Too much talk of the battle for the living room, which nearly always implies an inevitable Apple victory, misses a fact that should be obvious enough: video games are massive. Apple possess every piece in the puzzle necessary to launch an Apple iTV as the nucleus in a nexus of devices except this final piece. Long they have watched from the sidelines, frowning at the infantile display in television that has persisted too long with their uniquely arrogant air, expecting to stride into the marketplace and clean up. But as it stands, I wonder if they will find themselves too slow off the mark, pipped to the post by one of the older stalwarts of gaming: a validated Microsoft or a resurrected Sony.
The TV is the vital form factor for consumption of non paper-based media, the centre of the living room in our home lives. You could pack 4k pixels into a tablet or a laptop and I would still feel it a compromise. It is also a form factor very much in a period of transition, both in terms of content and delivery. Traditional TV – channels arbitrarily numbered and programmes scheduled at specific times, monopolised by the subscription TV companies – is the dead still walking. The control over our viewing that has been enjoyed by subscription TV companies like Sky and Virgin Media for so long needs little more than an intelligible UI and integration into our wider ecosystem of devices to resign it emphatically to its grave. Sky at least seem to recognise this, their SkyGo service seemingly an acceptance of their inevitable new role as mere content providers rather than gatekeepers or deliverers of content themselves. Virgin Media by contrast look achingly behind the curve and have a nightmarish UI on their set-top boxes to boot. As the subscription TV companies fade into the background the true battle for the living room is in delivery.
It is often assumed that when Apple eventually arrive with their long rumoured iTV they will have dictatorial control simply handed to them. And why not. They so beautifully own, literally for many and certainly as the cultural archetype for most, almost every vestige of our digital lives. They have wormed their sly way into our pockets, our bags, our living rooms, our offices, everywhere, persuading us that we want what they proclaim we need. Even if we think we’ve resisted their marketing juggernaut we are seduced by their innovation, instead buying their closest copycat competitors. They are less Kim Jong-un, more Plato’s Philosopher Kings. The TV, as vital as it is, is only another screen and must play nice with it’s fellows, and Apple are the Heavyweight Champions of the digital ecosystem. We want to have emails and social media synced effortlessly across mediums, calls that can switch between phone and television in an instant and media accessible everywhere so I can start watching a film on the TV and finish watching it on my tablet on the train, or vice versa. Apple’s ‘hobby box’ – the current Apple TV set top box so under-marketed that most consumers seem to barely know it exists – does a fine job of addressing this demanded for interconnectivity with AirPlay, effectively outsourcing content delivery to the iPhone. But it is short of the Apple ideal for complete seamless integration which only an actual TV could provide.
This brings me to the problem that seems to loom large in the background for Apple, or Samsung, or Google, or whoever wishes to own our TV viewing: video games. The games industry is a huge $50 billion industry “bigger than movies” and with blockbuster titles like Black Ops 2 grossing $1 billion in its first 15 days. Long gone are the days when it was the reserve of geeks and teenagers – as of 2011 the average age of a game player was 37 and the ratio of male to female ever closer at 58:42. I am now equally as likely to spend a night in with my girlfriend playing Borderland 2 as to watch Saturday night TV or rent a movie. And yet, Apple have next to nothing here.
An Apple iTV would certainly bring with it a mass of high-quality casual games (I’m sure Angry Birds would be twice the experience on a 55 inch TV) but this would be no committed move into the video games market. Steve Jobs may have been voted most influential man in video games (26% of 1000 people) but only by a sample taken ahead of a conference focused on cloud and mobile gaming. Despite the proliferation of mobile and casual games, they account for only 10% of the $50 billion industry. The iPhone has been instrumental in breaking ice on the previously impervious market of people to whom games were obtuse, expensive and overly demanding of their time but the significant growth in the casual market should not be misunderstood as indicative of a trend away from hardcore gaming. The attraction of casual games is in their accessibility but just as gamers’ tastes have become more and more sophisticated in time, so too will the casual games crowd. There is no principled reason why video games, as a medium, cannot contend with TV and film for our time and if we can afford to commit 90+ minutes not to the newest Hollywood blockbuster but to a video game then we’ll need something with a little more depth than Temple Run. Equally, once consumers are turned on to the potential of games, a £40 title offering 50+ hours of entertainment is some of the best value available. If anything, Apple’s rather accidental (though superbly executed) progress in the casual games market might in time validate Steve Jobs’s title as most influential, but only indirectly, for introducing not just a generation but an entire population to gaming in general. Perhaps even this is too generous, the Nintendo Wii making similar strides into casual gaming and pre-dating the original iPhone by more than 7 months.
For me, and this is the crux of my argument, dominance over the living room simultaneously requires, in addition to basic content delivery and a strong UI, both an ecosystem of multiple devices and a proper commitment to gaming. Apple have the former but not the later. In contrast, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo clearly have the pedigree for the later, between them selling ~252 million current (7th) generation consoles and with significant first-party development teams, but not obviously the former. The Nintendo Wii-U’s two-screen design (the TV and a second, tablet-like controller) would suggest a recognition of the need for multiple devices but realistically they are playing a game of catch up they can’t ever hope to win alone, lacking any presence in markets beyond video games. However, Microsoft, with Windows Phone 8, Windows 8 and the Surface, and Sony, with the impressive new Xperia Z range, their VAIO computing range and a unique trump card in the Vita, both have the groundwork for a successful ecosystem. In addition, they are both due to release next-generation consoles this year that should address the remaining UX problems of the current generation and finally integrate gaming into a wider ecosystem in a more seamless and persuasive way.
