In Theory: Will Apple Launch a Home Games Console?

Digital Foundry presents the evidence for a WWDC/E3 reveal

Will Nintendo's Project Cafe be the only new hardware launch we have to look forwards to during the upcoming E3 event? Conceivably, could Apple be next in line to launch a new home console?

The notion of the Cupertino-based superpower launching into direct competition with Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft may seem like a step outside of its comfort zone, but there's little doubt whatsoever that something is afoot: in the last few months, Apple has made a series of calculated moves suggesting it is planning big things for the games market.

To begin with, let's consider two important appointments that the UK arm of Apple has made in the last few weeks. Nintendo UK's head of communications Rob Saunders is set to move across to join the iOS platform holder, while Activision's erstwhile European PR director Nick Grange has also been recruited - both in yet-to-be officially confirmed roles.

To all intents and purposes then, this is a new hardware platform targeted directly at the games industry.

The recruitment of one games industry veteran with a CV like Saunders' should be considered a very serious statement of intent for the games market, but the notion of Grange being involved too suggests that this is much more than a single, high-ranking games exec looking for a new challenge. The appointment of both men looks for all the world like a new, aggressive, exciting approach to the business from Apple.

The next piece of evidence to factor in is the timing of Apple's next major conference. WWDC 2011 takes place between June 6-11 in San Francisco, clashing directly with E3. It's a turn of events that could simply be coincidence of course (last year's WWDC kicked off on June 7) but it also represents an opportunity Apple is unlikely to pass up. The event is tantalisingly described as heralding the future of both OSX and iOS and games are almost certain to be an important aspect of the mix.

These two elements in combination with a much more open approach from Apple to the games press in recent months strongly suggest that something big is happening, but making the jump to a full-blown console launch perhaps seems like a case of speculation gone mad. However, the final factor - the make-up of Apple's most recent hardware design - adds further fuel to the fire.

While most reviews of the iPad 2 conclude that it is little more than an incremental upgrade from the original device, Anand Lal Shimpi and his team over at Anandtech know the score. The latest iteration of the tablet and the make-up of its A5 SoC processor in particular, represent a gigantic leap in performance over both iPad 1 and iPhone 4, and sets new standards in graphical performance compared to just about any other mobile device out there.

A5's jump from a 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 to a dual core A9 configuration is a significant upgrade in its own right, but the GPU upgrade is more important still and is the true differentiating factor between iPad 2 and its competitors, from a hardware perspective at least. The PowerVR SGX535 found in all iOS devices from the iPhone 3GS onwards is gone, replaced by a dual core SGX543 MP2, a piece of tech that manages to outperform every mainstream mobile GPU currently out there.

The Unreal Engine-powered Epic Citadel ran with an exceptionally variable frame-rate on the original iPad. On the new A5-powered successor, we see a fairly constant 35FPS in this analysis captured via the HDMI mirroring function of the new tablet. Frame-rate is almost certainly being capped in this instance.

"Our Series5XT architecture (SGX543/544/554) is a significant mid-life update to the Series5 architecture (SGX520/530/531/535/540) which was driven based on market and customer feedback," Imagination Technologies tells us.

"Key in this feedback was increased interest in compute performance both for GP-GPU via OpenCL but also for higher-quality pixels via more complex shaders as a result we doubled the floating point performance per pipeline in the newer cores while maintaining efficiency via co-issue (dual instruction) capabilities... Most of the other changes are much lower level and focused on improving the efficiency of the design including both improved performance and further reduced bandwidth usage - a specific area of focus has been anti-aliasing and polygon throughput."

With the base architecture has improved significantly, moving to a dual core configuration offers a 2x performance boost on top of that.

"Yes, graphics cores are inherently parallel processors which means that they work on data independently (one pixel does not impact the processing of another pixel)," IMG says, "which means that performance can be scaled near linear compared to CPUs where adding more cores often gives a very low return [where] data does depend on the processing of other data elements."

The proof of the pudding is in the benchmarks where anything from a 3x to 7x performance boost can be seen in like-for-like tests carried out versus the original iPad: not quite the 9x figure mooted by Apple but colossal nonetheless.

Bearing in mind Apple's dominance in the smartphone and tablet markets, a spec revision as drastic as this is extraordinary. Based on its existing business, there is no real need whatsoever for this level of GPU power: there's a strong argument that Apple already "owns" the mobile gaming space via the iTunes App Store. An incremental update to GPU power would have sufficed but the generational leap offered by A5 strongly suggests a much more aggressive approach: to all intents and purposes then, this is a new hardware platform targeted directly at the games industry.

