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FunBITS: Why Apple May Win the Gaming Market

Once upon a time, Apple and gaming mixed about as well as orange juice and toothpaste. Sure, there was the occasional breakout Mac exclusive, like the classic Marathon, and the Pippin, Apple’s ill-fated foray into console gaming. As Steve Jobs himself once explained, after returning to Apple, he saw that gaming was frowned upon, as it was believed that it would prevent the Mac from being taken seriously. Despite Jobs’s supposed enthusiasm for gaming, with a lack of a central gaming platform for developers, like
Microsoft’s Direct X, and with every version of Mac OS X sporting an outdated version of the OpenGL graphics API, it was clear that Apple wasn’t all that interested.

But a funny thing has happened in recent years: Apple has become an accidental game company. Two things have driven this: the popularity of iOS and the App Store, and the Mac’s switch to Intel chips, which made porting games from Windows vastly easier.

For decades, Nintendo’s handheld gaming devices had a firm grip on (in?) the hands of children, with the Nintendo DS selling nearly 155 million units since 2004. Impressive, but Apple’s iPod touch, released about three years later, has already sold 100 million units, and that doesn’t include the millions of hand-me-down iPhones given to kids. Nintendo’s DS successor, the 3DS, has sold 34 million units since its 2011 release, a number that Apple may have matched with the iPod touch in that timeframe. And that’s not even counting iPhone, iPad, and iPad mini

Nintendo is still in the race, but falling back. Don’t believe me? This Halloween, compare the number of Marios against the number of Angry Birds that show up at your door. As Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said in 2010, Apple is the “enemy of the future.” The beauty of devices like the iPod touch is that they don’t just play games — they browse the Web, take pictures, help with homework — the possibilities are endless. Sure, the 3DS can do some of those things, but not terribly well. And while the 3DS has an advantage with controls, graphics, and 3D effects, Apple is closing that gap.

In fact, given some of Apple’s new technologies, the secrecy surrounding them, and other information we’ve obtained, I believe that Apple is about to launch a surprise attack on the entire gaming market. Let’s examine the evidence and propose some possibilities.

Sprite Kit — A new API available in iOS 7 and OS X 10.9 Mavericks, Sprite Kit promises to make 2D game programming a piece of cake for developers. Sprite Kit takes care of the trickiest parts of game development, like movement, physics, and particles.

Even more interesting is how secretive Apple has been about Sprite Kit. Yes, Apple acknowledged its existence at the WWDC 2013 keynote, but it saved the demonstration for the under-wraps, NDA-protected Platforms State of the Union. (If you have a paid Apple Developer account, I highly recommend watching the video of that session.)

I can’t discuss the demonstration itself, but iOS developer Greg Carter was so inspired that he decided to make a game himself. Despite having no game development experience, Sprite Kit enabled him to create a variant of Minesweeper with animations and particles.

While I have yet to see any publicly released games based on Sprite Kit, I have no doubt that they’re on the way. Sprite Kit makes it easier for established developers to clean up their code and drastically lowers the barriers to entry for any Apple developer who’s ever wanted to produce a game. Given that Sprite Kit works with both iOS and Mac, it should be relatively easy to release the same game for both platforms — an attractive financial incentive.

Parallax — Along with Sprite Kit, another new visual feature in iOS 7 is the parallax effect you see on the Home screen, which gives the illusion of depth. More than a fancy user interface effect or a way to make grandma dizzy, app developers can employ parallax as well. While we have yet to see any games take advantage of it, parallax has been built into the latest version of the Flipboard newsreader, giving a 3D effect to magazine covers.

Given that the gimmick of the Nintendo 3DS has been its parallax-based 3D effects, I’m sure iOS 7’s new capability makes the company nervous. And it should. The genius of Apple’s parallax implementation is that no special hardware is required, unlike the 3DS. In fact, parallax in iOS 7 works great even on my elderly iPad 2.

MFi Controllers — For gamers, perhaps the most exciting announcement to come out of WWDC was official game controllers for iOS 7 and Mavericks.

One of the biggest drawbacks of iOS gaming is the limitation of touchscreen controls. While this limitation has led to some innovations, physical buttons add precision that opens a world of possibilities. There have been a number of controller solutions introduced for iOS, but they’ve been kludges at best (for an example, see “FunBITS: The Sharknado of Game Controllers,” 23 August 2013).

Controller support in Mac OS X isn’t much better. Unlike Windows, which supports Microsoft’s Xbox 360 controller out of the box, Mac gamepad support is a mishmash of individual app support and hacked drivers. I have to keep both a Xbox 360 and a PS3 controller at my desk, because each works better with different games. MFi controller support could fix that problem.

MFi, short for “Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad,” is Apple’s licensing program for iOS peripherals. Companies pay Apple to be certified and to display an MFi logo, and can guarantee that their products will work with Apple’s devices. In the case of game controllers, Apple provides the API, and any Mac or iOS developer who implements it in their game will support these controllers. At last, there is a standard.

