In Part One, I covered from 2006, when Nintendo became the kings of console gaming and were still flexing their muscles and substantial lead in mobile gaming, up until 2013 when Apple had turned the tables in mobile and Nintendo’s revenue and stock price were in free fall. Now it’s time to take a look at how and where Apple dropped the ball in gaming, the App Store in general, and especially on the big screen, and the ramifications.
Now, before I starting beating Apple up over what I feel were several poor decisions or moments of inaction, they weren’t the only ones who dropped the ball in gaming. Google had two different set-top platforms that were more powerful than the 2nd Gen Apple TV and couldn’t get a foothold in gaming on the big screen, either. Amazon’s Fire TV beat the current Apple TV to market, and the Roku also had app capability by then, as well. None of these platforms were able to move the needle any more than Apple. The Ouya was the only one to truly emphasize big screen gaming in a way that drew attention, but they just didn’t have the funding to fully execute their vision.
However, Apple was in a different, more advantageous position than any of the other players above. They had a legitimate window of opportunity. Unfortunately, they failed to capitalize while they did have the upper hand, and when they did make a move, it frankly just wasn’t handled well at all. Here are some of the moments and decisions that stand out to me.
You Have to Actually Give a Crap About Gaming to Make an Impact On It
If you look over Apple’s long history, gaming has never been a true priority for them. But as we focus in on mobile gaming, let’s go back to the beginnings of the iOS App Store in 2008. I’m sure Apple expected games to be a popular category, but I honestly don’t think they envisioned just how hot it would become, or how quickly. However, as gaming became the legitimate cornerstone of the App Store economy purely due to market forces, subsequent iPhones and versions of iOS did include features and improvements that helped both game developers and players.
However, despite the small amount of effort that Apple actually put into gaming, they never really cared enough about the category to own it, and their actions over time bear that out. Apple has made a habit of farming out innovation and the task of defining their own hardware to developers for a while now. We saw this just a couple of years ago with Apple leaving it to devs to supply meaning and purpose for the original iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil. They also expected the same with the initial launch of the Apple Watch. In both cases, third-party apps weren’t enough to define these two different product categories. However, in both of these cases, Apple listened to user feedback, stepped in and took control, and ultimately changed course to adjust the product experience accordingly. Unfortunately, they never took such action with gaming, and at this point, I’ve given up hope of that ever happening.
Giving Away the Store
The App Store has been a huge overall success and revenue generator for Apple. There is no refuting that. However, the salad days of creative and innovative apps pouring in on a daily basis are long gone. There isn’t any refuting that, either. This actually provides an interesting direct comparison between Apple and Nintendo. I don’t think there is any way that Apple could have seen the runaway success of the App Store, just the same as there is no way Nintendo could have seen the record-breaking sales of the Wii coming. However, it is their actions AFTER striking gold that are in sharp contrast to one another.
Nintendo pushed all their chips to the middle of the table and milked the Wii’s mass-market success for all it was worth. While that success eventually faded for reasons I explained in Part I, it was that success that sustained them through the hard times that came from 2010 until just last year. Apple, on the other hand, seemed more than thrilled with the success of the App Store, but never appeared to know what to do to harness it or improve on it. They bragged about their successful apps in a long series of commercials telling us that there was “an app for that.” However, Apple couldn’t see the long-term consequences of their actions, or lack thereof, which lead to an outcome that ultimately wasn’t to their advantage. The race to the bottom in App Store pricing was particularly damaging to gaming, as the freemium model just isn’t a viable way to make games that have anything close to quality or depth of console games. In fact, fermium wouldn’t work for a large portion of Nintendo 2 or 3DS games, either.
Quality games require a large investment of development funding, and that means an up-front sticker price to insure payback. A developer can’t produce a game with depth of a Legend of Zelda- Breath of the Wild, using Nintendo as an example, on the hope of making back their investment and then a profit on in-app purchases. This may work for apps that are smaller in scope, especially if they contain popular IP that insures a certain level of payback. Pokémon Go is a good example of such an app. However, you can’t get a game of any real depth made depending small in-app payments.