This boost in gaming capabilities has taken the industry by surprise, but prior to the iPad 2 reveal, some developers thought that Apple may have had a trick or two up its sleeve. Last week, Firemint shipped an update to Real Racing 2 HD which enabled 1080p gameplay at 30 frames per second on an HDTV via the iPad 2's optional HDMI output.

"In anticipating the iPad 2 release we were actually working with a matrix of different possibilities for what it might be, as time went by and we heard rumours we would adjust the probabilities in each configuration," Firemint's Rob Murray says.

"We worked on basically two versions for iPad 2, one was built for about 25 per cent to 50 per cent performance increase, the other was the 'hit it out of the park' kind of performance increase. When we saw the keynote we switched gears rapidly to the 'hit it out of the park' version that meant that we were finishing off a new graphics set that we had been working on. Even with our 'hit it out of the park' version we were able to turn on full screen anti-aliasing and many other effects that we didn't think would make it, so Apple surprised us also, but I think we were far more ready for it than other developers."

With a processor as inexpensive to produce and as powerful as A5, Apple has the chance to bring a home console to market that could offer serious value.

Real Racing 2 HD is a great iOS game, but still some way off the standards set by high budget PS3/360 releases - but of course it was developed and sells at a fraction of the price. That said, right now it's early days in terms of making use of the colossal increase in power the A5 chip represents. Firemint's game is scaling up from an existing iOS project and wasn't designed from the ground up for the new hardware.

The same could be said for Epic/Chair's Infinity Blade, but regardless, on iPad 2 it is a phenomenally good-looking game with a superb performance level. While it struggles to sustain anything like 30FPS on iPad 1, it easily exceeds it on iPad 2, adding additional effects and even appears to be super-sampling - running at a much higher native resolution before being scaled down, pretty much the best form of anti-aliasing you can get, if you have the power available. If iPad 2 can run games like this without even breaking a sweat, what can be achieved when developers address the new generation of performance directly?

Infinity Blade on iPad 2 adjusts resolution in comparison to Epic Citadel and uses 4x MSAA in order to smooth off the jaggies. Note that frame-rate analysis is essentially a process in counting duplicate frames. In Infinity Blade, Epic purposely reduces frame-rate or even pauses the game momentarily, registering as dips on the graph. Aside from scene cuts, the game runs fairly consistently around 35FPS, just like the Epic Citadel demo.

Even in its current A5 guise, there's little doubt that Apple's mobile architecture is capable of some seriously pretty visuals. But the beauty of the hardware design is that it is eminently scalable. There's nothing theoretical about this, the tech's finalised and ready to roll - the PowerVR SGX543 in the iPad 2 scales all the way up to 16 cores, and IMG tells us that its architecture is suitable for "anything demanding performance: console, computing etc".

Indeed, we already have a mass market example of this scalability in the offing: Sony's NGP SoC combines a quad core ARM Cortex A9 with Power VR SGX543 MP4 - two iPad 2 A5s stuck together if you like. Sony actually describes its NGP GPU as a SGX543 MP4+.

"That's to indicate the work Sony has done to implement the graphics," IMG says. "What they licensed is a SGX543 MP4."

While rumours concerning Nintendo's Project Cafe point towards a traditional PowerPC CPU and AMD GPU pairing, Apple's approach in combining low power ARMs with PowerVR tech has clear advantages: the physical amount of silicon being used is much lower, meaning that the cost to fabricate the chips is cheaper. There are cost savings elsewhere too - for starters, cooling assemblies would be significantly cheaper, if they are actually needed at all.

While the option to scale up the existing architecture is very much a viable approach, it also introduces a number of challenges to Apple, as well as games publishers and developers - issues that perhaps make such an approach unlikely. Having just rolled out an enormously improved architecture, it doesn't really follow that Apple would instantly follow it up with another one, with all the additional R&D and production costs that entails. Far better to get it right the first time and roll it out across multiple devices.

Secondly, a direct challenge to Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo would mean a seismic shift in the nature of the iTunes App Store and it's highly unlikely that the existing ecosystem could sustain the price tags required by home console AAA game budgets. This would make a direct Xbox 360/PS3 competitor an unwise move for Apple. Approaching one Xbox 360 developer on the subject of an iOS home console, the response was simple: "There's no way I can sell my game for 59p".

With a processor as inexpensive to produce and as powerful as A5, Apple has the chance to bring a home console to market that could offer serious value - and it might not even be marketed as a console at all, certainly not in the way that we know it.

