Monday, September 28, 2009

Apple Targets The Gaming Market


Last week there was an article in The New York Times about Apple's shadow looming large over the Tokyo Game Show. Today, I see that Apple has purchased a large amount of advertising space on IGN's home page. What does Apple's emergence as a player in the videogame market mean for the gaming industry and for us gamers?

For the gaming industry, its actually kind of a big deal, with the emergence of mobile gaming as a prime revenue source for these companies. For gamers, especially the hardcore kind, its really kind of joke - except this time we are the punchline. Apple has always been the butt end of jokes by PC gamers who for years have enjoyed their platform as the primary place to play the latest and most technologically advanced games. Sure there was always Myst or even World of Warcraft for Mac, all the biggest games eventually got ported over months or years later, but for the past two decades it was basically a joke if you owned a Mac and wanted to play the latest games.

The problem was simple: not enough people bought Macs, so game companies didnt bother developing for the platform. There was an aura of superiority around Mac users that somehow the machines were so perfectly designed and so god-like, that they couldnt possibly be purposed for such a heathen activity such as gaming. Macs were, and are to this day, an elitist product. You have to be rich to buy one, and in buying one you are basically saying to everyone else "Steve fucking Jobs designed my machine, so Im superior to you." And truth be told, Macs are amazingly designed and beautifully engineered machines.

In many ways and for many years (lets call them the SCSI years), Macs really were superior machines. But, not anymore. The PC wars between Microsoft and Apple have sort of ended, despite those Mac and PC guy ads you see on TV. Thats just the playful banter of two corporate behemoths who have willfully agreed to chop up the marketplace and share in the glory of complete market domination. Dont believe me? Then please tell me who is #3 in the world of personal computing. Linux doesnt count.

So what does all this history have to do with mobile gaming? Well for years, Apple was content to sit back and let Microsoft take the lead in that sphere, in fact Apple willfully resisted having its platform be used for game development. Not anymore. This move into gaming by Apple, which currently only applies to its mobile devices, signals a new era. They see the amount of money people spend on games, they see the technological possibilities of their mobile devices, and they have decided to shift their focus into fostering game development and actively promoting it. Mobile devices first for sure, but you have to wonder what they are planning for their next generation of desktops and laptops as well.

For software makers like Konami and Capcom, Apples decision to promote game development on their mobile platforms is sort of a mixed blessing. While on one hand they welcome the extra revenue such potential growth represents, on the other it represents a departure from their style of game making and a shift of resources away from more progressive game designs and ambitious, next generation projects. Why gamble spending $25M making a new intellectual property for a next generation console, when they can spend $1M on 25 different games based on existing IPs and current mobile platform technology, and have a guaranteed return on their investment?

As bad as that sounds, dont expect Halo 4 and Gears of War 3 to come out on the iPhone. There will still be AAA, high budget titles from the major development houses and big publishers. There just wont be as many new IPs, and they wont be as big or as ambitious. Console games simply cant be developed by small teams anymore. As game development costs soar into the tens of millions, developers and publishers are constantly searching for ways to cut costs and secure new revenue streams, and mobile gaming is just the next step in that evolution.

Hardcore gamers are now a rare breed. Its not that we are shrinking in numbers, its that gaming as an activity is exploding in popularity, so even though there are still millions of hardcore gamers, now we are decidedly outnumbered by weekend gamers and casual gamers, probably by 10-1. Game companies have picked up on this fact, and the next 3-5 years will reflect this trend. Dont expect to see major console releases ever 5 years, with AAA game development time and costs skyrocketing. Now we are on a 6-8 year cycle, and the cycles will only continue to increase in length. Filling those gaps in the cycle will be a glut of mobile, handheld, and casual downloadable games that are cheap or free to play, and Apple will be one of the companies leading the way and collecting all the profits.

9 comments:

Chronic said...

Nokia tried this a few years ago with their N-Gage, but I think they were a bit too far ahead of the curve, almost like Sega with the Dreamcast. They failed utterly and now N-Gage isnt a Nokia specific platform, its just a dead platform.

Apple needs to learn from the mistakes of Nokia if it wants to have any chance of succeeding against Sony and Nintendo, and they must conquer Japan, which is where mobile gaming is most popular, and has proven virtually impenetrable to Microsoft.

There is also Apple's traditional problem of price: the iPhone costs $300 and the iPod is $230, while the PSP and DS can be found for $150 and have larger, more diverse and higher quality game libraries featuring household names like Mario and Solid Snake.

The biggest hurdle for Apple is first party game development. Without the resources of a corporate behemoth backing game development, Apple risks falling into the trap the Atari 2600 fell into: a flood of shovelware 3rd party games entering the marketplace, diluting the quality of the library beyond all recognition.

If Apple actually wants to pull this off, and possibly swindle a few hardcore gamers away from the Big Three, they need to develop a few killer apps internally. Starting an internal Apple game development studio, even just for mobile games, would take a huge amount of money and human resources to accomplish. It would be a gamble. It would take balls.

As smart as Steve Jobs is, Im not sure he is ready to cowboy up and move all in.

umopapisdnpuaq said...

Hahaha - "the SCSI years". Yeah they had Quake 3 Arena on the Mac near the end of the SCSI years. Not much fun with 1 button on the mouse though ;)

Apple have had their appetite grown by the ipod to such proportions that now the iphone must FEED THEM too. The ramping up is their way of saying "APPLE HUNGRY! FEED APPLE!".

His Noodly Appendage said...

Bah linux counts. It is like China, slow to get moving but eventually will take over.

Uber Crunch said...

Nice post.

Just wait until the HD video iPhone launches next year. Then the mobile gaming wars will really kick into high gear.

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