Five years ago the idea of an Apple games console would be laughable. These days many people are wondering why Apple doesn’t just get on with it already.
Apple already seems to have much of the hardware in place: it has the iPhone,iPod touch, Apple TV, and App Store. All it really needs to do is to roll out the iOS SDK (Software Development Kit) from the iPhone and iPad over to the Apple TV. And perhaps implement some form of controller mechanism. The news that Apple is testing an A7 chip with motion tracking keeps pouring fuel on the fire of rumours.
So why hasn’t Apple done this? The iPhone and iPad has enabled Apple to create a thriving games environment outside of the normal Nintendo vs Sony vs Microsoft arena: one that’s generally liked by gamers and developers combined, and - presumably - one that’s generated a whole bucket of cash for the company. Almost a third of all apps created are games, and they typically make up a lot of the charts.
So the question is: ‘what’s the hold-up?’ Apple is typically reticent about its business plans, and the reasoning behind the choices it makes. But here are some reasons why we haven’t seen the Apple TV games console.
See: Apple TV review
Remember the Apple Pippin?
The Apple Pippin (commonly referred to as ‘the ill-fated Apple Pippin’) was Apple’s foray into multimedia games console around the time of the original PlayStation. It was more like a low-cost computer, but too expensive for a console and it had a processor too powerful and a graphics card too weak. Like most other CD-ROM multimedia devices (the Commodore CDTV, Philips CD-i) it bombed abysmally. Not every Apple product can be an iMac or iPhone. Some just fail.
Apple’s DNA just doesn’t like games
Every firm has its DNA, threads and ideas that run through the company. Over the years there have been ongoing rumours and suggestions that Apple simply doesn’t like games and gaming; preferring instead for its devices to be seen as creative tools. The fact that Apple has only made one game for the iOS, a variant of Poker that was eventually yanked from the store, does lend some credence to this idea. Meanwhile it’s made multiple creative and business apps. This ethos came directly from Steve Jobs, the story goes that in 1982 Apple’s Director of Marketing, Trip Hawkins loved games and kept trying to cultivate a game ecosystem in Apple. Steve Jobs kept shooting down Hawkins’ ideas until he finally left and set up Electronic Arts. Joseph Olin, the president of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences says "If it wasn't for Steve Jobs basically saying 'don't waste my time with games' we would not have Electronic Arts."
The AppleTV SDK is waiting on the Apple Television
This is a more practical consideration. Apple is known to be working on an Apple Television, and although the rumour mill has gone quiet for the moment. It’s not gone away forever.
The notion that Apple has a new type of television, complete with a revolutionary new interface, is hanging around the company. It is presumed that Apple may be holding the device while it works out deals with television companies. If Apple does have an SDK that would enable developers to create apps for its television then it’s more likely to launch with aplomb alongside the full-scale Apple television.
Apple is waiting on processor updates
One thing that’s become interesting in recent years is just how narrow the divide between traditional games consoles, like the PlayStation 3, and handheld devices like the iPhone 5 and Samsung S4, has become.
The latest ARM processors really have made three-dimensional gaming a portable reality. Dead Trigger, Need for Speed: MOst Wanted, and Infinity Blade 2 really are in the same arena as console games costing £50 or more. While this is unlikely to hold when the new generation of consoles arrives: Apple is already rumoured to be testing 64-bit A7 processors with motion tracking.
Some people think this processor is heading to the iPhone 5S, although it’s more likely to be in next year’s iPhone 6. But it could well form the heart of a new Apple TV with gaming. How close would this processor be to the consoles being made by Sony and Microsoft; presumably it wouldn’t have the same level of power. But like the iPhone and Samsung S4, it might be close enough for casual gamers not to notice.
What would an Apple games console look like?
Apple could go in two directions. It could launch an Apple Television that incorporates iOS SDK along with apps and games; or it could launch an update to the Apple TV device with apps: a third option is that it could launch a new stand-alone device to sit alongside the Apple TV, although we think this is unlikely.
Assuming that Apple goes down the Apple TV route, it’ll presumably look like an Apple TV does. Small, square and fanless: designed to sit unobtrusively around your television. It’ll be connected by WiFi or Ethernet to the home network, and will download games from the App Store. It will connect via HDMI to the television and AirPlay to other devices in the house. Power and video will be the only two cables.
It won’t have Blu-ray, or a large hard drive (it’ll have SSD Flash). Price-wise we’d expect it to come in at around £100.
What about the controller?
The controller is the nub of the problem. The Apple TV remote control is just that, a remote control, it’s not going to be used for playing games. Apple has two options in this regard, it can either link the iPhone or iPod touch and turn that into a controller; or it can make it possible for a third-party controller to work with the Apple TV.
In a sense Apple is already way ahead of us on this one. The Apple TV can already be used to stream games using AirPlay from an iPhone or iPad, and one of the more interesting developments in iOS 7 is the introduction of support for third party peripherals including games controllers.
See: iOS 7: Release date, rumours and leaked images
Even if Apple doesn’t turn the Apple TV into a games console it’s already laid the groundwork for some entrepreneurial games companies to do just that. And we’ve already seen devices like the iCade can turn the iPad into a pretty special miniature arcade machine.
But we can’t help coming back to that rumoured 64-bit processor with its motion control. Nintendo really seemed to capture the imagination of the market with its motion controlled Wii console, but it seems to have gone off track with its latest Wii U device: Microsoft also has its excellent Kinect software but the Xbox strikes us a little hardcore for the wider family market.
If Apple could create effective 3D motion control technology, and integrate it with the Apple TV (in a Kinect style) it could use hand gestures as the controller. Add to that the ability to connect a traditional games controller if you wish and still use the Apple remote for playing and watching television and you have the potential for a pretty compelling device. With Nintendo on the ropes and both Sony and Microsoft chasing the hardcore gamer market: now’s the time to do it.It’s hard to believe that Apple will ignore this market forever.
The only question is will Apple make it?