My immediate reaction to the recent PS4 event was to be broadly underwhelmed – a reaction shared by most of twitter it seems – but many of the features announced actually change it as a proposition in ways subtle but potentially deeply important to the future of the living room.
As others have suggested, Sony’s challenge was to prove relevance. By focusing so strongly on the games I felt they did so successfully, at least for a first presentation. Gamers (read: consumers, if I am right about the importance of the industry) want games, and developers want new hardware to continue to innovate and push the boundaries of what can be done. The PS4 provides a significantly powerful piece of hardware, interesting potential for new forms of control in a game and an x86 architecture which should make development easier, especially for smaller or indie developers. These latter two points should also allow the PS4 to make greater headway into the casual end of the market, potentially sucking more and more new gamers into the market without having to wait for Apple to do it for them. The Xbox 720 (or whatever it is eventually called) should make similar progress with integrated Kinect meaning that small-time developers will be able to rely on users having access to what is, technically, without a doubt the most impressive innovation in human-computer interaction since multi-touch. It is ideal for casual gaming, it just needs commitment from Microsoft to make development for it attractive. But ‘proper’ games will still be at the centre rather than likely left handicapped by an Apple iTV. Both next-gen consoles will have traditional game console controllers with the accuracy required for hardcore games that touchscreen control lacks. And Sony will also offer remote play through Vita, providing a proper games controller and top end games in tablet form. Where Apple (and Google) hope that the transposition of simple games across from tablet to TV will appease consumers, the Vita as powered by the PS4 is a indication of the importance that Sony give to games, both pushing boundaries with vastly improved hardware on the TV and completely blowing current ‘portable’ (around the house) gaming out of the water, expensive gaming laptops possibly excluded.
The innovations less obviously heralded in the PS4 event are even more important for potential control of the living room. The touch pad on controller will ease menu navigation presenting an opportunity for a vastly improved UX for navigating to multimedia content, whether games, TV or films. It will still lack the immediate feedback of touching the screen itself which Airplay gives the Apple TV but apps on phones and tablets, which Sony can ship already installed, and for Microsoft, Smartglass, should plug this gap. Moreover, integration with tablets through these channels will allow for the kind of multi-device consumption of other media that will be essential. Potentially Microsoft could bake such integration directly into their phone, tablet and PC OS’s thus not even requiring the launch of a discrete app for seamless switching between devices. The ‘always on’ chip the PS4 should allow for the immediacy of switching on a TV and having content that is currently a decisive barrier for current generation consoles hoping to direct all our TV consumption. It remains to be seen how far ‘always on’ is taken but literally providing content from the moment the TV is switched on, perhaps loading our favourite TV playlists immediately would be a real sign of intent. The pre-download of games before the user has even asked for them is another confirmed move towards this kind of immediacy and will take away the need to know what you want to watch or play before reaching content that traditional TV also benefits from.
In short, next generation consoles will be easier to navigate, integrated within a wide ecosystem of devices and closer to the immediacy of TV. Content will be provided by the likes of Sky, iPlayer and Netflix, all available through the console. And games will not be forgotten. In such a scenario, what extra value does a ‘smart TV’ offer? Why would I use apps on a Google powered, Samsung made TV when I can get all the same through my PS4 or Xbox 720, plus games that actually offer some depth. What extra value does an Apple iTV seamlessly connected to my iPhone and iPad offer? Why would I choose to buy into an Apple ecosystem for TV and film when I’d still have to buy the living room nucleus of a Sony or Microsoft ecosystem for games. The Apple ideal is a purging of all redundancy but without a proper commitment to video games Apple themselves risk being redundant in the face of competitors who offer all they do and more.
Of course Apple could plough a portion of their obscene cash pile into the games industry proper and offer a real threat. Although rumours of meetings between Tim Cook and Valve last year turned out to be false, something similar might be the foot up Apple need to compensate for their lack of weight in the games industry. This would seem to imply a need to compromise on their ideal of an all-in-one Apple iTV as integration of significant games-capable hardware into a TV would send costs rocketing. Alternatively, Apple could attempt to fully embrace the iCloud, streaming high-quality games similarly to OnLive, but I think Sony’s Gaikai supplemented approach is still more appropriate given the infrastructure costs of running and streaming high quality games bespoke for each and every active gamer and variable consumer internet speeds. Either way, it would require quite some commitment from Apple in terms of bringing developers on-board and designing controllers and interface, especially from a standing start.
The Living Room Wars will be won by a games console. And that console probably won’t be an Apple iTV.
A footnote: The above is less a blog than a relatively structured essay. It didn’t start that way but it seems I struggle to let blatantly unsupported arguments fly the nest. Will try harder to let go next time. C-.
On the other hand, writing is writing.