Apple TV's big plan for video games may be too little, too late

The best video game console of 2011 prepares for release in 2015


I was working for The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s ill-fated iPad-only newspaper, when I first predicted Apple would release a small, affordable video game console, leverage its healthy library of cheap and free games on the App Store, and challenge the gaming industry status quo. That was 2011, in the shadow of the recession, and the market for console games begged to be reimagined. Console makers and game publishers, often operating on the budgetary razor’s edge, refused to deviate dramatically from the established model of selling games for a $60 flat rate. Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation 3, and the Nintendo Wii were sluggish to learn from — let alone imitate — the publish-practically-anything-by-everyone model that was making Apple billions only a few years into the launch of the App Store. The old guard would be punished by the gods of progress for their rigidity and shortsightedness.

Read next: The Apple TV review.

Except Apple didn't release a game-friendly Apple TV in 2011. Nor did they do so in 2012. I heard rumors of Apple TV game controllers being tested with developers in 2013 and 2014, but nada. Four years later, the revolutionary dream console of 2011 is set for its public debut. A lot has changed in the meantime, and what could have been a game changer now may be a novelty.

On paper, the updated, gaming-focused Apple TV — rumored to be announced this Wednesday — is a serious threat. At a speculated $150, it’s the practical option when compared to the Wii U, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4, which range from $299 to $399. Most consoles launch with a limited selection of games that can be played on the new hardware, but Apple will likely launch with the support of the App Store and its tens of thousands of games, hundreds polished from years of software updates. Those of us who’ve already purchased games for iPhone or iPad should have a healthy catalog waiting to be played at no added cost, as some if not all of those games for iOS will double as our Apple TV game collection.

As a game console, Apple TV has practical advantages

Apple TV also has the why-even-say-it advantage of being made by Apple: digital and brick-and-mortar stores to push units, an established user base tied up in years of investment in the App Store ecosystem, and an all-but-bottomless war chest that can support the device long after other companies in the "affordable game console" space would have filed for bankruptcy or been acquired by some hungry accessory maker. If Apple sincerely wants to gamble for the living room video game space, it has the chips. The table's crowded though, and the call isn't cheap.

In 2011, Apple going all in looked like a sure thing, but in 2015, Apple’s competitors have caught onto the value of indie, free-to-play, and social games. Nintendo has partnered with mobile game kingpin DeNA to release mobile-friendly puzzle games featuring Pokémon and the the cast of Super Mario Bros. — both on iOS and its own portable console, the Nintendo 3DS. Sony and Microsoft haven’t opened the floodgates on indie self-publishing, but have judiciously shepherded, funded, or outright acquired many independent studios that years ago would have had a trajectory for mobile platforms. Sony in particular has boasted about its self-assigned status as indie games patron. And on PC and Mac, Steam, Humble Bundle, GoG, and smaller marketplaces like have taken long strides toward a better democratization of video games, while lapping Apple in terms of curation. A modest, everyday computer or laptop is now a respectable gaming station, whether you use it as one or not.

The established players are ready for Apple, as is a mob of Android-based console competitors. Various startups have made a go at cornering the affordable game console space, bringing Google’s Android platform and its exhaustive library to living rooms. Ouya, perhaps the best known of the bunch, failed to muster enthusiasm, but its recent acquisition by accessory maker Razer likely spells a second life for its platform or, at the least, its branding. Graphics card manufacturer NVIDIA is taking an earnest shot with its latest revision of the NVIDIA Shield, a device that has evolved from mobile console to tablet to living room console, searching, searching, searching for that white whale of an audience. And alongside all of this stands Amazon, devoutly committed to the Fire TV, going so far as to construct an internal video game studio and hire a handful of big name designers behind games like Portal and Far Cry 2.

But what Apple may have to fear most is itself. Apple’s App Store model has been called into question since 2011 for its poor curation, along with its controversial, if not tacit, support of a sales model that encourages developers to sell games for little or nothing. Its approval process has spurned critics of censorship, who note Apple's refusal to sell games featuring nudity, extreme violence, political satire, and social activism — most notably when aimed at Apple itself — sets an unsettling precedent should the company gain the power over the games market — and all of entertainment — that it so breathlessly seeks. Yet, Apple's same approval process often is maddeningly slow to stem the flood of clones: games that flagrantly plagiarize an original game, and are sold at lower cost or given away for free, damaging the sales of the original. (Android's no less guilty of the same crime.)

Apple has to improve curation, fight clones, and improve its policy

Survival in the App Store has become a game unto itself. Developers who can’t secure placement from Apple in the coveted top banners of the App Store, must devise other strategies to score an initial burst of attention, hoping to get onto the Top Paid or Top Free charts, where people will actually see them. Some apps are sold at launch at steep discounts to get as many initial players as possible; others are launched for free, but incorporate irritating in-app purchases or lag-inducing in-app advertisements to make their profit.

A cottage industry has assembled around App Store optimization, and if that doesn’t work, well, deep-pocketed developers can always buy their way to the top. The initial weird and beautiful crop of mobile gaming has been cleared away, and in its place rests a mountain of cynical puzzle and gambling games designed to milk players of their money one small purchase at a time.

Crap Mountain isn’t the worst place for the Apple TV to plant its flag, though it is the least interesting. The likes of Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, and the countless Zynga-made fantasy gambling games have buoyed their mobile ecosystem, and perhaps this ill-bred version of democratic gaming simply means the majority of money will go to the shallowest candidates. It doesn't really matter for Apple, which gets a 30 percent cut of all purchases either way.

