Apple entering the games space has been a topic of discussion for a long time. Some people think they already made their move and it’s still playing out. Some people think they are yet to drop the bomb. Most oversimplify the issue.
There’s a funny thing, though, about the way proponents of Apple (I say this without denigration) cheerlead their champion. In a lot of ways, there’s already an Apple in the games industry: it’s the games industry. Apple is filling the position in the games industry that Android fills in the mobile world.
Part of what makes it problematic to discuss is that is that it’s really difficult to disentangle content from platform these days, both in mobile and gaming (and mobile gaming, for that matter). The complex network of relationships, channels, and emerging methods for distribution make practically every comparison apples to oranges.
I’m not going to unravel that knot just now. I’ll get to the nut of the issue instead of dancing around it.
One of Apple’s greatest strengths, something that it understood early and has exploited continuously, is the value of the premium platform — including hardware, of course. They were always, and remain, the premium choice in consumer tech. As others have put it, this moots certain comparisons: you can’t, they say, compare a Ferrari to a Toyota. And that idea is not without legitimacy.
So it’s funny when the opposite seems to apply for the games industry. There’s already a premium product out there: the triple-A games produced by huge studios like Ubisoft, EA, Valve, and so on. The Xbox 360 and PS3, and soon the Xbox 720 and PS4, or whatever they’re called, have always been and will continue to be the premium platform — something that has worked well for Apple elsewhere, and something they’ll never be in the games space.
Why? Here’s that content-platform thing again. Apple simply isn’t a triple-A platform for games. Sure, there are great games on it, good-looking games, expensive games. And millions of people play them. But let’s not kid ourselves.
Notice that almost everything relating to the success of games on iOS is in terms of numbers downloaded and hours played. In like wise, one could say that YouTube is far more of a success than Hollywood, based on viewer hours. In a way, it’s true! But what is iOS’s Godfather? What is its Shadow of the Colossus? Angry Birds and Infinity Blade are arguably is the closest thing to either. Talk about comparing a Ferrari to a Toyota.
In the other corner is a premium platform with exclusive, popular content — the very thing Apple was when Android entered the scene. And now Apple is playing the scrappy underdog, eating up all the low-end users, winning on volume instead of quality. It’s the same strategy that provokes such venom against Android! Thousands of options, barely differentiated, priced to sell, with wildly varying quality, except for a few high-end flagship items – am I talking about Android handsets or the games in the App Store? Hard to tell, isn’t it?
And of course, that’s a recipe for success, as either Apple or Google can tell you. But again, as either can tell you, it’s hardly a recipe for total domination. For that, one must control the vertical and the horizontal.
All the same, it’s funny to see the bottom-up strategy of the App Store and Android reviled one moment and then praised the next.
So far, so obvious. But the unknown creeps in when you consider how platforms may evolve over the next five years — which is about what we can realistically expect for the life of the next consoles, with increased entropy due to changing markets.
The platform/content thing enters again, bringing with it quite a bit of uncertainty. How long is Call of Duty and its ilk going to remain a console exclusive? It’s practical now, and I’m willing to speculate that it will be practical two years from now. After that, things get more hazy.
The way people acquire and play games is changing in a serious way. Will the next consoles have huge hard drives to store downloaded games? Will they stream them over high-speed internet? Will they integrate with smartphones? Will they use discs? Will they allow used games? Will they replace your set-top box? Will they be open to hacking? The answers to the questions are maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, and that’s hilarious. And there are a lot of other questions that will need to be answered before we can really start making predictions.
What about Microsoft, whose long-term three-screen plan is in serious jeopardy? What about Sony, which is in many ways falling to pieces (not in all cases a bad thing)? What about Google, which is a total wildcard? What about the publishers, who know which way the wind is blowing but can’t abandon ship yet?
There are too many variables to say with any kind of assurance how things will be in a few years. Apple will continue to make its play for the living room, but supplanting the consoles is out of the question (not that many have advanced this notion). But it isn’t going to enter the space in a way that requires them to abandon the last five years of app and device development, and they’re not going to compete directly against an opponent that offers a product they can’t hope to match. They may like to lead the charge, but they’re no Leeroy Jenkins.