Opinion: Apple, you're not making a console

By Steve Watts, Jun 03, 2014 12:00pm PDT

E3 is the gaming industry's big annual event, as console and game makers alike gather to show off their wares and new technologies. In recent years, Apple has very consciously positioned its own Worldwide Developers Conference right alongside E3, all while shaking up the industry with its mobile hardware. Yesterday was no exception, and this year's segment of gaming focus was aimed squarely at high-end console gaming. How much of a threat do iOS devices pose to the new generation?

It's not as if Apple was coy about its intentions. The gaming portion of the WWDC keynote lasted only about 5 minutes of the two-hour presentation, but in that time Apple senior VP of software engineering Craig Federighi explicitly mentioned consoles three times. He also made a point of going to the studios that make game engines; he and Epic founder Tim Sweeney name-dropped two different high-end engines that were now running on iPad through the new Metal development tool. The boast even included a proof-of-concept with Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare running on an iPad.

It was certainly an impressive showing on the whole, but Apple's bragging of console-like experiences on its devices is nothing new. A close relationship with Epic has provided the high-end muscle for years, and we know that iOS can pack a punch thanks to the Infinity Blade series. That has certainly been lucrative for Epic, but Infinity Blade is now nearing four years old, and it hasn't spelled death for large-scale console games yet.

The reason is simple: no matter how much muscle the iPad gets, the market on these machines is fundamentally different. iPad owners just aren't as interested in playing a game like Titanfall whether the device can support it or not. Consoles and mobile devices have found a sort of equilibrium, as the two serve different enough purposes to coexist.

That's probably why we see such wild disparities in the game types that top the charts. The NPD figures are dominated by so-called "hardcore" games like Titanfall. Call of Duty: Ghosts has remained on the monthly charts long after its launch, as each Call of Duty iteration tends to. And despite the relative infancy of the new platforms, both Titanfall and Infamous: Second Son hit the #1 and #2 spots last month. The top Paid charts on iOS, meanwhile, are constantly filled with casual games, board games, and the latest Angry Birds. Minecraft Pocket Edition has maintained a healthy spot at the top, but it's certainly an anomaly.

Epic shows off Zen Garden

Price is also an important factor. The top-grossing games on iOS aren't $60 or even $6. They're free. Garden Warfare running on an iPad is a nice proof-of-concept, but the last few years have shown that the most successful free-to-play games are designed that way from the ground up. A port of an existing and well-matched F2P game like Hearthstone can be successful on iOS, but a port of a paid console game would have a more difficult time recouping costs without setting a price. Some games can become hits this way, like the iOS Lego games, but those are also few and far between. Even Epic Games was cautious in its approach, only committing to release a free tech demo of its Zen Garden alongside iOS 8.

Besides, while we've had plenty of discussion about how the mobile market is shaking up gaming, the sales figures seem to show the two merrily coexisting. As NPD noted in its recent sales figures, the combined sales of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have outperformed the combination of PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 during the same period of their respective lives. Mobile gaming appeared to cut into console sales when the last generation was getting long in the tooth, and a case could be made that the casual-friendly approach is hurting Nintendo's Wii U. On the whole, though, interest in high-end gaming experiences looks to be on the rise, not declining.

And it's because of that success that Apple's boasting about "console-level" experiences is just fluff. The new Metal tools will certainly help developers increase the fidelity of their games, and it will be interesting to see the next leap forward in the mobile space. We might even see a day when Apple does make a more aggressive move into the hardware space, with increased support on Apple TV or its own dedicated controller. For the time being, more powerful development tools are a half-step at best, and Metal isn't well-equipped to single-handedly deal with larger market forces at play.

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