Last year, AppleTV was relaunched as a home media hub and while it lacked App Store integration, it still featured a fully functional A4 processor at its core: rampant overkill for the limited functionality on offer, but a perfectly sound business decision by a company already fabricating millions of the chips. The machine currently costs just Ģ101.

An AppleTV revamp featuring App Store and games-playing capabilities makes a lot of sense. While Microsoft and Sony have been eager to position their consoles as games machines with media capabilities, a refreshed AppleTV would be the opposite: a fully realised media hub that just happens to play great games. This approach is nothing new for Apple – after all, the other iOS devices put other functionality first and foremost but have swiftly come into their own as very capable handheld games machines.

Repositioning AppleTV doesn't upset games publishers and it doesn't devalue their core gamer offerings on the traditional HD consoles, but it does introduce a potentially disruptive product that allows the platform holder to extend the reach of its iTunes and App Store offerings still further: a Ģ100 media hub that also plays games that could look as good - or better - than Infinity Blade? That's a hugely tempting proposition, and the system would also have more than enough processing power to cope with game streaming for services like Gaikai and OnLive.

"I heard somebody the other day say AppleTV, which I love, they're going to start putting the App Store on AppleTV with games" - David Jaffe

We're not the only ones to have come to this conclusion. There's a lot of buzz in the games industry about an AppleTV revamp.

"I heard somebody the other day say AppleTV, which I love, they're going to start putting the App Store on AppleTV with games," Eat Sleep Play boss David Jaffe told Eurogamer. "I'm like 'holy shit'. So yeah, it's possible."

Even with this approach, a great many challenges remain for Apple in bringing iOS home - problems it would need to conquer whether it repurposed A5 into a home console or went balls-out with a powered-up/scaled-up PowerVR/ARM combo.

The current AppleTV may well be using the same core architecture as the iPad 1 and iPhone 4, but it lacks onboard storage. It doesn't matter if the platform holder goes for a mechanical hard drive or flash RAM, adding this crucial component is still going to add to the bill of materials required to manufacture this thing, and pushing the price too high brings you uncomfortably close to Wii and Xbox 360 in particular.

Real Racing 2 HD captured at 1080p from the iPad 2's HDMI output. You can see that Firemint has achieved its target of 30 frames per second but it is interesting to note that the usual 30FPS cadence of a unique frame followed by a duplicate isn't followed. As a result, we can see several unique frames followed by several dupes, resulting in a refresh that isn't as smooth as you might expect. Perhaps related, v-sync is enabled on all iOS games we've seen thus far.

Secondly, there's a question of the control mechanism. AppleTV currently ships with a remote, so either the company needs to redesign it to be more games-friendly or else an alternative approach is required, necessitating developers to come up with multiple control schemes for their App Store games.

Existing iOS devices could be utilised as controllers via the Bluetooth connection, and there have been rumours that AirPlay could be extended to cover gaming (h264 HD hardware encoding is built into both A4 and A5 processors) but it would highly unusual for a games machine to ship without any form of controller, reliant on the customer already owning another device in the same family.

Apple also faces other issues too. Similar to Nintendo, its online gaming system is best described as "embryonic" compared to the enormous infrastructure and rich functionality of Xbox LIVE and the PlayStation Network. Game Center really needs a revamp - never mind the feature set, just its pool table stylings alone suggest that Apple as a corporate entity doesn't really quite "get" gaming yet. The firm doesn't need to create a mammoth games-based internal infrastructure, but it does need games people with the right experience to make this crucial next step.

Perhaps it's this realisation that has seen the company bring in people like Rob Saunders and Nick Grange, and perhaps many other games people elsewhere within the company structure that we don't know about yet. It makes sense that the enormous investment that has gone into the new gaming architecture would be backed up by the personnel required to move Apple onto the next level in advancing the iOS platform.

So long as the price is right, the raw potential offered by re-factoring Apple's new A5 processor into a home console is hugely exciting. Nintendo proved conclusively with Wii that it's not the tech specs that ensure success with the mainstream, it's all about defining an irresistible concept. The iTunes App Store knocks these out of the park on a regular basis of course, but there are elements that could well have strong appeal to the core gamer userbase too.

There's been plenty of talk in the past about syncing gameplay between home and mobile consoles, but Apple has the best chance of doing so, since potentially it could have three different devices tied to the same person - iPhone or iPod Touch for on the move gameplay, iPad for general mobile and toilet use (!) and the AppleTV for the living room. Adding WiFi and 3G game-save syncing would be child's play (in fact, maybe Apple could add wireless iTunes syncing at the same time without us having to use a Jailbreak app to get the job done)...

