As has so often been the case with announcements from Apple, a company once famed for its strict secrecy, the rumour mills had the right of it; Wednesday morning's event in California saw the unveiling of a new Apple TV device with a motion-sensitive controller and the ability to run third-party applications. If not exactly centre-stage, games were certainly a major part of the presentation and appear to be a significant part of the offering on the new device; yet even with the new system now unveiled, significant questions about Apple's TV strategy remain, and the firm's relationship with videogames and their creators remains uneasy and awkward.
There are two questions that matter to a game developer when it comes to a new platform; can it play games, and will there be a decent market. The first of those questions was answered at yesterday's event, more or less. The new Apple TV is based on the A8 chip which powers the current generation of iPhones, and it's actually something of an upgrade over those devices, as it sports 2GB of RAM (as is also the case in the new iPhone 6S models). That means it's more than capable of running some pretty graphically impressive games, perhaps even some titles that wouldn't have looked out of place on the PS3 or Xbox 360.
"...games on Apple TV will live or die by how well people can make them work with the bundled remote, regardless of what third-party controllers may or may not be on the market."
There are two very severe limits on the potential for that kind of "console-AAA" style game on the Apple TV, though. The first is that apps on the system are limited to 200mb in size; they can access assets much larger than that, but must be prepared to stream them over the Internet, as they are not allocated any asset storage space on the system (which has only 32GB of storage in total, or 64GB on the larger version; this is very much a streaming box). That's a sufficiently strict limit to have some developers rolling their eyes and declaring the device uninteresting as a game system, but others are no doubt thinking hard about what kind of experiences are possible within that limit. It's worth noting just how rich and complex some browser-based games, which operate within much stricter limitations, can be. 200MB size plus streamed assets is a tough challenge, but not insurmountable; it needs to be considered alongside the arguably tougher challenge of figuring out what people are actually going to want to play on this device.
Which leads us to the second limitation - how, physically, people are going to play games on Apple TV. The system is controlled, as expected, with a new remote that has few physical buttons but sports a very sensitive trackpad, a motion sensing chip and a microphone. There are certainly some interesting things you could do to control a game with that - although I don't doubt the skeptical mind which says that the first thing that's going to happen is a clone of every piece of Wii shovelware ever released - but it does almost entirely preclude simple porting of retro classics, and even of many indie titles. Creators are going to have think hard about how their game will work with that control setup, which may be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the results of their cogitation.
There are other control options; almost every report on the device has pointed out that it works with any MFi compliant Bluetooth game pad, but this feels like little more than an exercise in specification box-ticking. No developer can release a game that relies upon these gamepads, because realistically, the kind of consumer who is willing to buy a gamepad and keep it in his living room in order to play games on his TV is exactly the kind of consumer who buys an actual games console. The old adage that standalone peripherals for game consoles are not worth developing games for holds equally true in this brave new world; games on Apple TV will live or die by how well people can make them work with the bundled remote, regardless of what third-party controllers may or may not be on the market. Of more interest, I think, is the potential for controlling games on the Apple TV using iPhones as controllers; I'm not sold on the idea of an iPhone as a gamepad, but given the ubiquity of iPhones (and perhaps even the potential for companion apps on Android, which may or may not be technically possible), multiplayer games in which each player has a "personal screen" as well as a view of the "main shared screen" have some serious potential.
Despite these limitations, what Apple announced was interesting, as expected; it's arguably the best of the streaming boxes on the market (though it is a little pricey) and certainly the one with the most potential for success as a games platform. Before it succeeds as a games platform, though, Apple needs to ensure its success as a TV platform - and on this front, the company disappointed somewhat. The company is already well out in front of the competition in terms of streaming boxes; the previous Apple TV was the market leader by a huge margin, and this device will no doubt extend that success. The problem for developers is that the market which Apple TV leads is not an entirely impressive one. Certainly, more of our media than ever before is being consumer through streaming devices, but almost any device can stream music and movies; Apple TV may do it more slickly than some others, but for the vast majority of consumers, the solution they have right now probably works fine. Although tvOS (a tasteful and well-designed reskin of iOS) looks nice and the ability to run apps will intrigue some people, the burning question of why a critical mass of consumers would choose to buy something like an Apple TV remains unanswered.
"...with Apple's own service (and perhaps content) offerings seemingly delayed, this feels right now like a device without a killer app."
Answers may be forthcoming later. The self-same rumour mills which so deftly predicted the general shape of the Apple TV announcement also suggest that Apple is set to make further announcements about its TV strategy over the coming months; that the company had hoped to announce the Apple TV box alongside a comprehensive and deeply disruptive streaming TV service which would give the firm top billing among the options for US consumers opting to "cut the cable" and subsist entirely on streamed media. There's also talk of Apple copying Netflix and Amazon by getting into the funding of original content creation - a move which makes even more sense when you consider that the company has for years been buying up an impressive library of independent movies for iTunes. Should those ventures come to pass, and Apple TV sales soar as a consequence, the device will become very, very hard for game developers to ignore.
One can only hope, should that be the case, that Apple will also find game developers hard to ignore. The company has often been accused of being "snobby" about games, as though their presence on its devices is to be tolerated but not celebrated; this is absolutely an attitude which has changed hugely in recent years, but one can't help but look at the game-unfriendly aspects of the Apple TV outlined above and wonder if the upper echelons of the company have really come that far. The firm's management are no doubt aware of just how important games are to the iOS ecosystem, and to their credit they have built very impressive GPU power into their chipsets over the years; but compared to the love-in the company has with the music, movie and TV industries, their engagement with games feels brusque and disconnected. This won't matter terribly in the long run; if Apple TV is an enormous success, games will go there as a matter of course, but there's a lot to be said from Apple's point of view for the device getting some big, eye-catching games that fit its audience profile early in its lifetime, and one would hope that the slightly afterthought-like nature of its public engagement with games does not imply that encouragement of the development of those titles is not going on behind the scenes.
Before any of that becomes truly relevant, though, Apple TV needs to be a major success. The device is interesting and has clearly created some buzz with users who are, not unreasonably, sick of the poor interfaces most TV devices presently sport; but with Apple's own service (and perhaps content) offerings seemingly delayed, this feels right now like a device without a killer app. Developers will undoubtedly be keen to get their teeth into it, but it may be next year before we find out if Apple TV is a straight-up success - or if Apple, and its prodigious wallet, is going to have to get out and push.