Microsoft’s got game; can Apple find it too?

David Braue
4 June, 2009
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Say what you like about Microsoft, but they aren’t afraid to try, try again and put themselves out there when they’ve come up with something interesting. Their ‘Natal’ game device is just such a thing: a handsfree way of controlling videogames, blessed with enough technological capabilities and back-end smarts to sense and reproduce a person’s movements in minute detail within a game.

It doesn’t take much lateral thinking to see that this sort of interface presents a whole new range of possibilities for videogame makers, who until now have only had the option of Nintendo’s cool-but-less-than-whole-body-experience Wii Remote, and some kludgy and unpopular alternatives on other platforms, when it comes to bringing the game player inside the game (is it just me, by the way, or did the Natal demo setup bear uncanny resemblance to Apple’s iTunes ads?)

There are no new games consoles on the horizon, but a raft of new games announced at this week’s E3 conference, and a flurry of innovation like ‘Natal’, seems to have confirmed that lateral thinking is alive and well in the games market. A new PlayStation Portable called the PSPgo, for example, has taken a leaf from Apple’s iPod touch by basing itself totally around downloadable content rather than the awkward and unpopular UMD (Universal Media Disc) format. Nintendo’s recently released DSi does the PSPgo and iPod touch one better by building in features such as camera capabilities and photo manipulation tools. And Microsoft, which may struggle to build momentum for its new Zune HD but can claim its Xbox 360 as a runaway success, is rapidly shifting to a downloadable games-on-demand model that will open up a new market for casual gaming.

“Been there, done that,” may be the response of many a fan of the iPod touch and iPhone, the two most high-profile portable media platforms of recent years. Yet smug satisfaction will ultimately offer little help for Apple, which may have moved 37 million iPhones and iPod touches and over 1 billion applications, but does not appear to be making as much money from sales of those apps as you might think.

Apple has tried to sneak its way into the games market by positioning the iPod touch as a games machine in its cute TV and online ads, but lack of basic features such as buttons and a directional controller simply don’t gel well with the younger crowds to whom portable consoles are targeted. Kids don’t like to swipe their way through games; they want to blast, zoom, and pound on buttons until their thumbs hurt.

Think of the children. This is not to say iPod touch and iPhone games aren’t fun. But think about your last trip through the mall: when was the last time you saw a child – or anybody – sitting around, playing games on an iPod touch? (outside of the Apple Store, I mean) I’d bet my hat that if you’ve ever even seen this (I haven’t), it’s nowhere near as often as you’ve seen kids with their Nintendo DSes in tow and attention focused nowhere else.

Apple may have sold 21 million iPod touches since 2007 (assuming total iPhone shipments of 16 million), but Nintendo has moved that many Nintendo DSes since last July. And each and every one of those has generated massive sales of related games (at $50-plus each) and accessories. Kids love their DSes, make no doubt about it; it is their parents who buy iPod touches not for gaming but to listen to music, even though they might dabble in a game or two because they can. Guess which demographic is ultimately worth more to game producers?

This all begs the question: if demand is out there, and if people do like the iPod touch, why are other portable gaming systems doing so well? Why isn’t the iPod touch, which is arguably already the best music-and-podcasts-and-video consuming platform out there, firming up a position as a leading games machine? And, more to the point, what can Apple do about it?

Lack of focus is probably as much a culprit as anything else; Apple’s relationship with the games market has been decidedly casual so far. If Apple really wants to play in the games market as anything more than an also-ran, it first of all needs to compete on a features basis with the PSPgo and DSi – and that means adding buttons, a directional controller, a camera, and any other finishing touches it cares to think of.

Thankfully, the timing has never been better because the new announcements from Microsoft and Sony confirm that expensive and complex retail distribution networks for physical games are a thing of the past.

Yet Apple’s window of opportunity is closing: given the rapid evolution of Google’s Android – and the emergence of ‘smartbooks‘ based upon this upstart, open-source operating system – it can only be a matter of time before some enterprising developer puts all of these capabilities together into an Android-based portable gaming system on which independent developers start building some quite amazing socially networked, interactive, online games.

Android-based portable game systems will come out of China’s low-cost clone factories first, but a bit of ‘wow’ factor could easily see it become a cross-vendor games platform that brings a whole new competitive element to the portable gaming market. With the right features and market partners, such a platform could be targeted at the same casual gaming market the iPod touch addresses, but offer the throw-it-in-your-schoolbag-and-play-with-your-friends-at-lunch appeal that has made Nintendo’s handhelds so popular.

There is, of course, no clear sign that Apple wants to build on the iPod touch/iPhone to produce a dedicated gaming machine; voluntarily adding buttons to any of its products would likely have Steve Jobs rolling over in his bulldozer. As an alternative, then, perhaps a spinoff iPod touch designed for games (called, oh, say, the ‘iPod Action’ or ‘iPod GameOn’ could be launched by Christmas, perhaps at Apple’s traditional iPod event in September.

Games are big business these days, and only getting bigger as swine flu fears and the global financial meltdown turn us all into agoraphobic couch potatoes. To capitalise upon this trend, Apple really needs to clarify its market positioning, or risk having its jack-of-all-trades-master-of-only-some iPod touch outpaced by the dogged determination of competitors with nothing to lose. Apple’s hardware is a strong asset, but iTunes and the App Store are stronger – and both may eventually be matched by rivals who have the R&D budgets that allow them to learn very, very quickly.

I should also here mention the Apple TV, in which Apple has already delivered half of a potentially great games story. The Apple TV already has the lounge-room positioning and software delivery system to become a strong family games and multimedia console, but lacks the X-factor that would make it a must-have rather than a niche curiosity. Fixing this would require Apple to expand the Apple TV’s scope from simply being a conduit through which it can sell iTunes content, to becoming something, well, more.

Why not give the Apple TV a powerful 3D graphics subsystem? Why not load it with a Snow Leopard derivative, using OpenCL to dramatically boost its now-meagre computational capabilities without raising costs, thereby ushering in a new level of gaming that gives families a big new reason to buy Apple TV? Why not allow the iPhone and iPod touch to double as controllers for this mythical new games machine?

Basically, Apple needs to give its customers a reason to use the Apple TV even when they’re not watching movies or listening to music. Games are that reason. Apple’s success with the iPod touch has shown developers like its platforms, and there’s no reason this couldn’t propel the Apple TV to much bigger things.

This would be a double blessing after years in which a preponderance of rather ‘meh’ Mac OS X gaming has sent most of us rushing for game consoles – if only to get new games without having to wait several years for the Mac port. Mac OS X will never be a mainstream gaming platform, which is why Apple needs to trace out a new strategy for the games market, an economic bellwether that shows no signs of stopping, before it’s out-innovated by highly determined competitors.

Keep all this in mind next week as Apple launches its new iPhone, new iPhone 3.0 operating system, Safari 4, and perhaps a touchscreen tablet PC at WWDC (and be sure to tune in to for the play-by-play). Heck, just the mental image of Steve Jobs demonstrating a ‘Natal’-like technology is worth its weight in Apple rumours alone.

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