The future of gaming, and how Apple’s iTV will be the next ‘console’

Before anybody goes: “Dude, the Apple iPad and iPhone are already viable gaming platforms” – I’m not talking about those two devices. I’m talking about your living room gaming experience and how Apple will compete with the likes of Microsoft’s XBOX, Nintendo’s Wii U and Sony’s PlayStation with a proper HD offering. But more on that later.

I was inspired to write this after watching a presentation called ‘When The Consoles Die, What Comes Next?‘ by Ben Cousins (via Kotaku), who works at mobile games company ngmoco.  His presentation was factual, but to those who grew up playing video games since the ’90s and followed the industry all those years since, there was nothing new in the presentation that I, or any hardcore gamer couldn’t tell you as well. If you are too lazy to sit through the 26-minute presentation, here’s the gist of it: Cousins gives a rundown on the history of console gaming, how arcades died because consoles became powerful, the innovation in motion-gaming courtesy of the Nintendo Wii, and concludes by saying as mobile devices become more powerful, that’s where the large chunk of gaming activity will happen. Cousins doesn’t say home consoles will die out completely, but the platforms are shifting and in order to survive, game makers will have to move to “low resolution” devices.

To that conclusion I thought: “Really? In the future everyone is going to be playing video games on tiny screens on their phones? Or on tablets?” What about the millions who like to play video games at home? Because that’s how I grew up and continue to do most of my gaming. And people are going to prefer low-res graphics to polygon-pushing three-dimension realism? ‘Cos that’s not here’s how my gaming history went:

Mithun's console gaming history

It was a good start

As we played our 16-bit games, the 32-bit era had begun, and now Sony entered the market. Entered and then conquered it, with the PlayStation. PlayStation games came on discs(!), not cartridges. So no more blowing the circuit board before inserting them into the slot. The games also looked different: they were in 3D. Everything went 3D, even our Street Fighter arcade games. Now I wanted a PlayStation, but it was too expensive. Arcades were getting more and more expensive too.

Then in 1998, my brother got a computer, a Pentium II PC. My mind expanded! There were so many games available on the PC that I really didn’t feel like wanting a PlayStation anymore. Even console exclusives like Tomb Raider and Gex, were available on PC. Even Virtua Fighter, and other fighting games. The late ’90s was a good time to justify being a PC gamer. The slew of first person shooters, which to date, still play much better using a mouse and keyboard. And Half Life.

But despite the graphic card upgrades, by 2003, I had an itch for console gaming again. The PlayStation 2 was now the new dominant console. And as much as I could say fighting and platform games were available on the PC, the experience of playing those kind of games on the PC was painful. Quite literally. Try pulling off a semi-circle combo repeatedly using your keyboard arrow keys – it hurts! Yes, you could buy controllers for the PC, but there is no standard controller. They are not an out-of-the-box solution. So in 2005, I bought my PS2, the first gaming console I bought with my own money. Even though I was late to the party, there were plenty of awesome games still available for the platform. Like Resident Evil 4 and God of War. Stunning looking games that showed what the console was still capable of.

In 2008, I bought the PS3 and entered the HD gaming era. Games like Metal Gear Solid 4 were showpieces for the ‘next gen’ of gaming. We upgraded our television from a serviceable 21″ Philips CRT to a 42″ LG LCD just to enhance our PS3 gaming experience. (Even though our living room stayed the same size. Priorities, I know.)

But now what? In the coming years I’ll be spending most of my time playing games on mobile devices? I mean, I get the iOS and Android devices are awesome enough to play all sorts of clever games. And with franchises like Angry Birds raking in millions in revenue for very little development investment, I can understand why game makers are shifting shifting their resources to make such games.

It’s not just the type of games that’s changing. The whole gaming industry has been affected. It’s affecting those who cover the industry – the media, the companies that distribute the games – publishers, the traditional game makers, and obviously retailers. I used to practically live on websites like Gamespot from 2003 to 2009. The last time I logged back in to Gamespot was when Jeff Gerstmann announced Giant Bomb got acquired by Gamespot and that his team were going back. (Read up Gerstmann-gate). I’ve seen more editors leave 1UP more frequently than I have visited their website in the last two years. The big publishers like EA, Ubisoft and many others are laying off staff as sales for some triple AAA tiles fail to meet their expectations. Games that cost tens of millions of dollars to make wasn’t making as much money for executives to call them ‘profitable’. Obviously, fewer console titles means, fewer games for exclusive game retailers to sell. UK’s GAME has filed for bankruptcy, and other shops dealing exclusively in physical copies of games were either shutting down or consolidating.  It appears as though there are fewer jobs in an industry that used to worth $27 billion until 2010.

