I have written before on the subject of the established handheld gaming market struggling to gain traction with users due to the appearance of smartphone gaming. This is the is the new reality of the gaming industry, the established players are no longer king of the casual market because users are struggling to justify spending £230 on consoles and then £30 on games. Apple has set in motion a race to the bottom, users are now conditioned to spend tiny amounts upfront on games and encourage developers to recoup money via in app transactions. All of this means that the standard RRP of handheld games is no longer seen as a good investment, why spend £30, when I can get something similar for £0.69p or better for free? But that’s the handheld market, the console market is different, it has nothing to fear from Cuppertino, right?
Some of our readers may not realise quite how strange it was to hear in 2001 that Microsoft was trying to take on Sony and, to a lesser degree Nintendo. This was Microsoft, the makers of Windows, Office and MS SQL and although they had a reasonably successful PC gaming division, it was a far from suitable for the home gaming market. In fact many in the company could not understand it and actively fought against it, but because of the work of a select few in the Direct X team it became reality.
After the successful launch in November of 2001 (The original Xbox is still the most expensive console I have ever imported at £500 with one game), Microsoft unveiled Xbox Live. I am going to be showing my age here, but I remember online gaming in the 90s and it wasn’t pretty. In fact my first online games were Battletech Solaris, Quake on AOL and later Chu Chu Rocket on the Dreamcast, all were laggy due to the nature of dialup but there was also another problem, they all used different services even those on the same platform. Xbox Live changed that, it offered a cohesive online service that all games could plug into and by building it into the box, required no extra effort to access it. Whether they knew it at the time, the online console was going to become the set top box long dreamed of, that would provide consumers with all the content they could need and most importantly, pay for. They also understood that the home market was critically important to the future success of the company because it provided this new pathway for developers to create and sell content past the point of initial sale. Though never really successful on the original Xbox, the follow up Xbox 360 had Live fully integrated and combined with the greater availability of fast broadband meant that the online console was no longer in the realm of the hardcore gamer.
With over 40 million subscribers, its an understatement to say that Live is popular but one of the reasons for the success of Live is simplicity, it enables consumers to setup an account quickly and having a pervasive user identity that is the same regardless of game means that the user doesn’t have to think about it. Compared this streamlined approach to Nintendo’s online devices where you are given a twelve digit code for each game you use, it boggles the mind that this is the best implementation that they could come up with especially considering their target demographic. But perhaps I am judging Nintendo too harshly, Nintendo has repeatedly stated that its focus was gaming, not online or media, just gaming. We shouldn’t expect a company who are one hundred percent focused on gaming to worry about something like online right? But online services have become ‘killer apps’ in their own right, no longer thought of as an added bonus but critical to the success of the console. However online providers cannot rest easy and think that delivering great gaming is enough to maintain and more importantly increase market share.
This is why the fall update of Xbox Live is so interesting because it added new video services like Netflix, Lovefilm and 4OD. These are premium video on demand streaming services and are key to repositioning Live from a gaming service to a home entertainment hub. The update also further integrated another Xbox accessory into the platform, Kinect. When Kinect was launched, I along with many other jaded console users wrote it off as a gimmick, another power glove. However, I along with everyone else had missed a key feature, (which admittedly wasn’t hard as the majority of the marketing about the device concentrated on the obvious gaming potential of the the Kinect sensor) the microphone and audio recognition capabilities. The update enabled users to control the Xbox via voice control, speaking from personal experience the ability to start Lovefilm, find a film and start watching it without looking at the screen is amazing and frankly a feature I no longer want to do without.
And there’s the rub, Microsoft wants its users to spend more time using its console, it wants to make it as easy as possible so that if consumers are going to use any device to access content, it will be a 360. Especially if it is at the detriment of other providers, but I am not just talking about Sony and Nintendo. Because like Damocles, there is a sword hanging over Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.
And the one holding it, is Apple.
For years there have been whispers of when Apple are going to enter the home entertainment market but hold on, Apple have been that market with Apple TV since 2007 and not much has happened. This because Apple consider the AppleTV as a hobby, a small time device for ‘dedicated’ users, only they could refer to a device that has sold over 10 million units small time. But if you look at it from Apples point of view, it lacks the core components of other Apple devices, a fully fledged ecosystem. Sure you can rent and buy films and TV but it doesnt have access to arguably the most important feature, the App store.
If there is one thing that keeps the heads of Sony, Microsoft and especially Nintendo awake at night it is a 64gb Apple TV with the iTunes and the App store. It would give you the ability to access a wealth of content: videos, music, newspapers, books and most importantly Apps. Imagine that you could interact with it using Siri, imagine you could control it using an iPhone, iPod or iPad. A games console with a wealth of content, established brand values and consumer recognition in both casual and hardcore markets that can be controlled via tablets? It sounds like a Wii U that may actually sell.
Apple has been holding onto that sword for a long time and is ready to let it go, the question is, who will be standing once it hits the ground.
Thomas Curtis is a tech devotee and former web developer in education now running his own marketing company. He’s honest, passionate, hypercritical and expects the best, now.
Is Apple developing a games console? Will we see further iterations of the Apple TV contain more gaming orientated features? Is Nintendo heading in the right direction – or will we see it fall by the sidelines along with Sony? What do you think the future of console gaming is? Is Apple’s next logical step a games console? Or is a games console what the Mac will essentially become?