"In the years to come, we want the playing experience for users to be seamless so you don't have to jump between mobile, console and whatever other device you might have," says Firemint's Rob Murray.

"We want it to be invisible and natural. One minute you might be hooked up to your big screen at home, iPad 2 in hand speeding along in Real Racing 2 HD. The next you're disconnected and on the go, playing the same race - and all you had to do was unplug a single cable. We don't want users thinking about connectivity, it should just happen."

With an Apple home console, it could happen. Will the next WWDC deliver?

Latest comments (20)

Peter Adams Strategic Account Director, MediaCatalyst6 years ago
great article and arguments man!...well done
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Ondrej David6 years ago
Nice reading. Now I have to wait until June to find out, damn.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game6 years ago
Only if they can call it iPed, iPid or iPud. iPid sound's more like a high tech urinal though.
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Show all comments (20)
Nat Kyriakis Marketing Manager, CD MEDIA6 years ago
Rumor has it that Steve Jobs has already found a name for Apple's home console: iPewPewPew

Joke apart, thumbs up for a great article, this idea of an upgraded AppleTV with gaming capabilities along with a beefed up Game Center does make a lot of sense.
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Marie Foulston Online Producer, Penguin Books6 years ago
I think it makes complete sense for them to update the OS of Apple TV to cater for an appstore and as you say games. All the consoles have long been making move into tv/film and other media so of course it makes sense for Apple tv to push back the other way.

It was always the potential of this that made me look negatively on Onlives potential, they left it way too late to get into the market and convince customers to buy another piece of hardware that did just one thing.

As for Game Centre...pfffttt...they seriously need to do *something* with that, hopefully Openfients sale with light a fire under them. At the moment its just a dumping ground for achievements. So poor (but then I think Openfient and Plus+ also fail in their own special ways)
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
If you take a look at the best selling itunes apps, then Apple releasing a home console really is a no-brainer. If they got one thing on their side, it is the willingness of their hardcore audience to upgrade. Screw Sony's 10 year cycle. Apple is going to drown them with cheaper games, hardware iteration and full backward compatibility.

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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.6 years ago
The name has to be iPippin.

Apple tried making a home console once. It failed. I don't see one working now. They are best leaving their gaming devices mobile.

They can't even make their home computers valid game machines. Why suspect they can make a valid home console?
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago

because now they have an online store which seemingly every soccer mom knows how to buy apps from. As Farmville has proven, you do not need to compete with Call of Duty to start printing money. There are still wads of untapped resources out there.
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Tom Waddington Development Manager, Games Workshop6 years ago
"The current AppleTV may well be using the same core architecture as the iPad 1 and iPhone 4, but it lacks onboard storage."

You can't transfer content to it, but the Apple TV 2 has 8GB of onboard flash storage, currently used for caching.

I don't think they'll reposition anything or release dedicated hardware.

They'll keep updating Apple TV with the latest iOS hardware platform. They'll launch an Apple TV App Store and developer program. They'll expect people to use their iPhones, iPods or iPads as controllers. And they'll see what happens.

Some of what happens will be games.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.6 years ago
Tom covered what I was going to point out, Klaus.

An Apple TV device in the home or integrated into the TV or whatever with on board storage is all they need to handle Angry Birds on your TV. A dedicated game console would be a waste of resources and would separate market segments that don't need to be separated.

Apple isn't known for doing dedicated devices anyway. They are known for integration.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago

I would not put it past apple to scrap the AppleTV brand and relaunch something which sounds new, so that the customers' brains are hardwired to a new perception. The main reason for this being my rational: "if it plays games, you need some type of controller, not just a remote." On the one hand the new device could then more aggressively tackle the gaming corner, on the other hand new features can be advertised and old strength, if the AppleTV really had any, are retained.

The Apple TV functionality is just something the new device absorbs, just like the iPhone is still a phone somewhere, but not really perceived as being a device mainly for making calls.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Klaus Preisinger on 28th April 2011 2:36pm

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gi biz ;, 6 years ago
"The truth is Steve Jobs doesn't care about games. This is going to be one of those things that I say something in an interview and it gets fed back to him and I'm on his s***head list for a while on that, until he needs me to do something else there. But I think that that's my general opinion. He's not a gamer"

Quite a famouse quote from Carmack, that I couldn't see anywhere on this page. Having developed on Mac, I experienced their reduced & customized openGL, their sometimes-posix-compatible attitude, the gcc fork that is ages behind the mainstream, all the issues for getting a decent game loop in Cocoa and all the rest, the difficulty (impossibility?) of cross-compiling...