So fewer big budget games being made means fewer people are buying these console games. Does that mean people are losing interest in videogames? No. In fact, more people are playing videogames than ever before. It’s just that platforms they are playing on are different. Facebook is now a sizable gaming platform. In their SEC filings, they openly admitted Zynga accounts for 12% of their revenue and losing them would cost Facebook dearly. Then there’s mobile gaming. I’m sure every console gamer has friends they know who don’t play ‘hardcore games,’ but now play games on their newly acquired smartphone (or even Facebook). Even in Japan, home to gaming majors like Capcom, SEGA and Konami, services like GREE are now the major players in this new era of video gaming. Many of those who got laid off from makers of big budget games, have now formed new studios focused on simple games, mostly aimed at mobile devices.

So that’s the future? People are now choosing simple cartooney visuals over HD realism? Or is it just to serve a market, the focus has temporarily shifted? I say temporarily because even though the iPhone is a dominant mobile gaming platform, the experience of playing every genre of videogames isn’t the same. Most games that work, or at least are popular, involve simple control mechanisms. But what starts out simple, turns complex gradually. Take for example the much talked about iOS game Infinity Blade. Released in 2010, it was the first Unreal Engine 3-powered mobile game. Despite costing $6.99 (expensive compared to most iOS games that are either $.99 or free), Infinity Blade sold extremely well, raking in over $23 million in revenue for its publisher Epic  Games. And Epic, as their name suggests, are makers of the most pixel-pushing hardcore games for the console and PC base. Obviously when a game sells that well, you do the obvious thing – make a sequel. Infinity Blade 2 looks even better, especially on the new iPad.

But looking at Infinity Blade 2‘s visual progress on the new iPad put me on a train of thought:

Infinity Blade Apple TV

That’s when I had a “eureka!” moment and Apple’s HDTV came to mind. Rumours have been flying around since last year about Apple’s intention to enter the television business with an HDTV of their own. Initially when I read those reports, I thought: “Why on earth would Apple want to sell TVs?” Then I realized, it’s Apple. They don’t just sell a piece of hardware. The iPod co-exists with iTunes. The iPhone launched the ‘app’ craze. The iPad has enough of the same apps and plenty of e-books that were available at launch. Apple’s TV (not to be confused with Apple TV) isn’t going to be just some regular piece of consumer electronic. If the rumours are true, and Apple does unveil its own HDTV, it’s obviously going to do a lot more than your average TV. Just like their phones and tablets. Apple is already a major player in content distribution, and with a television, it can also be a major player in the future of home gaming.

Using Infinity Blade as an example, imagine what that game would look like a 40-inch screen. But what really got me thinking about how Apple could be the next video game ‘console’ major is when I thought about gameplay. Here’s how you play Infinity Blade on the iPad:

That… does not look all that fun a gameplay mechanic. But what if you could play Infinity Blade Wii-style? I mean, a television would need to come with a remote right?

Wii remote Apple TV example

Using a Wii-like (or PlayStation Move) controller for combat is a far better gaming experience (in comparison to tapping or swiping). It’s not just hack-and-slash games like Infinity Blade that can played this way. You can play Angry Birds easily by just moving your wrist to the left and flicking the remote to release the bird. You can play platform games with ease, and you can control a steering wheel of a race car – without moving the whole damn device!

Apple remote accelerometer

(Forgive the poor mock-ups, I did the best I could given my limited Photoshop skills)

Of course, even the Wii remote has its limitations. The Xbox controller and the PlayStation Dualshock/Sixaxis controller are both pretty damn good ‘joypads’. Every button serves a purpose – but I doubt Apple will ever make a controller like that (Update: Ahem). Simply because it goes against their design philosophy of ‘minimalism’. Both the Dualshock 3 and Xbox 360 controller has 11 buttons, 2 multi-directional joysticks and a direction-pad each. That’s way too many by Apple’s standards. What I drew up is based off the Apple Remote, but I just imagined the d-pad (direction pad) to be similar to what the touch-sensitive dial on your iPod feels like. So if you want to pull off a semi-circle button combo – or a ‘Hadouken‘ (↓, ↘, → + punch) in Street Fighter – it would be easy to just swipe the arrow motion using your thumb on the Apple remote’s d-pad.

