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Apple's place in the next generation of gaming


Sony is holding an event this Wednesday in New York, where the company is expected to announce the next version of its popular PlayStation console, essentially kicking off the next generation of video gaming (Nintendo actually did this last year with the launch of its Wii U console, but sales of that device haven't done so well, and Mario's Japanese overlords tend to do their own thing, no matter what Microsoft and Sony do). So this TechCrunch editorial about Apple entering the gaming space for real comes at a very interesting time. Sony's about to announce a new console, and Microsoft will presumably do the same soon after. Where's Apple in all of this?

A full five years ago, I wrote this post, talking about five things Apple could do to bring gamers back to the platform. And if I may say so myself, many of those directions were followed. Apple essentially has a huge game store in the App Store, and not only has it created (as I said back then) a solid revenue system as well as a promotion and distribution channel, but Apple's done so in a way that helps and grows developers as well.

Apple did indeed focus on casual games in the App Store, to the point that the vast majority of the top-grossing and downloaded apps are casual games. Apple made its hardware faster, so that you can basically run any PC game on any Mac these days, either with native ports in the Mac App Store (another place where games generally rule), or with emulation and Boot Camp. And Apple has done its best to provide a fairly unified gaming experience with Game Center -- on either iOS or the Mac, Apple uses that service to both reward gamers and promote other titles. I think that service could be used even more effectively, but that's a topic for another post.

However, the one thing that Apple hasn't done from that post I wrote five years ago is this: provide gaming hardware. Apple has created a huge platform with iOS, obviously, and game developers of all stripes have worked very hard to create titles that not only worked on a touchscreen or with an accelerometer, but excelled with them. But Apple has never once created hardware specifically for gaming. It's never released a game controller (as many third parties have done), and it's never added a hardware feature to its devices specifically for gamers. And even with the option of AirPlay (which has opened up a lot of possibilities for game devs and players), Apple still seems more focused on the fact that you can stream movies between devices rather than the more interesting option of using one device as a controller for another.

In short, Apple still doesn't get gaming. Gaming is helping to pay the bills over there (the last figure I heard was that 80 percent of app sales were from games), but Apple still hasn't made a move to officially step into the gaming market. And now, we're on the eve of brand-new consoles, with new hardware specs and new marketplaces and new delivery methods, and Apple is still not getting involved.

Now, perhaps it doesn't need to. Apple's certainly seen plenty of success even holding gaming at arm's length (and only briefly mentioning it during announcements or showing it off in commercials), and it's hard to see a company with so many billions failing just because it doesn't release new hardware. As the TechCrunch editorial notes, Apple doesn't step into the fray when it doesn't need to, and there's certainly an argument that it doesn't need to step any further into gaming than it has.

But on the other hand, there is (or at least there was) so much opportunity for Apple in the gaming space. We already know that apps will someday come to the Apple TV, and that's the most likely place for Apple to gain a foothold, not just with gimmicks like AirPlay, but by combining the very powerful App Store model with a living room TV-based computer.

If that happens, Apple could go the Nintendo route and just turn an iPad or an iPhone into a controller, but I don't think a touchscreen is ideal for a game where you're looking at a bigger screen -- I think Apple will need to finally admit that sometimes, buttons are better. And if they admit that for the Apple TV, then I don't think it will be long until we see an official Bluetooth controller for iPhone and iPad. Not for all games -- some games are better on a touchscreen than others. But for those gamers who need their buttons, why not bring a creation for the Apple TV back to the mobile devices?

So five years after my first post, that's my next roadmap for Apple and gaming: Bring apps to the Apple TV, and bring buttons (optional, of course) to their mobile devices. As always, Apple does what it wants, but if the company wants to actually expand into the gaming space, just having EA shows off its latest titles at the next few product announcements won't do it.

Why? Because over the last five years while Apple was following the strategy I laid out in that last post, Microsoft and Sony have been doing plenty of their own learning. Not only will the PS4 and the Xbox 720 (or whatever the two new consoles are called) use the lessons that Apple's devices have taught, they'll also be the first two big gaming consoles created post-App Store. I expect both of them to be more open than ever, and both to provide more ways for players to access digital and downloaded games than ever before. The Xbox Live Marketplace was a huge hit for Microsoft on the Xbox 360, and it was developed in a patchwork manner over the course of the console's life; the next iteration should be ready to go and full-featured right away at launch. Likewise, Sony's PlayStation Network (and the PlayStation Plus subscription program) has been developed piece by piece over time, but the next console should make full use of that infrastructure and groundwork.

In other words, Apple's had a lot of time in this past console generation to really push and develop its App Store, and to really create a market for digital games on its mobile platforms that never existed before. But a new race is starting on Wednesday this week, one where both Microsoft and Sony (if they do things right, at least) will be much better equipped to compete in terms of both game pricing and digital distribution.

In that sense, it may already be too late for Apple to really take over the gaming market. The company from Cupertino has never been really excited about gaming -- that's been obvious, from Steve Jobs' own opinions to the all-important marketing and branding. But there's always been the potential for Apple to do much more there, if indeed Sony and Microsoft don't jump in and do it first.

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