Google and Console Makers Beware: Apple Already Has the Makings of a Great Game System

From increasingly better games to controller support, the pieces are falling into place for an Apple game console

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Apple, TIME Tech Illustration

As a parade of smaller companies race to release low-cost, Android-based game consoles, Google is reportedly building one of its own.

But as the Wall Street Journal’s anonymously sourced story last week said, Google is mainly concerned about Apple, not about scrappy start-up efforts like Ouya and GameStick. The story cited “people briefed on the matter” who said “Google is reacting in part to expectations that rival Apple will launch a video-game console as part of its next Apple TV product release.”

Although Apple, secretive as always, has not indicated anything of the sort, Google should be concerned, and so should Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Apple already has the makings of a great game console, whether it’s actively working on one or not.

More Than Just Angry Birds

First of all, let’s dispel the myth that iOS is only good for casual, disposable games. The platform has come a long way from Angry Birds and Doodle Jump, with increasingly sophisticated games for those who seek them out.

In fact, some games that were critically acclaimed on traditional consoles have been making their way to iPhones and iPads. Bastion, XCom and The Walking Dead are available now. Limbo, Terraria and The Cave are coming out soon. These are excellent games that should help erase the stigma surrounding iOS and mobile games in general.

Meanwhile, major publishers have been starting to treat iOS more seriously. Eidos will soon release Deus Ex: The Fall, an iOS game that aims to have similar production values as its console predecessor, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Ubisoft is working on Trials Frontier, a mobile version of the popular extreme-motocross series, for 2014. Electronic Arts was ahead of the curve with a mobile version of Dead Space, which still managed to preserve the creepy, isolated atmosphere of its console counterpart. This trend will only continue, as mobile platforms prove more lucrative for publishers than dedicated handheld gaming systems.

And while classic games aren’t always welcome on the latest consoles, they’re finding new life on iOS. If you want to play games that stand the test of time, iOS has lots of old hits like Pac-Man, Doom and a massive collection of Atari classics, along with newer gems like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

Of course, iOS has its share of more casual games, along with finely crafted games that were built specifically for phones and tablets. I only bring up the examples above to show how much iOS has grown as a gaming platform. It’s not just about five-minute, throwaway experiences anymore, and the number of quality games available is going to keep growing with time. While Android has its share of great games as well, a lot of the examples I mentioned are iOS-only.

Apple’s Embrace of Buttons

In the past, it was easy for console owners to poo-poo mobile gaming for one major reason: touchscreens just can’t replace the accuracy of a real controller with physical buttons.

It seems that Apple has listened, because the next version of iOS will include a standard way for game developers to add controller support. Although some outside companies have tried to bring controller support to games — Ion’s iCade being the most notable example — an official solution from Apple is ideal.

For one thing, it’ll encourage more developers to support physical controllers (especially for games that are being ported from other game consoles), and may even encourage more iOS ports of console games. It will also open up the market to more hardware makers who want to sell their own controllers. Logitech and Moga (maker of the excellent Moga Pro for Android) are already confirmed as launch partners.

Google, by comparison, has yet to establish any sort of official controller support for Android games. This has led to a messy situation with lots of competing players. One game might support Xperia Play controls, but not Moga controls. Another game may support the generic Bluetooth HID, but not Xperia Play. Users must hunt for supported games on their own, or rely on controller makers to guide them. It’s not a great situation, and the longer Google goes without addressing it, the more time Apple has to build up its own library of controller-supported games.


One Platform, Many Devices

Apple’s Game Center is now approaching three years old, and while it started out rough, it has since matured as a way to connect with friends and save your game progress across all iOS devices. Game Center would be a major asset for an Apple game console, because it would allow players to start playing on an iPhone or iPad, and pick up where they left off on the television.

Other companies are just getting around to this type of cross-device support. Google launched a competitor to Game Center in May, but the number of supported games is tiny, and I’m worried about potential barriers to user adoption due to Google+ branding. Microsoft has been talking about cross-device play for years but hasn’t done much with the idea besides carrying Xbox Live Gamertags and Achievements from consoles to mobile devices. Sony’s PlayStation Mobile initiative is still a major letdown, with few noteworthy games and no clear product direction.

Although Apple has been criticized for not understanding games, the company jumped onto the cross-device concept early on, and now stands to reap the benefits of a polished platform with broad developer support. Everyone else is way behind.

All That’s Left Is the System Itself

At least in terms of software and services, Apple’s in good shape for releasing a game console, or console-like features as part of the next Apple TV. All that’s left is the hardware. That’s the tricky part.

The existing Apple TV only has 8 GB of built-in storage, a chunk of which is occupied by the operating system. It’s not unheard of for an iOS game to exceed 1 GB in size, which means today’s Apple TV would be inadequate for storing a large games library. Even if Apple boosted storage capacity to 16 GB, that’s still on the skimpy side.

Relying on AirPlay to send games from an iPhone or iPad to Apple TV isn’t really ideal either, because of latency issues with streaming video over wi-fi. Plugging a phone or tablet into the television via a cable is an option, but an inelegant one.

I hesitate to offer Apple advice, but I could imagine the company offering a more expensive Apple TV aimed at gaming — say, $149 or $199 instead of $99 — with at least 32 GB of storage, and possibly a bundled controller. At that price, it would still undercut the Wii U ($300), PlayStation 4 ($400) and Xbox One ($500). It would compete more directly with the existing PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and would be a premium option compared with cheaper Android game consoles, in the same way the $329 iPad Mini is positioned against $200-and-under Android tablets.

I’m not arguing Apple will kill traditional consoles overnight, or that big-budget, $60 games are going away. I’m saying that if the next Apple TV plays games, it will be a major threat to its competitors as they battle for living-room supremacy, and may even appeal to people who say they’ll never give up their Xboxes or PlayStations. An Apple TV with gaming doesn’t have to win those users over completely; it merely has to steal their attention away bit by bit, just as the iPhone and iPad have already done.