But there’s another feature I’m sure Apple’s television will come with – a camera.

Apple iMac Kinect cameraI believe if Apple makes an HDTV, it will come with a camera of high resolution. Apple’s FaceTime, or for that matter, any other chatting application exists for the Macs, the iPhones and the iPads. There is nothing wrong about taking a video call on the Apple TV while sitting back on the couch in your living room, or from your bedroom. So if that very same camera had the ability to detect hand gestures like Kinect or the PlayStation Eye could, it helps compliment the remote as another control mechanism. For example:

Apple TV hand gesture Infinity Blade

(I know the two hands don’t match. Again, making the most of whatever assets I can find)

The motion detecting camera can also act as a secondary remote for non-gaming purposes. Apple’s TV is obviously going to access iTunes and your entire library of downloaded/streamed content. Plus, there’s iCloud. It’ll be nice to flip through interface menus using just your hand. No need to stretch your hand and reach out for the remote. In the future, people are going to be even lazier. Everyone knows it.

Apple keyboard mouse

[UPDATE 03/04/2012: Ha! Well what do you know! Just as I was about to push this post live, a rumour just hit the web that Apple may introduce a controller for the iPad! Hmm, I wonder how many buttons it will have. Anyway, continue reading]

As for the games themselves, the success of any platform doing well is based on its exclusives. The only reason Infinity Blade is talked about is because it’s a) from Epic Games b) it’s iOS exclusive and c) it looks awesome. But it only looks awesome for an iOS game. Console and PC gamers have seen the same quality of graphics, if not better since 2006, on their traditional platforms. Also if game makers decide to make games exclusively for the Apple TV platform, it provides a lifeline to established players like EA, Activision, Ubisoft and the like. As third party developers for the three major console makers and PC, they already have a library of games (unless they are still tied down by exclusivity contracts) that can be easily ported to run on the Apple TV. Just like how classic games from the 16-bit and 32-bit era (or even the PlayStation 2 era) are now seeing a revival on mobile devices, those games you played on home consoles since 2005 may be available to a new generation, or more importantly, a new market of players. And I say that because the Apple TV will not necessarily see an audience right away that still swears by their PS3 or Xbox 360. I’ll explain why later.

I also predict we won’t see ultra-realistic games on the Apple TV right away, because everything comes at a price. Also, bandwidth. First of all, if Apple needs to pack in the graphics processing hardware good enough for two to three years after launch, that means paying more for future proof technology. When the PS3 launched in late 2006, the top of the line 60GB version was $599 – and Sony still took a loss at that price. Today a 160GB PS3 costs $249, and Sony makes a profit from every unit sold. The tech inside the PS3 and X360 is seven years old. Old, but still good enough for beautiful looking games. That ‘old’ tech also comes really cheap for bulk buyers like Apple. (I’m aware the chipset architecture and technology inside the iPad and iPhone are different. Let’s not get too technical shall we?)

If Apple are serious about using gaming as one of their killer USPs for their upcoming TV, I’m sure they have already been talking to graphics chipmakers and other component suppliers. As for bandwidth being the other reason why Apply may not opt for ‘next gen’ visuals, let’s bring back Infinity Blade 2 again. That game weights in at 791MB. That’s still a hefty download when talking about a global market. People have different internet bandwidth plans and prices vary in every part of the globe. I pay around $35 a month for my 4mbps ‘unlimited’ plan (75GB fair usage limit) here in Bangalore, India. Depending on how many games you buy from the app store, that’s a lot of bandwidth eaten up if other good looking games like Infinity Blade 2 continue to be made for Apple’s HDTV. The ‘Hi-Def gaming’ era began with the Xbox 360 and PS3, but it came at a price – both cost wise and storage wise. 360 and PS3 games cost $60 at launch and weigh in anywhere from 2GB to 15GB in file size on disk (PS3′s Blu-ray can hold hold upto 25GB single layer). And just about every game you put in to play on those consoles installs a bit of data on to the hard drive, which all adds up in a gamer’s lifetime. Of course, the solution to that maybe Apple’s iCloud service. Or if you want to go further into the future, an OnLive-like gaming service.