@Jimmy: I perfectly agree with you, I don't see them making it successfully into the games industry anytime soon.
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Chris Bryan McGuyver, 3d artist and prop builder 6 years ago
I hope they never do.
Apple making a home game console is like obama being a president.
They can try, and when they fail (again), apple fans will still argue and call it the best electronic device ever created. They will say we're just being racist and not sophisticated enough to use it.
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Jace Cisnero Games/Level Designers 6 years ago
@Michele I agree. Cocoa seems to get in the way of a good game loop, not to mention collecting input from things like gamepads.

I'm not sure Apple is ready for a dedicated console. They really need to focus on making OS X more game friendly. The fact that iOS has created a huge boom in games for Apple's business model is just the market speaking to Apple about the type of Apps people want.

I think Apple needs a more gaming centric API and perhaps an official game controller that works with OS X and iOS, but that's probably too much to ask. I can easily see them relying on iOS devices as controllers as Tom mentioned.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jace Cisnero on 28th April 2011 7:48pm

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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game6 years ago
Using an iphone as a controller ignores the fact it would make a rubbish controller. A touch screen is only good for when you can touch where you are looking. Most virtual d pad games are really tricky to use, just looking at a different part of the same screen. But if you are looking, what's the point of the tv?
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Tom Waddington Development Manager, Games Workshop6 years ago
There are plenty of tried and tested ways around the D-pad problem. "Smart" D-pads that centre wherever you touch in half the screen are pretty much standard now. That came about to solve the issue of obscuring the screen, but it applies pretty well to controlling 'blind' too.

And there are whole classes of games where it's not an issue at all. Think of turn-based games like Scrabble and its tile rack app. Or realtime games where snap reactions aren't necessary - imagine how a Elite/Eve style game could work with your TV as the view from the cockpit and your iPad as a control panel.

If you approach it from the perspective of what works well with these limitations, rather than massaging games designed around entirely different limitations to fit, it's easy to come up with viable games. There might be a lot of twin-stick shooters and board games at first, but I doubt there'd be any shortage of innovation either.
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Adam Campbell Studying Games Technology, City University London6 years ago
I think it's something that simply has to happen now. I was a cynic in the past about a 4th console and one by Apple, but the way iOS and iTunes has grown for gaming, and how we're so much more connected, a compact, digital distribution based console, with the addition of user generated content and apps would work and fill a new gap in the market.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.6 years ago
Using the iPad as the control pad for TV gaming is both incredibly cumbersome and pointless. You already have a 9.7" screen right in front of you. The only benefit of hooking up the TV to it would be so others may watch and you just need the built in TV out for that.

Why both with another Apple game device hooked to the TV when the iPad IS the game device.

And if we're talking about using an input device to play games across Apple TV, why not simply allow 3rd party USB PC/Mac gamepads? It's not hard to remap input functions to those. I even use a small app on my PC that translates gamepad input as keyboard input. Doing this would give consumers the opportunity to use gamepads they may already own (X360 gamepads can be used for PC games) and would be far cheaper than being forced to buy an iPad just to play basic Apple TV games.
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Joe Winkler trained retail salesman, Expert6 years ago
Steve Jobbs insīt a gamer anymore. But he started his career in the late 70īs working for Atari and the VCS. But youīre right, I think he isnīt intrested in games anymore.
At least I donīt think apple would make a "standalone" console only for gaming. Everything they released in the last years (except the macbooks and Imacs) was a mashup between games, movies and applications. And thatīs the stuff apple made popular for the mass market. If you could travel back in time ;) (maybe 5 years?) and ask 50 people on the street what Apple Corp. is, I think only 10 persons would have answered it.
Today you are able to see 7 year old children playing with their Ipod touch.
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Chris Paton6 years ago
I love Apple, nice and shiney... But we all know how expensive their stuff is. If they were to launch a console, would it be any cheaper than a Playstation3? Or an Xbox360 even? What about Nintendo's latest ambitions? There mobile gaming market is soaring, though as already pointed out, there is no real need for these games to be ported to a console that any AppleTV-like device couldn't handle, is there?
Despite that, they certainly seem to have their fingers in developers pockets, so it's a very real possibility. I would be very interested to see how pretty their console would be, if they ever made it.
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