Apple TV’s gaming appeal: factors for success

Tomorrow Apple is expected to announce an updated Apple TV with a dedicated app store and more powerful hardware. That positions the device to compete directly with the existing PC and console gaming space. Yet it’s premature for console manufacturers and PC gamers to be worried. Nor is it a surefire success for casual gaming in the living room.

We’ve been down this road before. First, smartphone and tablet games were predicted to kill consoles. It didn’t turn out that way. PS4 and Xbox One sales have been strong, even better than the PS3 and Xbox 360 during its opening sale period. PC gaming is booming through eSports and on Steam. And while casual gaming is successful on mobile, it’s fallen flat elsewhere. The Ouya, Fire TV, and the existing Apple TV through AirPlay have all been gaming duds.

Granted, a revamped Apple TV is a step in the right direction. An Apple-based living room platform is bound to take some attention away from traditional PC and console gaming. And like most forms of tech, we can’t quantify Apple TV’s impact until months or years from now. Yet several early factors will telegraph the Apple TV’s success against the exiting games market.

Controller quality

As analyst Ben Thompson noted, touch sucks for playing most games. An Apple TV controller with quality button and pad input is essential. Buttons can’t be mushy or flimsy. Wireless Bluetooth has to be accurate and reliable. That said, Apple’s controller likely won’t match the complexity or ruggedness that a PS4 or Xbox One offers. They shouldn’t, given they are targeting a more casual audience.

If Apple is serious about gaming, they should pack in the controller with every Apple TV. I suspect they will, most likely as an extension of the core remote. Or if the controller is an add-on, affordability is key.

Launch lineup

All the hardware prowess in the world won’t succeed without a strong library of titles. Many existing iOS titles will port to Apple TV with controller support, but that alone won’t cut it. A strong Apple TV game should be built from the ground up with the device and living room context in mind.

To do so, Apple likely made partnerships for launch titles. The largest threat to Xbox and PS4 would be a strong port of a popular AAA franchise like Madden or Call of Duty. Yet that seems costly and unlikely. Instead, I expect we’ll get early content from studios that have already migrated to iOS, full game intact. Most are smaller indies like Telltale (The Walking Dead, Broken Age), 17-Bit (Galak-Z), and SuperGiant (Transistor). Blizzard is another likely partner, given their history with Apple. Unlike most studios, Blizzard prioritizes the Mac for flagship titles like Diablo III. Their most popular recent titles are free to play, and thus App Store friendly. And the popular card game Hearthstone has been a smash hit on iOS.

If Apple lands none of those partnerships early on, it’s going to be an uphill battle to persuade gamers to jump on board.

App Store positioning

Some games thrive under free to play models, like Candy Crush and Hearthstone. Yet most rely on payment upfront to succeed. Almost all gaming markets support this; on Steam or the PS4, everything from $10 indie titles to $60 AAA shooters sell well.

The iOS App Store is different. It’s dominated by a handful of free to play titles and copycat games attempting to make a buck off a proven hit. Paid titles rarely succeed. Many game developers have stayed away or consider iOS a secondary focus to Steam and consoles.

If the app market on Apple TV mirrors iOS’s race to the bottom (or becomes an extension of the existing iOS store) many game developers won’t enter. Yet Apple can make paid Apple TV games successful, likely through curation in the UI or marketing.

A megahit Apple TV doesn’t ensure gaming success

Obviously the Apple TV isn’t just for gaming. It’s a living room hub for movies, TV, music, and connections to Apple hardware around it. Yet a breakthrough streaming box doesn’t automatically disrupt the enthusiast or casual gaming market. Without improved controls, solid game library, and changes to App Store mechanics, I have doubts Apple will succeed.