For those who are unfamiliar with OnLive, it’s a ‘cloud gaming’ platform. In lay man’s terms, it works as such: you download the OnLive application on to your computer or supported mobile device. You pay a monthly subscription fee to OnLive. Then ‘download’ games, but not to your device, but to your account on the cloud server. When you start a game, it runs on OnLive’s servers and the content is streamed via the internet to your computing device. It’s basically a streaming service, but for video games. You press a button on your controller, OnLive’s servers get the command and executes the action, and you see the result on your screen – in a split second. If it works properly of course. OnLive recommends a 5mbps connection or more. Launched in 2010, it hasn’t revolutionized the gaming world as quickly as the makers intended, but trust me, what they are doing now will eventually be the future of gaming.

Back to Apple and their iCloud platform. Imagine you buy a game from the app store. Instead of downloading the entire game on to your TV’s internal hard drive, it resides in your iCloud account and you run it from there. When you start the game the first time, it installs just a portion of the game on to your Apple device and you begin playing as normal. Apple could do this as their solution for heavy games, but I figure they’ll need to sort out cloud gaming patents with OnLive. But even with this ‘streaming from a cloud service’ fandango, bandwidth still becomes a limiting factor. The reason why OnLive hasn’t changed the way we play games is because the world isn’t there yet when it comes to mass acceptance of high bandwidth consumption at low cost. Smaller nations like the Scandanavian countries, Asian giants Japan and South Korea all have mass adoption of faster internet than America and China (or even India) do. So we’re still a few years away for an OnLive-like gaming service reaching ‘mass market’ status.

All of what I said above may sound rational and possible, but now let’s be realistic and talk pricing. It’s Apple we’re talking about – we have to talk price point. The average price for a 40″ inch LCD TV in the US is around $550 from a good brand. The top end 64GB new iPad with Retina Display costs $799. So do you really think Apple will sell their HDTV for less than $1000? No. Let’s make it $1499 or even $1699, because for all that Apple is going to pack in into their TV and use the same marketing hype that “it’s not a device that just does one thing,” you’ll still get people lining up. Plus, who is to say Apple are even going to use standard LCD technology when Retina Display uses LED technology manufactured by LG.

Now sizes. Unlike traditional TV makers, who offer everything from 32″ all the way up to 60″ at the consumer level, Apple won’t launch with ten different TV sizes. The clue is in the iMac range: they only have two – a 21 inch and 27 inch model. So my guess would be a 40-inch and say around 50-inch model at launch. The 40″ Apple TV can cost $1499-$1699 while the much bigger TV may reach up to $3k. (I start with 40″ because that’s what I personally feel is big enough to really enjoy HD content).

Now let’s talk competition. If Apple does launch the iTV with gaming technology as ‘imagined’ above, can we expect Sony and Microsoft to follow suit? Sony makes TVs too, so they are perfectly suited to do so. Trouble is, they can’t. Sony’s TV business is under heavy losses (like $10 billion losses). In comparison, the PlayStation business isn’t. Sony can’t afford to jeopardize the PlayStation business for the sake of its overall revenues. Nor can they hamper their relationship with game makers and retailers. The new CEO of Sony is the guy who ran the PlayStation business – Kaz Hirai – and he’s already talking about a “unified content-delivery platform”. But even if they tried, Sony can’t become the ‘first mover’. In order for Sony (and Microsoft to succeed), honestly, they need Apple to go first.

Apple are in a position to disrupt the market. They did that earlier with the iPad. Only after the iPad craze did the other manufacturers get the green signal to mass produce tablets – and it’s not like tablets didn’t exist before the iPad. Apple isn’t a brand associated with TVs – they never made them. So for the Apple brand, this a is new business. And when Apple succeeds in creating a new convergence device which gets engrained in the minds of consumers, the rest can follow.

Apple didn’t invent the mp3 player, nor were they the first to introduce a tablet computing device. But they were the first to perfect them. (Okay, near perfect). Apple gets away with being labeled ‘innovators’ because they are good at perfecting technology actually introduced by their competitors. Apple looks at what the others are doing, points out their flaws (internally) and takes a different approach to them. They make them better, pair hardware with good software and then give you a reason to want the Apple offering over the competitor’s. It’s not about who comes up with the idea first, it’s how well that idea is executed. In the 2000s, that’s what made Apple what it is today. These guys started out making computers, now they make more money from everything else besides Macs.