And sure enough, major game developers have wasted no time in bringing MFi controller support to iOS games like Bastion, The Walking Dead, Limbo, and AvP: Evolution. Curiously missing thus far are developers of smaller, independent titles.

Strange, eh? The plot thickens. Here’s a question: where are these controllers? Why weren’t they ready for the introduction of iOS 7 or the new iPhones? Sure, it could be a case of production problems, but I know that Logitech has been working on a MFi game controller since well before WWDC.

Furthermore, I’ve heard reports that just about every Apple accessory maker is working on game controllers, but Apple has been keeping a tight lid on them. I’ve only recently seen teasers from Logitech and ClamCase, with images of a supposed Logitech MFi controller case now leaked.

Like Sprite Kit, Apple saved the controller demonstration for the Platforms State of the Union. Why would Apple want to keep consumer-facing features like game controllers and demos secret? But that’s not all, the mystery deepens…

Mavericks — We already know Mavericks will support Sprite Kit and MFi game controllers, and bring overall improved performance, including complete support for OpenGL 4.1.

Unfortunately, Apple still lags behind on the OpenGL standard. The latest version, 4.4, was released 22 July 2013. 4.1 was released three years ago, on 26 July 2010. But that’s still an improvement over 10.8 Mountain Lion, which only supported OpenGL 3.2, released 3 August 2009.

But while Apple needs to play catch-up with OpenGL, I have reason to believe the company is taking Mac gaming much more seriously now. Sources have told me that Apple is working closely with developers to improve gaming performance in OS X 10.9 Mavericks. Macminicolo has seemingly confirmed this. They did some testing and discovered that Mavericks borrows much more system memory for the graphics processor than 10.8 Mountain Lion did. Plus, a major game developer told me privately that Apple was working closely with their company to improve gaming performance under Mavericks.

Interesting, to say the least, and the developer I spoke with seemed as surprised as I was. But what better time to focus on 3D graphics on the Mac?

Traditionally, high-end 3D graphics processors have been monsters when it comes to size, power consumption, and associated noise, which doesn’t fit Apple’s current design philosophy at all. Lower-end Macs often relied on weak integrated graphics processors, with just enough power to help accelerate the main Mac user interface.

But Intel’s integrated graphics processors have been improving by leaps and bounds. The Intel HD 4000, standard in Apple’s recent laptops, is capable enough to play the resource-intensive BioShock Infinite (see “FunBITS: In Praise of BioShock Infinite for Mac,” 6 September 2013), and the Intel Iris Graphics in the latest base iMac is twice as powerful (for more information on the 2013 iMac, see “Apple Updates iMac with Faster CPUs and 802.11ac Wi-Fi,” 24 September 2013).

Apple is almost certainly investigating upgrading the entire MacBook lineup to Retina displays, and driving all those pixels requires tons of graphics power. The sooner Apple starts including more-powerful graphics processors, the sooner economies of scale will bring prices down and help make Retina technology affordable. As a side effect, I think Macs will start shipping with beefier graphics capabilities — Intel Iris Graphics is a nod in that direction — before Retina displays appear. And if the graphics processing power is there, why not leverage it for games as well?

An October Surprise? — So we have Apple working on all kinds of gaming-friendly software and hardware technologies, but downplaying them as much as possible. That aroused my suspicions. The seemingly obvious answer was that Apple wanted to save this stuff to show it off at the next iPad event, rumored to be coming this month.

But then something odd happened. Last month, independent game company Valve released a few details of their upcoming hardware effort, nicknamed the Steam Box, which relies on a Linux-based operating system and features a unique controller that replaces the traditional buttons with trackpads. It seems that the Steam Box may be a sort of gaming console that provides access to PC games.

That wasn’t the odd thing (OK, the controller is pretty odd). Rather, it was that I made a blithe remark on Twitter — “You think MS and Sony are crapping their pants about SteamOS, just wait until Apple adds MFi game controller support to the Apple TV.” — and the next thing I know, that tweet was favorited by a Todd Walker. It turns out that Todd works for Logitech… in the gaming division!

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Maybe he just thinks it’s a neat idea, or maybe he knows it’s not happening and was merely having a chuckle at my expense. But it got me thinking. Apple is reportedly working on a revision of the Apple TV’s hardware. Why? The third-generation model performs admirably in 1080p resolution. Despite the old rumors, I see no advantage to Apple in building a full TV set. Sure,
Apple could improve upon the overall TV usage experience, but who would spend big money on that? Where would such a TV be displayed in already cramped Apple Stores? What could Apple do with an integrated set that a set-top box like the Apple TV can’t already do?

But what if Apple were to release an updated Apple TV with an A7 chip, powerful enough to render the gorgeous Infinity Blade III at Retina resolution? The Apple TV already features Bluetooth. Just add extra flash storage, an API that can run iOS games, and a connection to the App Store (or an Apple TV-specific App Store), and you have a powerful, inexpensive game console with a huge library of existing titles.

And the time is ripe. Inexpensive micro-consoles are all the rage. The Android-based Ouya console raised over $8.5 million on Kickstarter; the original goal was $950,000. Sony responded by adapting its flagging Vita handheld into the $99 VitaTV.

