The Looming Living Room Wars: Apple’s Quiet Threat to Console Gaming

Imagine: Your ultra-chic future iPhone isn't just a sometime mobile game machine, it's also a wireless vehicle for hardcore gaming on your big screen television.

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Imagine: Your ultra-chic future iPhone isn’t just a sometime mobile game machine, it’s also a wireless vehicle for hardcore gaming on your big screen television. Maybe it works with a wireless gamepad, maybe it uses ultra-low electrical current that lets your fingertips “feel” the edges of control surfaces along your iPad or iPhone’s perfectly flat glass screen. Either way, imagine that it’s the future of serious and casual gaming, a future in which dedicated set-top boxes, cables and marathon life cycles shuffle grudgingly into that good night.

For years I’ve made the argument that Apple‘s iOS platform is just a wireless gamepad and HDTV-hookup away from squaring off against Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo in the living room. Take the iPhone 5 with its 1.3 GHz A6 processor and triple-core PowerVR SGX 543MP3 GPU, outputting console-quality visuals to a virtually 720p screen. No one’s run meaningful comparison benchmarks between the iPhone 5 and, say, the Xbox 360, but we’ve seen actual game developers suggest that the iPhone 5 is on par, performance-wise, with Microsoft’s seven-year-old console (to say nothing of the tricked-out A6X processor in the fourth-generation iPad, which probably surpasses it).

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But wait, didn’t I just type “seven-year-old console”? Isn’t Microsoft coming out with some gobsmacking new Xbox this year? Perhaps, but a few points:

One, Apple has a platform in iOS that it’s able to update once, sometimes twice a year. That’s an incalculable advantage in an increasingly fickle consumer landscape. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were fresh back when George W. Bush was working through his second term (and even then, they lagged well behind contemporaneous high-end PCs). Are Microsoft or Sony going to start selling upgraded versions of their consoles every year for $400 to $500 a pop? Unless these rumored new game systems aren’t set-top consoles at all (hey, anything’s possible) don’t bet on it.

iOS (and Android) devices, by comparison, have been doubling or tripling their raw crunch power annually. Does anyone think it’ll take another seven or eight years for Apple (or anyone else playing in the mobile space) to blow past whatever Microsoft and Sony have up their sleeves? The reason Apple’s been able to justify those pricey annual upgrades: You get dramatically more bang for your buck, functionality-wise, from a smartphone or tablet, than a box that’s all but stapled to your entertainment center — a box you only physically interact with to load/eject optical media.

And that brings us to point number two: The ROI for all that visual oomph isn’t what it used to be. It mattered back when “x86″ was still a buzzword and objects and humans were stacks of pixels or looked like orthogonal muppets, I suppose, but nowadays an artsy game like Ni No Kuni couldn’t look better with thrice the underlying crunch-power (maybe a little sharper on a 4K TV, but that’s it). Now that we’re officially deep into the uncanny valley, I’ve basically stopped caring how oiled up a game engine is.

The point being, even though I think Apple can, it doesn’t have to match the competition spec for spec to win the looming living room wars. Short of everyone magically conjuring the funds to spring for ultra-high-definition TVs that cost as much as brand new upscale sedans, is anyone who’s not a diehard console-wars wonk going to care that games on an iOS device aren’t pushing as many polygons around? Remember, we’re talking about the games industry in holistic terms, meaning everyone from online multiplayer buffs to hardcore shooter enthusiasts to your invisible-golf-club-swinging grandmother.

(MORE: Are Weak Wii U Sales a Bellwether of Shifting Game Demographics?)

In case you think I’m completely off my rocker, consider what one of PC gaming’s luminaries (whose most well-known game rhymes with “laugh-knife”) just said during a lecture at the University of Texas:

The threat right now is that Apple has gained a huge amount of market share, and has a relatively obvious pathway towards entering the living room with their platform. I think that there’s a scenario where we see sort of a dumbed down living room platform emerging — I think Apple rolls the console guys really easily. The question is can we make enough progress in the PC space to establish ourselves there, and also figure out better ways of addressing mobile before Apple takes over the living room?

That’s Valve co-founder and managing director Gabe Newell (via Polygon). He’s essentially saying that over the next year or so, there’s going to be an all-out war for your living room, and it’ll be a lot busier than just Microsoft vs. Sony vs. Nintendo. Newell’s referring to the coming wave of hypothetically lower cost Android-powered devices, say Nvidia’s Project Shield, or Boxer8′s Kickstarter-funded OUYA, or PlayJam’s GameStick.

Or take Valve’s own Steam Box, a post-2013 Linux-powered piece of hardware designed to sit in your living room and pipe your entire Steam library to your big screen with a control scheme appropriate to that environment (as opposed to Steam’s native PC setup, where gamepads are optional but the keyboard and mouse prevails).

Isn’t Newell worried about Nintendo’s Wii U? Microsoft’s Xbox “Durango”? Sony’s PlayStation “Orbis”? Not so much, it seems.

“The biggest challenge, I don’t think is from the consoles,” said Newell. “I think the biggest challenge is that Apple moves on the living room before the PC industry sort of gets its act together.”

The PC industry’s always been almost willfully inept about taking alternative game space seriously. The odd person drags their PC out into the living room, sure, but it’s far and away the exception. You’ve got laptops, sure, but that’s just the desktop experience on the go. Microsoft’s Games for Windows initiative fizzled years ago, and even Valve’s been slow to explore scenarios that don’t involve sitting at a table with your head a foot or two from a flat-screen — maybe too slow, per Newell’s own remarks.

Does anyone think Apple won’t make a serious play eventually? We’re talking about a market worth more as singular entertainment mediums go than any other — one forecast to grow from nearly $70 billion in 2012 to over $80 billion by 2017. How do you walk away from that? You don’t, of course, and with talk of game-changing Apple TVs in the offing along with Cupertino’s incredibly deep pockets, the living room side of the games industry ignores Apple at its peril.

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