Earlier this week, Apple released its hotly anticipated new edition of the Apple TV. Mainly a device for streaming movies and shows through your television set, the $199 box is a direct competitor to the more popular—and notably more affordable—Roku, Chromecast, and Amazon Fire TV Stick dongles.
These devices offer similar services and benefits to consumers—but the Apple TV has separated itself from the pack in one crucial way. The new version will come with a renewed focus on gaming, including a devoted gaming controller and the release of a new developer’s kit in the form of tvOS.
While Roku, Google, and Amazon list games for their respective devices, none have put forward the initiative Apple presents with its new device. By combining the utility of its mobile developer’s kit with a living room-centric design, as well as several crucial development deals from major gaming studios, Apple seems poised to make the Apple TV a formative competitor to the typical gaming consoles released by Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.
In fact, if the company proves successful at merging the casual world of mobile gaming with the devoted space of a game console, Apple could change the gaming world forever—and not necessarily for the better.
Since the most recent iterations of the Xbox, Wii, and Playstation, the gaming industry has been in a bit of an existential crisis when it comes to the future of the console. Released in time for the 2013 holiday season, the Xbox One, Wii U, and Playstation 4 have all lagged behind in sales when compared to older editions of the gaming technology. The Wii U, in particular, has largely tanked among American consumers, especially when stacked against the company’s blockbuster sales figures for the original Wii.
While it’s still relatively early in their lifespans to deem them failures—a typical gap between generations of gaming consoles is seven years—industry experts fully expect the home gaming console market to continue to suffer.
Apple seems poised to make the Apple TV a formative competitor to the typical gaming consoles released by Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.
At a panel of developers and executives from around the gaming world at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the mood was grim on the subject. Michael Pachter, a research analyst for investing firm Wedbush Securities, told the audience that consoles are “nearing the end of their lifecycle” as a technology, largely due to the rise of mobile gaming and improved processor speeds on a variety of devices.
Pachter saw an especially dire future for Nintendo—the only one of the three console makers solely devoted to gaming—a company that, he predicted, “will keep beating their heads against the wall and bloody themselves.”
Others at the panel were similarly pessimistic about consoles, but for different reasons. Richard Huddy, the chief gaming scientist for Advanced Micro Devices, the chipmaker behind the APUs for the PS4 and Xbox One, spoke about the need for innovation in home gaming. “People love playing games in all sorts of ways,” said Huddy, “and there is an opportunity to create a new way to play games.”
Whether that new way is something like the Apple TV is still an open question, but there are reasons the industry should be looking that direction. The Apple TV is not a powerhouse when it comes to technology, as its A8 processor isn’t even as powerful as the processors in the current generation of iPhones.
However, the casual gamer—the industry’s largest demographic by far—requires less and less power. Minecraft is one of the most popular games of all time, and its mobile version can run on even the simplest of machines. The most successful games of the last few years, which include Angry Birds and Clash of Clans, barely require the impressive—and expensive—power behind most gaming consoles.
Indeed, major game developers have begun to seek out mobile outlets for their content, and the Apple TV as a console could be the perfect bridge for that world.
Industry experts fully expect the home gaming console market to continue to suffer.
Nintendo has expressed intent to develop mobile games using its impressive intellectual property catalog. Subsidiaries of Nintendo—like the Pokemon Company—have already released versions of the popular trading card game on iOS, as well as a headline-grabbing augmented reality version of the catch-’em-all monsters. Square Enix has likewise adapted its popular Final Fantasy series for iOS and Android, ranging from original content to ports of popular titles like Final Fantasy VII.
Apple TV, through its tvOS development model, could be the bridge between gamers used to living room play and the casual mobile market. The device has already attracted the attention of major game studio Activision. The maker of such triple-A gaming content as Call of Duty and top mobile games like Hearthstone has already guaranteed Apple TV versions of the new Guitar Hero, the new Skylanders, Geometry Wars 3, and Disney Infinity. It’s an impressive roster for any console, but especially one that threatens the very business models of its top competitors.
But whither the hardcore gamer? Must we be sidelined in the interest of attracting the kind of people who buy premium items from mobile games?
Industry watchers already know the biggest gamers have already moved to PC gaming. According to a reader survey by DealNews, PC gamers represent a plurality of gamers when split between the top three consoles and the PC. Revenue for PC games have outstripped those of their console counterparts, and gaming community and marketplace Steam has created a new generation of the so-called “PC Master Race.”
This could be the savior of hardcore gamers during the console apocalypse. Microsoft certainly thinks so: As the software giant attempts to put its desktop computers, tablets, mobile phones, and Xbox gaming consoles all on its Windows 10 operating system, the company has made a goal of PC-to-Xbox streaming, so gamers can enjoy the high-power of their computers with the large display and comfort of their living room television.
Major game developers have begun to seek out mobile outlets for their content, and the Apple TV as a console could be the perfect bridge for that world.
Likewise, Steam has struggled for some time to release the so-called “Steam Box,” which will largely act as a gaming PC for your living room. Popular gaming PC maker Alienware has released a similar console.
So perhaps the Apple TV hasn’t won the living room just yet—and maybe it never will. The once heralded Ouya console used a forked version of Android to accomplish the mobile-to-TV connection Apple is attempting—but has struggled to retain any level of popularity. Apple also doesn’t have the best reputation with gaming. A Steve Jobs-less Apple once tried to release the Pippin gaming console during the era of the Nintendo 64 and original Playstation. Needless to say, it failed miserably.
But what Apple TV could accomplish is to build a wall between hardcore and casual gamers. As gaming descends further into the PC market, app developers will likely rebuild the console market from scratch on the foundation Apple is setting for it—happily remaking the money they made on the original wave of mobile games. The biggest gamers may not notice at all, especially if virtual reality systems like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive manage to command the consumer market, as many investors and developers suggest they will.
As they lose devoted gamers to the PC and those who couldn’t care less to Apple, the console may continue its slide into obscurity.
Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.
Illustration by Max Fleishman