Despite this generation’s phenomenal start, some have proclaimed this “The final generation” for traditional gaming consoles. I don’t know how they have come to these conclusions, but it is the hot take on the future of the industry. I would love for this to be the case. I’ve long argued that the death of the $400 box is what will set gaming free. The barrier of entry is simply too high for mainstream consumers. The 16 button controller is intimidating to non-gamers, asking them to pay $400 for the honor of learning how to use it is borderline cruel. A problem preventing the death of the $400 box is the slow innovation in other sectors of technology, particularly in the broadband arena. The true successor to the $400 box is the cloud. The cloud allows us to place the console anywhere, on your laptop, in your television, on your smart phone, anywhere. The consoles of today become the storefronts of tomorrow and Dennis Dyack finally gets his last laugh.
The FCC recently set the classification standard for broadband at an embarrassingly low 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up, which is enough to get us out of the Stone Age, but not enough to jettison us to the future. At 50Mbps it takes me 90 minutes to 2 hours to download a 40–50GB game. Cut that speed in half and do the math. PS Now, Sony’s current game streaming service, is pretty serviceable, but it’s certainly not the same as playing the game locally. So if streaming isn’t here yet, what exactly is coming for today’s slew of consoles? Apple.
Let me start by stating this: Apple doesn’t give a fuck about gaming. John Carmack famously said this about Steve Jobs and Apple’s commitment to gaming
”The truth is Steve Jobs doesn’t care about games… It’s difficult to ask somebody to get behind something they don’t really believe in. I mean obviously he believes in the music and the iTunes and that whole side of things, and the media side of things, and he gets it and he pushes it and they do wonderful things with that, but he’s not a gamer. That’s just the bottom line about it.”
Even though games, reportedly, account for 75% of App Store revenue, Apple has treated this segment as more of a hobby than the Apple TV of yesteryear. They push EPIC out on stage every WWDC to show how close the hardware is getting to console-level performance, but it never amounts to much. The App Store’s arrival on the Apple TV is a big deal for reasons beyond gaming. As our homes get smarter, Apple can position the Apple TV as the central hub for our interactions with it. At $149.99 it isn’t an impulse purchase like the older Apple TV, which is sticking around, but it’s certainly cheaper than the consoles many believe Apple aims to disrupt with this device.
How exactly is Apple going to disrupt the console market, you ask? Low price, a straightforward user experience, developer support, and a whole lot of brand recognition. But why would developers choose to develop for the Apple TV and deal with Apple’s restrictive App store policies and 30% tax? The belief is that Apple is going to sell so many of these it will be hard for developers to ignore the user base. As of March 2015, Apple has sold 25 million Apple TVs since it debuted in 2007. Sony has moved roughly 83 million PS3s in that same time span and the cheapest you could buy that platform for in the first 2 years was $499.99.
The Playstation 4 has got off to a much faster start than the Playstation 3, it’s trajectory is much more in line with the Playstation 2, which went on to become the top-selling console of all time with over 155 million units sold.
With so many televisions offering Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and various other streaming services right out of the box — Netflix & Amazon offer 4K streaming on UHDTVs, something the new Apple TV can’t do — it makes the decision to spring for a dedicated box more challenging. If you’re going to buy an expensive box designed to stream content, it has to do something special. Apple’s answer to that is Siri and games. Talking to Siri on my iPhone has been an exercise in frustration since she arrived on the iPhone 4S. She’s got a lot better, but services like Google Now, particularly “Now on Tap”, make Siri look like a simpleton who’s hard of hearing. This brings us back to games. Do you really want to spend $149.99, or as much as $199.99, for the ability to tell your remote to tell your box to do something your TV already does and play blown-up phone games?
It seems that whenever people make these proclamations they never think about the development angle. They never think about the time investment and costs involved with making “console quality” games. They eat Apple’s marketing about the “console quality games” up. It’s a lie. None of the games on those platforms are as visually impressive as console games, let alone as vast or deep as console games.
Simply adding more horsepower to these boxes won’t get you there either. It takes more manpower to make use of all that horsepower. Just because the tech is getting cheaper doesn’t mean developing content that makes the most of it is as well. Game dev teams grew as hardware got more complex and powerful. Gamers have become adjusted to getting these huge games that make the most of that hardware and those experiences cost a ton of money to produce — the production budget of the latest Battlefront game is said to be $180 million after marketing. This dynamic doesn’t change just because the boxes get cheaper to make, there needs to be a revolution in how art assets are created.
More disruptive to this proclamation becoming a reality is the iterative upgrade cycles Apple tends to employ. Apple refreshes their lineup every year. The Apple TV cycle is a little longer, but I think that’s going to speed up as they get more serious about the platform. This short a cycle is no good for developers. Apple would fragment their user base constantly. Do you develop for the A9X in the iPad Pro or aim lower for the A8 which is in the iPhone 6/6s and Apple TV? What about the A9 in the iPad Air 2 and Mini 4? Can you imagine making something like The Witcher 3 on a platform that shifts faster than ice melts in Southern Cal? These aren’t phantom issues either, developers struggle with them already. The new iPhones are super fast, but developers aren’t making use of that power because most people aren’t going to be on the new devices for quite some time. No one supports Live Photos yet and developers are just now starting to add 3D Touch support to their apps, albeit in very simple ways.
The biggest thing Apple has going against them in the war against consoles is the same thing many find the most off-putting about consoles, the controller. These complex console games require more than a dumbed down WiiMote to succeed. Apple is delivering the WiiHD with the new Apple TV and telling you, “hey if you really want to game, we’ll link you to this great 3rd party controller!” Not going to cut it. Peripherals always die on the vine and developers will not spend time developing experiences around a peripheral they can’t confirm that everyone has (see Playstation Move and Kinect v1 AND v2). You also have to train consumers who are used to a free-to-play market to start paying $60 dollars for games. This is transition is infinitely more muddied than the pundits tried to paint it to be.
Apple has this ability to spark the dreamer inside of people. “But wait until developers get a hold of the SDK!” These individuals do not understand the unique quirks of the market. The gaming industry is extraordinarily hostile. High development and marketing costs mixed with shrinking software sales and a used game market that shuts developers and publishers out of secondary sales makes it tough to survive. You can’t make it as a publisher in this business if you’re not all in. Apple is still testing the waters, whereas Amazon seems to be making a more concerted effort to enter into the fray. If Apple and Amazon do succeed in cultivating a massive group of customers, where will hardcore gamers go? No one quite knows. Some believe the PC is going to have a massive resurgence (foolish) while others believe mobile will take over (slightly less foolish). I’m not so certain myself, but it’s sure going to be interesting to watch.
Originally published at the-optional.com on October 13, 2015.