Apple didn’t take action to head off an app price race to the bottom with the long-requested addition of a premium area of the App Store for higher quality and higher priced software from trusted vendors, or with any other action for that matter. They also made the mistake of not allowing demos or fee-based upgrades for apps, leading devs to have to jump through hoops to make enough money for app development to be worthwhile. Apple just sat back and watched it all play out as prices fell to between $0.99 and free, and the average number of app downloads per iOS user declined dramatically.
I can’t blame Apple as much for adding in-app purchases to the App Store, as they were responding to a legitimate request from developers. This was also a feature that would eventually show up on Android, as well. However, I think Apple again failed to see the future impact of this combined with their other decisions. Unfortunately, in-app purchases have encouraged the growth of cash register games that quite literally prey on users via advanced research and social engineering, and have literally taken over the App Store. In turn, they have subsequently choked out any market that remained for up-front payments for games.
The ultimate proof of this is the fact that Nintendo’s Super Mario Run failed to meet expectations as a one-time payment game (at least for the full game). If you recall, the release of this game was a VERY BIG deal at the time. In fact, famed Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto even made a personal appearance on stage at an Apple event to announce that Super Mario Run was coming to iOS. If even MARIO can’t fetch $9.99, then there is little hope for quality gaming of any depth on iOS at this point. I would have NEVER guessed this would happen four to six years ago, but here we are.
Lack of Control(ler)
Touch-based gaming, like the motion control gaming that Nintendo invested heavily in with the Wii, is certainly capable of delivering an enjoyable experience with effective controls, at least for certain types of games. However, as with the freemium game pricing model, not all types of games fit the touch mold. There are some that simply require a controller to play effectively.
A few years ago, controllers could only be connected to jailbroken iOS devices via Bluetooth. Eventually Apple opened up Bluetooth and other companies made proprietary controllers that would work with games that were specifically programmed to use them. However, with multiple controllers available, each of which was only compatible with a small list of games, this was not a real solution. Apple finally saw the writing on the wall and extended the MFi, or Made for iPhone, program to include game controllers in 2013. However, their initial rules were far too restrictive, and the first crop of controllers were very expensive and largely ignored by both developers and consumers alike because of it. Apple eventually loosened up over a year later, but the botched initial rollout was another missed opportunity.
The Future of TV is NOT Apps
Where Apple really missed the boat was with the current gen Apple TV, which was released in 2015. First off all, if Apple’s intention was to release an app platform for the television, they were at least a year year too late. Probably more like two. The App Store market had already shifted away from supporting paid games, and most of the early titles in the Apple TV version of the App Store were, you guessed it, paid titles that had high price tags for the App Store. They didn’t sell, and the few devs that did give it an early go abandoned ship quickly. I know that gaming wasn’t the centerpiece of the Apple TV, but frankly, it and the App Store as a whole, were just poorly implemented all the way around. Pricing. Design. Search. The timing of release. No synchronization between the TV App Store and the App Store on iOS. There just wasn’t any redeeming part of the Apple TV’s App Store rollout.
As bad as the tvOS App Store was, Apple’s biggest mistakes with the current Apple TV involved the included remote, and its forced inclusion in all early game control schemes. Now, based on when the Apple TV was released, I don’t think that Apple including a well-designed first party game controller would have been an instant difference-maker. However, the decision to force the remote down the throat of devs was just ridiculous, and honestly showed that the decision makers behind this project at Apple didn’t have the foresight necessary to make it a success. As a big-time Apple fan, I hate saying that. However, if you look at the facts of this device objectively, there just isn’t a lot of good to lock back on.
The Apple TV is currently a rudderless device with no core strength and no compelling reason to choose it over other platforms. It currently ranks fourth among streaming devices, and its market share is now steadily falling for a reason. I own an Apple TV, and it is by far and away the least compelling Apple device that I own. I personally couldn’t wait for Apple to release such a device with an App Store tie-in, but this is just a pale shadow of what it could have been,
In Part 3, I will focus on the Switch, and how Nintendo has come up with a hybrid hardware design that is capable of bringing gaming with depth to both the big screen, and on the road. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts on my plentiful criticism of the Apple TV, let me know in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.