It's happened before, and I witnessed it first-hand. As a High School Senior in 1983, I had the dream job of playing video games in the picture window of Leon's Computer Store in Rochester, NY. As folks came in, I would sell them videogames and game systems (various Atari systems, Intellivision, Coleco Adam, etc.). But on January 24th, 1984, I skipped my lunch break to play with a new computer called the Macintosh. The Mac not only offered more entertainment than those dedicated gaming devices, it included serious new functionality, like MacWrite and MacPaint, in a sleek, easy to use, and elegant unit. Dedicated gaming systems suddenly seemed very limited.
Fast forward to 2011—millions of users are gaming on mobile devices powered by iOS. These gadgets are legitimate computing devices much more powerful that the original Macs and PCs, and there are tens of thousands of game apps available in the App Store. The obvious question: Why pay as much as $250 for a handheld Nintendo 3DS or Sony PSP that won't let you make phone calls, read your e-mail, surf the Web, remotely login to your work computer, edit videos, and more?
Dedicated gaming consoles
The one area where Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft have been able to duke it out, without Apple's intervention, is the dedicated gaming console market. Indeed, Microsoft ushered in the end of Sega's console business when they introduced the Xbox. Microsoft used their marketing and financial advantages to muscle Sega out. There's only so much business to go around, and developers can only justify porting to so many platforms, which turned out to be three.
A few years ago, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), I saw previews of a camera-based interface technology developed by an Israeli firm named PrimeSense. I could see it was the future. Suddenly, interacting with traditional controllers seemed so "quaint," as Mr. Scott said in Star Trek. Apple even made an attempt to acquire the technology, but apparently they were too difficult to deal with. The technology was licensed to Microsoft and is now known as Kinect!
In the passing years, Nintendo willingly ceded the high-end, supercharged graphics marketplace to Sony and Microsoft. Instead, Nintendo focused on gameplay and their unique (at-the-time) Wii controller. However, with Sony PlayStation Move and Microsoft Kinect, that advantage has been neutralized and even overpowered. In addition, the Wii doesn't even play DVDs, whereas the Xbox does. The Sony PlayStation 3 not only plays DVDs, but also Blu-Ray discs, making the PS3's higher price a little easier to justify.
Traditionally, Nintendo was forced to compete through lower prices and cosmetic changes, such as a Wii in red or black. The Wii is now the oldest console platform on the market and in need of an update. At this year's E3 gaming tradeshow, Nintendo unveiled their next generation gaming system, which borrows a lot from Apple's touchscreen offerings. The "Wii U" uses an oversized 6" touchscreen handheld controller with a stylus (no multi-touch control) plus a dozen or so physical buttons and support for accelerometer-based control. The controller can display private content (e.g., to select football plays or view your Scrabble tile rack) and even play games locally without a TV. The console will work with existing Wii games and controllers, which is a nice move. Nintendo is trying to marry the benefits of other platforms to meet the needs of today's gamers. But, arriving this fall, it might be too little, too late.
Apple TV and the future of gaming consoles
The latest incarnation of the Apple TV is powered by a version of iOS. In addition, the iPad 2 can mirror output directly to a TV via HDMI or, with iOS 5, wirelessly via AirPlay! App developers are even writing interesting apps that can display different content on the iOS device if it's connected to an external TV. For example, Real Racing 2 HD ($9.99, app2.me/3895) lets you view a racecourse map on your iPad and use it as the steering wheel of your racecar. What's cool is that the game displays its cockpit view on your TV when your iPad 2 is connected using the Apple Component AV Cable! ($39, store.apple.com). It addition, look for AirPlay support for wireless display once iOS 5 is out, and expect other developers to follow suit.
Since you download iOS games for the App Store, you never have to worry about scratched or lost discs. You can even play the same game on multiple iOS devices, simultaneously and legally! Thanks to the impressive graphics capabilities of Apple's custom A5 chip, apps like Infinity Blade ($5.99, app2.me/3318) can easily pass for console games. And although the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch lack physical game buttons or joysticks, the accelerometer, compass, and touchscreen offer interesting and, in some cases, superior alternatives.
If the Apple TV or some future Apple device is to compete in the gaming console arena, what improvements are needed? First of all, it might benefit from Bluetooth support. This would enable interaction via lower cost Bluetooth devices, such as keyboards, headsets, and third-party joystick-style controllers. Sure, you could have every player use their iPhone over Wi-Fi, but that adds expense and complexity. Gamers expect low-cost controllers that anyone can just pick up and play.
However, I'm beginning to think the minimalist approach is best. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are moving to motion control and touchscreen-based gaming. In addition, devices like the Wii U (with a dozen or so buttons plus a stylus) seem to be overly complex. Computer users have never liked reading manuals, and the simplicity of the iOS interface has made manuals even less attractive. Who wants to take a class to learn which buttons do what in a videogame? Perhaps a wired or wireless camera with Kinect-style sensors could replace controllers. Facial and gesture recognition could be the interface!
An Apple console will likely need more memory than the 8GB found in today's Apple TV. 8GB might be OK for streaming movies, but streaming games is problematic. Games typically need to be stored locally or gameplay suffers. Imagine if you had to download new levels during the game. Perhaps an accessible USB port, SD card, or Thunderbolt port would help, but Apple hasn't been too keen about such features in their iOS devices.
App Store: A boon to gamers and developers
An Apple gaming console would need marketing channels to achieve ubiquity. The $99 price for today's Apple TV is great, but GameStop isn't going to sell such a device. After all, the App Store effectively cuts them out of the app sales loop. However, the App Store is a big advantage to gamers, allowing them to choose from tens of thousands of titles, without concern for what's in stock. And apps rarely cost more than $5 to $10—far below the cost of traditional console games. Additionally, developers can quickly create and publish game apps without the heavy investment required for traditional consoles. Ultimately, users have more choices and can afford more games. That should be good for game developers… and a game-changer for the industry.