We now know Apple’s new Apple TV will play games of the sort we’re used to fiddling with on our smartphones and tablets, and that the box will also ship with a touch-capable, motion-control remote.
Not a second-screen tablet, like Nintendo’s Wii U, or a double-fisted apparatus, like the Wii’s remote plus nunchuk, or a devoted gamepad, as rumored, or something genuinely novel, as Apple’s wont to do when it’s trying to subvert a market space. Instead, it’s a slightly thicker, boxier replacement for the slender strip of aluminum Apple’s been shipping with existing Apple TV models for years. TV functionality aside, you might call it a Wii Remote clone.
So what does that mean for the Apple TV and gaming in the living room?
It’s not a console-killer
A console-upending Apple TV would have been front and center, not an eye-blink brief sandwiched in the middle of a media event devoted to new iPads, iPhones and the Apple TV’s far more intriguing non-gaming features. Apple appears to be positioning the revised Apple TV as an “oh, and some casual games, too!” device, filing “games” under the much broader moniker “apps.” Nothing wrong with that, and it has the potential to further crowbar open a space Amazon and Roku are already playing in, but no, this, at least, is not the console-killer consoles-are-so-over pundits have been waiting for.
Apple TV will thus remain the opposite of the place to play games like Nintendo’s Star Fox, Activision’s Destiny, Microsoft’s Halo 5: Guardians or Bethsoft’s Fallout 4. I’m not passing judgement about which experiences are worthier, by the way, simply recognizing that their play-spaces are going to remain disparate for the foreseeable future.
Media set-tops and consoles remain complementary devices
Impulse-priced cord-cutting hockey-pucks like the Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV and game consoles are like circles in a mostly non-overlapping Venn diagram. Sony and Microsoft are as after the Angry Birds and Cut the Rope and Flappy Bird demographic in the living room as Apple’s been angling to forklift the Grand Theft Auto V experience onto an iPhone. These two sorts of play demographics, traditionally generalized under columns like “casual” and “enthusiast,” have and will continue to coexist indefinitely because there’s no reason for them to cannibalize each other.
It’s maybe a stab at the demographic Nintendo tapped into with the Wii
The Wii did very well for Nintendo, and as Wired‘s Chris Kohler put it, we’re all gamers now thanks in large part to that system. But the Wii was only the fifth-bestselling game console of all time, not the first, and take your pick of reasons why–among them the arrival of Apple’s mobile arsenal–Wii sales collapsed in the end. Also, importantly, no one knows, in view of what’s happened to mobile computing (and motion control gaming) in the decade since the Wii arrived, if that cross-generational “casual” gaming audience still exists in the “I want to play games with a motion control remote in my living room on my TV” space.
Even if it does, it’s not clear the new Apple TV’s aimed squarely at Wii gamers. Yes, it’s easy to see parallels between the Wii and new Apple TV, especially when you catch a glimpse of the new remote tethered to someone’s wrist, Wii Remote-style. But the Wii sold in part because of its pack-in, Wii Sports, a game that has no parallel (at least not yet) in the iOS ecosystem. And that tether? It’s not included with the Apple TV. You have to buy it separately.
But Apple’s no Nintendo
The connection points are there: hardware-software holism, ergonomic design, innovation that’s actually worthy of the term. But Nintendo and Apple are very different companies in their approaches to gaming.
Gaming, for all it’s added to the iPhone and iPad’s vast app-verse, remains something Apple’s been content to let happen to Apple. Rather than lead or follow, Apple’s created a sort of middle-ground marketplace for designers to play in, and, importantly, one that’s premised on an interface designed to support generalist app interaction, not devotional gaming.
By contrast, a company like Nintendo designs its play-spaces soup to nuts, obsessing over everything from the controls ergonomics to the number of screens at work to the way all of those things have to come together to help you learn how to play the games its personally creating (to date, the number of games Apple’s made remains zero). Nintendo thinks about gaming the way an artist like Alan Moore thinks about the comics medium—as an art form first and foremost.
And I have questions…
How might the virtual directional controls (the glass touchpad) work to facilitate new, as-yet unwitnessed game ideas? How well will it work with traditional ones that require perfect tactile accuracy? How much will additional Apple TV remotes cost for local multiplayer (two were demonstrated in tandem playing Crossy Road during the press event)? Does the new remote’s lack of an infrared pointing interface (something the Wii had) matter?
How simple (or nontrivial) will it be to port iOS games over to “tvOS”? And what about App Store discovery, arguably the App Store’s albatross? Will tvOS’s App Store wind up simply resembling iOS’s, where a handful of the same games tend to build up compound interest and hog the spotlight year in, year out?