Apple TV won’t threaten core gaming but might shakeup casuals

As I wrote weeks ago, Apple TV needed several key factors to challenge console and PC gaming. Based on the keynote and what we’ve learned since, they missed on all counts. Traditional console or PC gamers won’t be flocking to Apple TV. Yet some wildcards could upend the casual gaming market in the long run.

Apple TV’s problems start with the included remote. A touchpad and single available button won’t give the precision needed for most traditional games. And add-on controllers are unlikely to make headway. Apple didn’t release a first-party option, and developers can’t require external controllers for play.

Then there’s the issue of a fairly weak starting library. Granted, several games look entertaining. Yet it’s mostly small scale entertainment — diversions alongside other apps and streaming media.

Larger hurdles to longer, deeper gaming experiences

Small diversions can be fun, yet TV experiences are generally longer and more focused than mobile. For example, we expect to spend more time on the couch engrossed in a game than with a phone while commuting to work. Larger experiences require additional storage for levels, AI, and graphics. They also demand a market where paid titles actually sell. Right now, Apple looks unsustainable on both fronts.

In particular, Apple TV apps are limited to 200mb in local storage, the remainder available on-demand. The widely popular Hearthstone is over 800mb on iOS. And 200mb is a fraction of most basic console titles. On demand resources and tvOS’s “app slicing” can assist, but shuffling assets in a larger game is going to get ugly.

Then there’s the larger tvOS App Store ecosystem. At first glance, there appears to be few changes from the free-to-play dominant iOS model. Paid titles, especially those at usual console or PC level ($10-60), rarely do well. As Kotaku’s Jason Schreier noted:

Apple has never cared enough about gaming to put an end to clones, let alone to develop or cultivate the type of system-sellers that a gaming platform needs to attract any serious user-base in today’s oversaturated video game landscape.

Jason is more pessimistic than I am on Apple TV’s impact, but he’s correct here. Ben Thompson shares similar concerns on a broader scale:

Long-time readers know this isn’t the first time I’ve written about Apple’s inability to foster a healthy app ecosystem (again, beyond front-ends for ad-supported services, free-to-play games, or the most simple of apps) and how I believe that inability has held the iPad back. The concern, though, is that it is very possible to envision the Apple TV going down the iPad route.

The innovation wildcard

It’s unwise to dismiss Apple’s gaming impact entirely. Like with iOS, the tvOS app store will have far lower barriers to entry than their console counterparts. Sony and Microsoft heavily curate what’s available for sale. Apple has a review process but it’s comparatively open. Console dev kits are thousands of dollars, yet developing for iOS requires little more than a $99 yearly fee. There’s also a huge existing developer base familiar with Apple-friendly programming languages and tools. As Kyle Orland at Ars Technica noted, an open app store combined with a strong dev base can cultivate innovative, sleeper hits.

Shared, party-like experiences could be a perfect fit. For instance, trivia games like the Jackbox Party Pack. Or music games like Guitar Hero (already announced) and Singstar. Enough strong titles can divert living room attention away from consoles and PCs.

Capturing mindshare over gaming

Apple TV may not disrupt gaming today, but its deemphasis in favor of a larger app ecosystem is smart given its weaker position. Its sales are in fourth place behind the the well reviewed Fire TV, Chromecast, and Roku. Leaning on Apple’s natural strengths in hardware, UI, and apps has worked before so it’s understandable Apple is focusing on capturing market and mindshare first. Once the Apple TV reaches a dominant position a la iPhone, it can capitalize on its popularity to build an unbeatable casual gaming platform.