But the Ouya is plagued with problems. The games stink. “The Ouya’s biggest problem, as we’ve said before,” said ExtremeTech’s James Plafke, “is that there just aren’t enough worthwhile games to play.” The controller stinks. As Marshall Honorof of Tom’s Guide explained, “The device falls apart — almost literally — in actual use, though. The analog sticks lack precision, and the buttons also get stuck. Replacing batteries is a pain, thanks to removable faceplates that aren’t quite as removable as
advertised.” Game performance, the Ouya’s primary job, stinks. “The few 3D games on the Ouya seem to range in performance from mostly good to outright sluggish. The frame rates might be fine one minute, but the next it’s noticeably lagging,” said Ryan Whitwam of Android Police. In short, there’s lots of demand and the dominant product is weak. That’s a prime market for Apple, and everything is in place for Apple to take it over.

Also consider the fact that the next generation of the major game consoles, the Xbox One and the Playstation 4, are set to debut in November 2013. Imagine how much wind Apple could take out of Microsoft’s and Sony’s sales by releasing a month earlier, with a cheap console full of games people already love?

And what’s the risk? If people don’t take to Apple TV games, then Apple still has the most popular set-top box on the market. Apple literally has everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Even if Apple doesn’t add gaming capabilities directly to the Apple TV, they’re already starting to be available, and will be strengthened by MFi controllers. Many games support AirPlay Mirroring well, and with added controller support, an iPad combined with an Apple TV makes for a decent makeshift gaming console.

How much does Apple stand to gain? Ignoring the profits from hardware sales, look at the kind of money floating around in the video game market. Grand Theft Auto V, which is available only on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 consoles, raked in over $1 billion in sales in just three days. Apple’s typical 30 percent cut would run to over $330 million. What company wouldn’t want a slice of that pie?

Just One Snag — At this point, Apple has just about everything it needs to dominate the gaming market: fast processors, powerful graphics chips, the love of developers, and an enormous user base.

But there’s one factor that could hold the company back: storage. Apple has historically been skimpy on hard drives, and that same attitude has carried over to its mobile devices. I was heartbroken to see that the base model of the iPhone 5s still ships with 16 GB of flash storage.

For those who don’t store videos or photos, or play games, that may be plenty of storage. But I feel cramped with even a 32 GB iPhone 5, and when it comes to gaming, 16 GB is paltry. The file size for Grand Theft Auto V is 36 GB for the PS3 version. The nearly decade-old World of Warcraft now requires 25 GB of storage. And BioShock Infinite chews up 30 GB of disk space on the Mac.

Granted, Apple would likely pursue a more casual market at first, where the audience wouldn’t demand the ultra-high definition textures and audio that make these games so bloated. So far, iOS games have been relatively small, in part due to the smaller screens and limited storage space of iOS devices. For instance, the new Infinity Blade III weighs in at only 1.49 GB, and the iOS version of Grand Theft Auto III is a svelte 483 MB.

But, if Apple wants to reach the big screen in a big way, the company will need to reduce profit margins slightly and increase the iOS device storage capacities.

Game developers are already feeling the pinch. Perhaps the most ambitious iOS game yet, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a direct iOS port of a game designed for the PC and consoles, and it takes up 1.89 GB. Even at that, I’m sure the developers had to cut many corners.

But it’s amazing to think that you can play a direct console port on a device the size of a pack of cards. Apple has done an amazing job of creating a software and hardware platform that just happens to be nearly perfect for gaming. The only thing holding it back now is storage.

Apple Wins the Game Anyway — Let’s say I’m wrong about everything. Even so, Apple still wins the gaming race. How? By being the ultimate gaming accessory.

When Grand Theft Auto V was released for the PS3 and Xbox 360, Apple wasn’t left out in the cold. Not only did Rockstar release the game manual on the App Store, but they released a companion app, called iFruit. In Grand Theft Auto V, each character owns a smartphone, and the iFruit is a parody of Apple’s iPhone. The real-life iFruit app lets you customize your in-game cars, train your virtual dog, and check your Lifeinvader account (a Facebook parody) from anywhere. Even when you’re miles from your game console, you’re still connected to the fictional state of Los Santos.

Likewise, Sony is releasing a companion app for the Playstation 4 that will let owners use their iPhone to chat with their friends and even buy games that will automatically download to their home consoles. Valve’s Steam app has offered this capability for a while, which is particularly handy during flash sales. A game you want is 90 percent off for the next hour,
but you’re stuck at work? No problem, just buy it on your iPhone and it will be waiting when you arrive home.

Apple is changing how we play video games in more ways than the company probably ever imagined. Not only do we play games on our Apple devices, but we even interact with games on other platforms. The entrenched gaming companies need to stop seeing Apple as the enemy of the future and start seeing Apple as the enemy of today. With a relatively minor hardware update, Apple could dominate the living room, and even if Apple drags its feet, the entire industry is becoming ever more reliant on the forbidden iFruit.

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