Sure, you can look at the news of console sales reportedly having their best months yet, and the news of the Apple TV’s games sales being slow as a blow in the face of certain critics whose names rhyme with Farter Botson who claim console gaming is dying and Apple TV gaming is the future. Surely, such hypothetical critics aren’t looking good right now, but I don’t think that a few weeks of the Apple TV and slow sales are a death knell for Apple’s TV box as a gaming platform. I think there’s reason to think that potential still exists for it to put a bigger dent in console gaming, and for it to be a viable market for developers.
The thing with the Apple TV games market is that the benefits of it are very much focused on the long term. Yes, sales are slow right now, but one could even look at the idea of the Apple TV being a holiday purchase, and that as people start to open them up under the tree, or by the light of the Menorah, or in the cold steel gaze of the Festivus pole, games sales will start to increase as people start to actually use them. No, the immediate sales numbers are not exactly promising, but I don’t think that should be an immediate impact on things.
In particular, even if people don’t have an issue to buy an Apple TV right now, that doesn’t mean that they won’t soon. We’ve heard rumors of Apple launching their own over-the-top service, a la Sling or Playstation Vue, for themselves. Reports have indicated that it just wasn’t ready yet. There’s a real desire for cord-cutting – ESPN losing 7 million subscribers is a real signifier that people want out of cable subscriptions, and Sling having ESPN is a real killer feature for them – and if Apple with their boundless revenue and influence can come up with a compelling live TV cord-cutting product that’s good enough to drive people to buy new Apple TVs, that could have a trickle-down effect on games and apps to the point where with all the users suddenly using their Apple TVs not just as a Netflix box, but as the gateway to anything on their TV, games and apps see more users.
There are a few concerns here, of course. One is that games are already seeing a race to the bottom, thanks in part to universal apps. If Apple, for example, allowed developers to offer upgrade discounts to users who already own certain apps on the iOS App Store, as opposed to just making it a “you have to buy the new app or you have to make it a free universal update" situation, that would help developers. iPad developers kind of suffered in this regard where they couldn’t take advantage of iPad users’ willingness to pay more for apps and games if they wanted to offer a universal app. The rising tide of iPhone prices sunk all apps’ prices.
And I’ll be interested to see how free-to-play works on TVs. That may be where the real growth comes from, when people start be willing to buy in-game items. Once Candy Crush Saga (Free) and Clash of Clans (Free) hit the TV, we’ll see what happens there. These are still the early days in terms of content, and mobile gaming is a unique market compared to the consoles, where the value proposition is so different between platforms.
Here’s the thing. Even if you believe that current console sales based on limited public info are good – and if you look at the numbers, you can spin it that way – people who look at trends and have seen the data (NPD console sale data is a lot harder to come by these days) aren’t really painting a rosy picture. Our Shaun Musgrave, who’s been around the industry for a long time, doesn’t exactly think the current sales numbers are reason to jump for joy:
Like, can we finally put the myth to bed that the PS4 is the best-selling console ever? Now that it's ~15 million behind the PS2's pace?
— Shaun Musgrave (@ShaunMusgrave) December 11, 2015
And I feel like a lot of people want to sit there and toss out the massive drop in sales from the Wii to the Wii U as irrelevant, but I don’t. They show that a lot of casual gamers just are not playing console games any more. If you want to call the Wii a gimmick that Nintendo couldn’t replicate, I think that’s fair, since Wii Sports hooked a lot more people than we give it credit for. But it does show that there are a lot of people who don’t actually care much for gaming on consoles, that they’re getting their enjoyment from games from other sources, or entertainment elsewhere. And I mean, once people start buying Apple TVs, it could easily come form there.
Oh, and don’t forget that mobile shot handheld gaming straight in the heart. Sales numbers died from the DS to the 3DS, and from the PSP to the Vita. And the fact that Xbox One sales, even in the west, are falling behind the PS4 shows dedicated gamers aren’t really that loyal to a platform. Heck, I don’t think that they’re loyal to consoles at all – they’re loyal to where the games they want to play will go. And if the Apple TV or whatever other mobile-powered box starts giving them the games they want, well…they’ll go there.
Oh, and the consoles are still slow on eSports and free-to-play, two things that are spearheading gaming’s cultural and financial influence. The mass market, not just die-hard enthusiasts, want to play, watch, and spend on these kinds of games. Gamers, and I don’t just mean the die-hard, NeoGAF-posting, obsessive audience, are going to go where the games they want to play are, and the method of doing so is irrelevant. And the scales will tilt away from the die-hard enthusiasts the second that the scales tip toward free-to-play for the big publishers and far away from the $60 game.
Small developers might be smart right now to chase after the console market, because there are still people spending money there, but I wouldn’t chase after it as anything resembling long-term strategy. In fact, I would say that you’re effectively hoping a sinking ship will float, and one that is getting crowded with other developers trying to hop on. It’s not a sustainable business plan. I’ve had my issues with VR developers possibly getting onboard with VR too early, but hey, that ship is going to sail soon, and I think it’s better to be too early to a viable idea than too late.
Of course, all this future comes with the caveat that someone gets the job done, and well, Apple isn’t exactly on the ball lately. I mean, their hardware design team is clearly slacking off:
WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE! pic.twitter.com/ChZWsNbLiI
— ᶰᵒᵗ Jony Ive (@JonyIveParody) December 10, 2015
And I do fear that the Apple TV becoming a capable gaming system will require Apple putting in more of a guiding hand than what they’ve been willing to use up until this point. It might involve them convincing publishers and developers to make games for the Apple TV models that they release, or to spur on game streaming efforts. If they wanted to be a leader in gaming, I think they could if they put in the resources and effort. Or just bought someone that could do the job for them. But, it could all happen again accidentally. Someone could make the next big trend in gaming on an Apple TV without even really trying.
But the thing is that you can read the tea leaves, and see that this console generation will see a decline in total sales than before, and there’s such growth in other forms of gaming, with nascent things like Apple TV gaming having such potential. Maybe the Playstation 4 is selling millions right now, and the Apple TV games are barely making $100 per day…but who says that’s the case a year or two or five from now?