So will we come full circle and back to living room gaming? Not entirely. Mobile gaming is all the rage now because it’s a ‘new thing’. But as people upgrade to smartphones, it’s mobile gaming that’s going to expand the overall video game market. Of course there’s a lot of crap in mobile gaming as well. For every one popular, addictive mobile game, there are countless clones. The same thing happened in the early days of platform games in the 8-bit era, when Mario Bros. blew people away. The same thing happened to the fighting game genre in the 16-bit era, kicked off by Street Fighter. The same for first person shooters. WWII shooters. Futuristic shooters. When you saturate the market, it’s what happens. Remember cultural phenom Guitar Hero? That music game began as an indie title, then turned into a billion dollar franchise under Activison, and is now on hiatus. The first Guitar Hero came out in 2005, the last in 2010. 5 years is all it took for people to get bored. I still occasionally play it, it’s still fun – but the reason the fad ended is because of Activisionoversaturation.

Another good thing about new platforms and new ways to play games is that it allows game makers to create new IPs, and helps diversify their revenue streams. A hack-and-slash game like Infinity Blade made $23 million only because it was exclusive to the iOS platform. Had it been on Xbox Live or PSN, I doubt the game would have done that well. Although a new IP, the gameplay is not new to either of those two platforms.

That said, convergence is the future, and the mobile will ultimately be the centre of it all. I’m sure Apple’s iTV will have an app that allows you to control the TV from you iPhone and iPad. I’m sure Apple will allow you to stop watching your DVR-ed programming on the TV and then resume playing from where you left off on your iPad as you leave the house. But coming back to gaming, some people may get bored of tapping their screens and for a change, sit down on their couch to experience an ‘upgraded’ gaming experience. Especially if that consumer was first introduced to the world of gaming via his or her iPhone/iPad. There’s an entire generation of people who are growing up on Apple’s consumer electronics devices, starting with the iPod. That generation is fixated on the Apple brand. To them, Apple is viewed in the same vein as a Sony now. And that’s how Apple will take over their living rooms.

Gamers who swear by their console or PC gaming experience aren’t going to jump on the iTV bandwagon en masse. Those who have the money will, but the rest (like me) will still prefer the Dualshock 3 or keyboard and mouse experience, because for years that’s how we have been groomed to play video games. Apple can (and will) go after the casual market first with its iTV, because the casual market is more mass market. It’s just that in the future, as the gaming industry diversifies and grows in size, console gaming’s share may only be a smaller slice of the pie.

Still, I mentioned “future of gaming” in the title because even if Apple doesn’t launch the iTV with all the above imagined awesomeness, even if whatever I spent working on for a week ends up being hogwash for now, I still believe this is the future of gaming on your television. The future of console gaming will be the console being non-existent as a physical device.

Bravia PlayStation 5 app mockup

I believe it will most likely be the latter concept, but it’s not going to happen in the next five years

I don’t want to wait or download a 15GB game. Not today, not next year. I rather order my physical copy online and get it shipped overnight. Videogame retailers aren’t going to disappear soon, but their numbers will decline. Games for the PlayStation Vita don’t come on physical media, but that’s fine since those games aren’t too big anyway. Even if games for Apple’s iTV come in smaller file sizes – or ‘episodic gaming*’ – I’m sure there will be takers, especially those casual gamers who are content paying $10 or less for a few hours of gameplay. And who’s to say mobile game makers like Zynga, the rate at which they are growing, won’t make bigger 3D titles? With the resources they have now, and if the market exists, they can serve it. Thereby giving employment opportunities to talents who lost their jobs at THQ and Zipper Interactive, among others recently.

Apple, with its market cap of nearly $500 billion, are in a position to introduce a product such as the ‘iTV‘ – a television changes the way we use our television. Hi-def gaming won’t go away, because that’s just not how technology progresses. It’s not like Hollywood dreamers are going: “Computer generated monster? Nah, let’s just stick with a guy in a rubber suit!”. The Apple iTV may not be for everyone, but as is the case with Apple, they will tempt you. Nobody asked for Retina Display. Apple made it and then made you want it. Supply & demand exist, but in a materialistic, hype-driven world, so does manufactured demand.

So let’s see if the Apple iTV is real. After all, E3 2012 is only two months away.

 

*episodic gaming is a term coined since the current generation of gaming began in 2005, where in games would come in pieces and be delivered at periodic intervals via online distribution. Game makers all spoke of how it was going to be the future, but very, very few lived up to their own tall claims. Even Valve failed to deliver.

UPDATE 10/11/12: Just wanted to add this. With the Nintendo Wii U‘s much hyped feature being the ability to pause the game being played on the TV and resume it on on the Wii U controller screen, I can see how a similar functionality can be incorporated into the iPad and iPhone for select games. Or for all games using the similar streaming technology seen with OnLive.

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  • sergio

    good review, complete and full of information, nice to read it :D

    [Reply]