That assumes these games — designed for brief, habit-forming bursts of play throughout the day — will maintain people's interest on a television. Do people really want to play Candy Crush on their TVs, or is it just a distraction while they're binge-watching Narcos on Netflix?

If Crap Mountain falls into the ocean, where does Apple turn?

Apple is unlikely to house the polished, expensive games that buttress traditional consoles. Even if they were, modern games would be a struggle for the hardware. At $150, the Apple TV won’t include the graphical horsepower to match the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but looks, as the Nintendo Wii and the iPhone have show in the past, aren't everything. The pressing problem for traditional games will be storage. Apple is notoriously stingy with storage for its mobile hardware, where a single 2GB game can take up an eighth of a 16GB iPhone. Even if Apple wanted to go toe-to-toe with other consoles, it would need to find a solution for their whopping 30–40GB single game file sizes.

Both Sony and a handful of startups have tried to stream games, similar to what Netflix does for films, but the method is still unreliable and demands customers have access to and pay for high-speed internet connections. This is a solution for the future, not the present.

Should the current big money makers of iOS fail to get traction on the Apple TV, Apple would be left with the smaller to medium-sized developers making smaller to medium-sized games, mostly for PC these days — the same type of folks that devoted heart, soul, and money into Apple's mobile platform way back when. Having received nominal support in the past, will developers of more traditional games trust Apple now?

Over the last year, the winds have shifted ever-so slightly. Apple has made minor but helpful tweaks and adjustments that favor developers of games outside the free-to-play space. The Top Paid Apps chart stands above the Top Free chart on the iTunes App Store page; high-quality games have received more attention from curators of the App Store front page; and last week Apple launched a Twitter stream, @AppStoreGames, that has already begun showcasing the ambitious, creative, and hitherto overlooked games already available on the App Store. The App Store’s top paid games sporadically will become a well-rounded mix of genres that could sustain players' interest for longer than a couple minutes here and there. Today, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Don’t Starve, Goat Simulator, and I Am Bread have real estate in the Top 10 Paid iPhone Apps chart. You can argue the quality of some of these games, but they're games people are already playing on their computers and in their living rooms. They will fit on Apple TV just fine.

The Top Grossing Chart remains bleak

The Top Grossing iPhone Games chart, however, is bleak as ever (top). For all of Apple's efforts, the kings remain the kings. With plenty of money and investor support, the proprietors of Crap Mountain may just find a new way to monetize their games through Apple TV, and maintain their chokehold on the top sales slots in the marketplace. But I speculate the best use of Apple TV for these game makers will be as a glorified notification system, reminding players via their television when to pull out the phone and get the next hit.

If Apple TV flops, it will be because Apple provides it the same half-hearted support its given games in the past. in this worst case scenario, the device will be another place to play Crossy Road and Candy Crush when you're not busy streaming music or movies or your computer screen. In the world of games, it's a distraction.

There is a scenario in which things settle themselves with the current light intervention from Apple. Players of the App Store's top grossing apps find that the games they enjoyed as escapes from life's mundanities — commutes, coffee breaks, sitting on the toilet — don't hold water during R&R time at home with the Apple TV, when they have a bigger screen and plenty of options to give their full attention. With some breathing room in the market place, a new crop of developers create games explicitly for these people and this device. In this outcome, what works on mobile and what works on Apple TV are often unique, but live in harmony.

Apple TV's best hope of breaking out requires games made not for PC or mobile or console, but for Apple TV. Our phones have become notification machines, and the top grossing iOS apps reflect that. Our living rooms in return have become sanctuaries, places we sink into streams of Netflix, reality television, movie marathons, and video game campaigns. Game consoles already offer all of these things. And so the Apple TV does what's already being done, just a bit cheaper and little differently.

That's the best possible outcome. More people can play video games at a lower cost, the potential of the medium expands, and Crap Mountain finds the yin to its yang with games designed with Apple TV's users in mind.

However the Apple TV won't revolutionize the games industry like the iPhone has over the past decade, or how the Apple TV might have, had it been released in 2011. Nor will the Apple TV’s game strategy flop as hard or loudly as The Daily and Apple’s plan to be the future of media. The device will likely split the difference, serving as an accessible entry point into games for young people, a re-entry point for older players, and yet another hook keeping established users within the Apple ecosystem. Looking back, the threat of Apple TV may have done more to change the status quo in 2011 than the actual Apple TV will do in 2015.

Now I want to make a prediction, and take this with a boulder of salt. After all, that look into the crystal ball at The Daily clearly didn't go as I'd expected. Here it is: I think Apple TV will prove Apple is playing the long game. With the device, the company will continue gradually cementing people into the Apple ecosystem. Our digital purchases within Apple will become both a blessing and a burden, accessible anywhere, but ultimately confining us to the company's hardware and its closed-garden storefront. I already feel this strain when I consider switching to Android; do I really want to make the app purchases for my iPhone all over again? Apple Watch and Apple TV, in very different ways, will further and more broadly tie those of us who use the devices to this singular company.

Other than Microsoft's plan to bring Windows 10 and Xbox One closer together, the consoles haven't even begun to compete with Apple in this "all of your life, all at once" fashion. This isn't me prematurely ringing a death knell; video games — especially on PC — will continue to flourish outside Apple's more restrictive system. Apple TV won't consume video game consoles in one fell swoop, it will just calmly and incessantly nip at their player base, pulling more and more people into its gated playground.

The future of gaming won’t be limited to the living room; it'll be in the car, at work, sitting on the couch, and everywhere in between. How ironic that something so freeing looks in the light of each new Apple device so very, very controlled.

Verge Video Vault: The best iPhone games (2014)