for gaming in the living room.
The cost of entry would be slow and incremental, and it's something inherently portable. Something that parents intuitively understand because they're already packing iPhones.
Once Apple has the mindshare, the magic of the Apple ecosystem will do the rest. The consoles will collect dust.
Why do I think this is moving from possible to likely?
For starters, Apple CEO Tim Cook shared the stage with Anki, which showed off a next-generation artificial intelligence game system where little cars drove themselves. . . and the brains were locked up in iOS devices. The prototype game was stupid, expensive, and more of an exercise in AI and robotics than anything any large number of people would ever buy. Still, Cook let them have the stage for a reason.
Then there are the APIs and specifications for third-party controllers. If Apple provides a consistent format for high-quality, simple-to-use controllers that will let you run iOS apps and games and enjoy them on your HDTV, the living room landscape will never look the same.