Spinning our wheels in the mud of Apple TV gaming rumors has been an annual WWDC tradition for years now. An Apple TV App Store reveal has practically earned a permanent square amongst the various Apple Keynote bingo cards by now, but, if recent rumors are to be believed, tomorrow is going to be the day that it finally happens. Now, I know we’ve been hyped up for Apple TV gaming for, well, years, but let’s take a Devil’s Advocate-y approach here and analyze why games on the Apple TV might not be the Next Big Thing.
By now, I think we can all agree that the success of iOS devices as gaming platforms was largely accidental. Apple hasn’t had much of a history of offering a platform for game developers which is where the ancient “Macs can’t play Games" meme. (Which actually predates memes even being called “memes" when you think about it.) When the App Store first launched seven years ago, no one really knew what was going to be big. It was an evolution of the supremely janky idea of a mobile web app that Apple tried to pitch, so the early days of the App Store included lots of better versions of those web apps, very simple games, and what effectively amounted to weird toy apps like a touchscreen drum kit.
The install base of the iPhone grew, largely because the iPhone was an outstanding phone compared to everything else you could buy at the time. A few annual hardware iterations later, and if you were going out to buy a cell phone and it wasn’t an iPhone, you were either looking to save money or going out of your way to not be an iSheep or any of the other derogatory terms thrown around by people trying to rationalize using early Android devices instead. iPhone gaming was growing along with sales of the iPhone, but it wouldn’t be until the advent of free to play that it truly exploded.
However, if you look at the people driving that explosion, it wasn’t hardcore gamers or even people who identify at all as “gamers." Instead, it effectively was people looking for something they do while they poop, without spending money, using something they already have. What have since become free to play mega-hits played perfectly in to that, particularly with how many of these games even people who don’t care about video games at all likely already at least vaguely recognized by being incessantly badgered by their Facebook friends with various requests sent inside these games.
With a potential gaming-capable Apple TV on the horizon, it seems foolish to expect any similar levels of success to that of iPhone games. Instead, it’s far more likely the Apple TV App Store is going to be much more similar to the Mac App Store. On iOS, games in the top charts make millions a day. On the Mac App Store, things in the top charts make hundreds. There’s a ton of Mac App Store-capable Macs out there, but there just isn’t the drive to search for new software because Macs do so much out of the box with the included Apple apps. The Apple TV is real similar, as if you’re an average digital media consumer, chances are you plug your Apple TV in, sign in to iTunes, sign in to Netflix, Hulu, and whatever other streaming services you use and call it a day. The Apple TV, like the Mac, is doing everything you wanted it to do out of the box.
Complicating things further is the fact that unless Apple bundles in an actual dedicated game controller in the box (Which seems exceedingly unlikely given Apple’s history with gaming.) anyone who actually wants to play games on it is going to need to go out and buy a controller as well. Amazon tried this with their Fire TV and by all accounts it totally bombed. The demographic of people who would do this likely already own a game console that they already have everything for. That integral mass market base of players that made iOS gaming explode probably is both happy with their existing Apple TV and it seems supremely unlikely that they’d go buy a controller. Remember, this demographic doesn’t even realize they’re gamers, despite potentially spending dozens of hours a week playing iOS games.
Sure, there’s always the potential of using existing iOS devices as controllers, but that isn’t an ideal solution. Existing apps like the Joypad Game Controller (Free) do similar things and while it works… when you’re looking at one screen and controlling it using another device, tactile feedback is super important. It’s always possible that there might be some cool party games like The Jackbox Party Pack, but that’s a game that’s really only fun when you’ve got a bunch of people around. It’s not something you’d ever settle into your couch and play yourself.
Taking all this into account, it feels like the outlook for gaming on the new Apple TV isn’t that great. Remember, many media devices before the Apple TV have been able to play games. Hell, I bought my parents a Roku years ago that came preloaded with Angry Birds. No one, not even a company like Ouya, managed to crack the “Machine that hooks up to your TV that can also play games" gaming market in any meaningful way. Will the Apple TV manage to do it?
Crazier things have happened, but whether or not an Apple TV gaming ecosystem can ever exist in any kind of meaningful way lives or dies on how Apple handles the controller.
(I really hope Apple doesn’t mess this up.)