Apple TV: Limitation or Opportunity?
Graham McAllister sees a bright future for Apple's latest amalgamation of ideas
In 1984 Apple brought out a computer with the tagline "The computer for the rest of us". The Macintosh introduced a non-technical audience to computing in a friendly way, it looked unlike other computers, it wasn't intimidating, and it had a new interface that was easy to learn and use. It introduced millions of new people to computing who found the alternatives too terrifying, and changed the course of personal computing forever. Apple achieved this by understanding people's capabilities and interests and matched them with a form factor that would allow them to achieve their desires. They made computing more human, more accessible, and they're about to do that again with video games.
The battle for the living room has been going on for some years now, with no clear winner emerging. Previous attempts at trying to make a single device for the living room which can satisfy both TV and gaming needs whilst also being accessible to a wide audience have so far failed. One of the key reasons for this failure is that the makers of such devices tend to focus on the technology, however if they want their platform to become the go-to device for all media in the home, then they need to consider more the environment in which the device is in and the diverse abilities and motivations of potential users. What families and friends want from games in the living room, may not necessarily be the same as what they want from games in other situations. The Wii has arguably made the best attempt so far, it initially gained traction thanks to its intuitive controller which helped it appeal to a wide audience, but its game library wasn't strong and neither were its TV offerings.
"What families and friends want from games in the living room, may not necessarily be the same as what they want from games in other situations."
The Xbox One put an emphasis on TV content and the microphone in the Kinect sensor also allowed for a natural interaction method, however the game controller's dual analogue sticks, triggers, and many buttons are simply too off-putting to many non-gamers. Then there were the many Android micro-consoles such as the Ouya. These offered a much less expensive entry point into combining games and TV, however many of the games played even worse with the bundled physical controller than on the Android phone or tablet they were originally designed for. Also, all of these consoles tried to gain acceptance by being games machines first and then offering TV content second, and if you're aiming to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, this is probably not the way to do it. Apple sees this, and last week they revealed their vision for the future of TV.
Rise of the App
Apple says the future of TV is apps, and it's hard to disagree with that. The data shows that subscriptions to traditional cable TV are dropping whilst video content being consumed via apps on computers and mobile devices is on the up. Apps are what the Apple ecosystem is very good at indeed, both in terms of quantity and quality, and with 700 million iPhones sold and 250 million iPads, their App Store is already used and trusted by a very large number of people. Indeed, Apple claim that 60% of paid TV streaming content is currently consumed on Apple devices via an app. This all makes it much easier to achieve the important first step of getting a new device accepted into the living room for TV viewing, but once there, can it deliver on its gaming potential?
Limitations or Solutions?
Many have been quick to dismiss the new Apple TV as unsuitable for games, but what they seem to be referring to is high-end games which you might expect from a current-gen console. Apple made it clear in their keynote however that they see games for the living room as being for everyone, an inclusive approach, and this seems to have steered their design decisions. Where some may say the Apple TV has limitations, I instead see these limitations as solutions to problems which caused previous consoles to fail in gaining acceptance in the living room. Apple really is trying to address the two key mistakes which previous devices made - the controller and the games library.
"Where some may say the Apple TV has limitations, I instead see these limitations as solutions to problems which caused previous consoles to fail in gaining acceptance in the living room"
Trying to design one controller which is suitable for both navigating TV menus and also playing games is a difficult task. Sure, gamers are familiar with gamepads, but non-gamers are intimidated by them. Apple has designed a controller which has the familiarity of a regular remote, but also allows for input via taps and gestures via a trackpad area at the top. This input method will be familiar to many non-gamers as they are likely to already own a smartphone of some type. So leveraging familiarity of form and familiarity of interaction is a clever approach to dissolving any barriers and helping the user to learn this new device. The remote also has a microphone so users can simply press a button and search for content by speaking. Finally the remote has an accelerometer and gyroscope, so anyone coming over from the Wii will feel perfectly at home too. Apple really wants you to use interaction methods which you already know to make this new device feel familiar.
The Games Library
Great content is critical, and this is just as true for games as it is for TV. At the keynote Apple showed a wide variety of games and apps which are coming to the platform, and the two games they gave demos of had a strong local multiplayer focus. The first of these was Crossy Road, where an exclusive multiplayer version was announced for the new Apple TV, with the second player being able to join the game by using their own iPhone or iPad. The second game demoed was Beat Sports, a collection of music mini-games from Harmonix, also exclusive to the Apple TV, and this time three other friends or family members can join in with their own iPhone or iPad. Apple was keen to show that this platform is about having fun playing games in the same room with family and friends, not only that, but the games could be played by almost anyone. And I have to say, this is a desirable quality which is hard to find anywhere else.
I recently had a non-gamer friend visit and he mentioned that he'd like to play some two-player games, however a search of the most recommended games to play on consoles in local co-op only revealed a list of games such as Diablo III, Dead Nation and Helldivers, all good games, but simply not accessible. What I wanted was something like Crossy Road multiplayer, and it was nowhere to be found. The console remained turned off that evening. This is not to say that the Apple TV is only for the most casual of games, Disney Infinity 3.0 is coming to the platform, a game which was previously only available on consoles. It seems all types of gamer could find something of interest.
There are other advantages too. Sometimes the barrier to playing a game may simply be that you have to power-up another device, switch the AV equipment, charge another controller, or perhaps wait on a system update or game patch installing. With Apple TV, none of this is necessary, and the transition from watching TV to playing a game on the big screen is as quick as it's likely to get.
"Sometimes the barrier to playing a game may simply be that you have to power-up another device, switch the AV equipment, charge another controller, or perhaps wait on a system update or game patch installing"
For a games console to succeed at being accepted in the living room then, having both an accessible controller and a wide variety of quality accessible games games is key, and of course it has to meet your streaming TV needs. As yet, no one has managed to deliver all of that in one package, and Apple seems to have realised that.
Where in the World
But it's not just about who the Apple TV is for, but where it is for. This would have been in the design process for years, and with the ban on console sales in China lifted only this year, it's quite possible that China was, and still is, the main target for this console. It's the largest gaming market in the world with revenues expected to hit $22.2Bn in 2015, and although PC gaming still dominates in China, mobile gaming is growing at a faster rate, showing a 50% year-on-year increase. The 15 year console ban combined with the rising popularity of mobile gaming could mean that getting an Apple TV into the home in China might be a much easier task than an Xbox or PlayStation.
Your Next Console
Many people still tend to classify games as either mobile or console, but the experience delta is narrowing rapidly. With the average console refresh at around 7 years, and the typical mobile refresh occurring every 12 months, the Apple TV of 2021 is very likely to outperform your PS4 or Xbox One. Apple say that the new Apple TV is the future of television, but it's quite possibly also the future of game consoles.