The New Console Wars: Google & Apple Entering The Game Console Market From The Bottom Up
If the rumors are true, Google and Apple will be making a serious play for gaming in the living this fall. Both Google and Apple have had enormous success in mobile gaming and the natural progression would be to take those experiences and put them on the biggest screen in the home. From all accounts neither company will be looking to compete with Sony or Microsoft on their own turf. Instead they will use their mobile operating systems and probably equivalent hardware to power their gaming machines. So we probably won't see the next Call of Duty coming to the systems anytime soon, there are however plenty of other great experiences that can be created using the power of mobile processors. Looking at the current landscape now Apple appears to have the advantage but I wouldn't count Google out.
Google has had a rocky relationship with games and game developers in the past. With the open nature and accessibility of Android there is a big problem with piracy. A lot of developers as hesitant to release games on the platform because it's so easy to pirate software on. Some developers have reported a 14:1 difference in pirated copies of their games on Android compared to iOS. This problem has led to a lot of high profile games releasing on iOS first and then later moving to Android or sometimes not at all. There is also a stigma which still holds some truth that Android users just don't spend money on apps the way the typical iOS user does. Developers will go where the money is, and so far it's been on iOS a majority of the time. Developing for Android, particularly a game requires more work because there are an infinite amount of device variables (screen size, RAM, CPU/GPU architecture). With that said, Android is still the most widely used mobile operating system in the world and its hard to turn down a user-base that large. Some of these issues could easily be fixed if Google created some standards for games that will be ran on it's console.
But what about Google TV, couldn't that be turned into a console? Google has had little penetration with the Google TV, the last numbers provided are from last year and they were under a million sold. While there are games that can be played on the device they aren't very good, the games being played are mostly emulations of old Nintendo games. The first Android based gaming console announced, Ouya was a huge success via Kickstarter, raising over $1 Million in the first 24hrs. Over 60,000 ($8.5 Million) people backing the product is very impressive for a startup but still small potatoes from the traditional gaming industry perspective. The reviews of Ouya haven't been great, most complaints are centered around the lack of stand out games. That's to be expected from a startup that has to convince developers to modify their games for the TV and controller experience. Google and Apple will face this same hurdle but they of course may have more of an influence to get top notch developers on their platforms.
There is no telling if Google will extend functionality with existing Google TV's or launch an entirely new device dedicated for gaming. Either way if Google really gets behind the console maybe we can see more developer support than we see with the Ouya and other Android consoles coming to market in the coming months.
If you own an iOS device and an Apple TV you can already get a taste of what those games will look like on your television. Some games allow you to beam the game to the TV, via Airplay and allow you to use your iPhone or iPad as a controller. This works for a hand full of games but using a glass interface without buttons is far from ideal for most games. Also for games that don't support direct Airplay, Airplay Mirroring (mirroring your iPad display on the TV) appears as 4:3 on your 16:9 TV so there are huge black bars on both sides of the screen. Yuck.
Apple fans have been clamoring for over a year for them to add an App Store to the Apple TV and they just may (finally) get their wish this fall. At Apple's most recent developers conference (WWDC) they announced that game controller support will be coming to iOS 7. They've developed specific guidelines for third-party controller makers like Logitech to follow to insure a consistent experience regardless of the controller manufactuer. This includes a controller than holds an iPhone/iPod and a traditional controller as well. There will be two versions of the controller that holds iPhones/iPods. One version will have L1/L2 & R1/R2 along with dual analog thumbsticks while a simpler version will not have thumbsticks and only L1/R1 buttons (shown in diagram).
Apple has excellent developer support for iOS and opening an App Store up on the Apple TV with controller support would undoubtedly send a flood of games to the device in a matter of months. That begs the question, if Apple was going to open an App Store for the Apple TV why didn't they tell developers at WWDC so they could have games ready by release? This makes me think Apple may still be "pulling the string" as Tim Cook likes to say regarding the Apple TV, which would be a missed opportunity on Apple's part. Without apps on the Apple TV, what would be the purpose of buying dedicated gaming controllers? To use with my iPhone or iPad? No thanks.
Another problem Apple may have with the Apple TV, which i've spoken about before is storage. The current Apple TV's have 8GB of memory, which is mostly used for buffering streaming content and to store the OS and apps. Downloading games to existing Apple TV's would be a challenge so what's the solution? Asking everyone with a 1-2 year old Apple TV to buy a new one to play games on seems like an awful idea but not far out of Apple's character in regards to their hardware upgrade philosophy in mobile. But having that initial install base of 13 million Apple TV's is what gives Apple a lot of their edge. Cutting the legs from under those users doesn't make since right now, but the next Apple TV has to come with more storage if they ever want to open an App Store on it.
The most probable but less satisfying solution would be to ask users to Airplay their games from iOS devices. This alleviates the need to open a store on the Apple TV and the need for more memory. I think asking a user to dedicate their iPhone or iPad when they want to play a game on the TV is a clunky way to play games and horribly short-sighted. Not to mention the potential for added latency between iDevice to Apple TV and game controller. But Apple has somewhat painted itself into a corner with the Apple TV. They have already rebooted the device once (the original Apple TV had a HDD) they may have to do it again to accommodate all of the changes happening to TV and content.
If both Google and Apple can bring the same enthusiasm for mobile games to the living room, they could blow the gaming industry wide open and possibly leave some casualties in the process *cough* Nintendo. Mobile computing is advancing rapidly and the chips being used to power the latest iPhones and Android devices will be the same ones used in their respective gaming consoles. It's not hard to imagine the next iteration of hardware being on par with current gaming consoles (Xbox 360/PS3).Developers in turn could then focus on creating more demanding, immersive experiences than what's currently available on mobile devices.
Instead of the 5-8 year cycle of traditional consoles, consumers may not see a problem updating their $99 Google or Apple device every year or so. This would allow for faster progression in the devices capabilities and could potentially match the power of the PS4 and Xbox One be the end of their lifecycle.
However they may work and whatever devices they work on the real winners are independent game developers. Having five (including PC) potential high profile storefronts to sell their games on that each reach different demographics of gamers is huge.