Gaming isn’t Apple TV’s priority, and that’s okay

We’ve been told a hundred ways to Sunday that Apple TV is coming for consoles.

Plenty thought that yesterday would be the day that Apple would make the big gaming announcement that would strike fear into the hearts of Microsoft and Sony’s console teams. But that’s not exactly what happened.

Sure, games are coming to Apple TV. In fact, the way in which games are coming to Apple TV is pretty cool. But Apple TV is not a gaming-first platform, and it’s not a console killer.

Apple TV is a set-top entertainment platform with apps and gaming capabilities, not a gaming-first app-enabled console. And that’s an important distinction. It’s not about to threaten consoles or gaming PCs, and probably not even gaming on iPhones. If Apple TV is going to capture any portion of the gaming market, it will be casual gamers and even then, inspiring those  who game to put down their phones and pick up the Apple TV remote to play may be a tall order. Apple TV may very well upset the likes of Fire TV and micro consoles, but it’s difficult to see it posing much of a threat to robust gaming systems when it itself is very much…not.

To put it bluntly, customers won’t turn up in droves to purchase Apple TV for the games; they’ll come for the interface and for the video content. For the foreseeable future, Apple TV will remain what it has always been in the eyes of the market: a set-top box for primarily Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, etc. Now, it’s just better. More powerful, more versatile, more searchable and stuffed with more content and apps, some of which happen to be games.

In all likelihood, people will indeed play games on Apple TV, but the gaming experience seems to be one designed around brief and social gaming, not prolonged and immersed console-style gaming. Games like Crossy Road, with its multiplayer functionality and the intentional brevity of its experiences, are well-suited for incidental social and casual gaming, and for exactly that reason, a perfect fit for a set-top box that lives in your living room. Apple TV feels very much like a platform that’s built for casual and social gaming experiences, from the simplified game mechanics to the intuitive and very uncontroller-like controller.

Apple TV’s default controller is its remote–the same remote you use to turn the volume up and down and flick through your Netflix queue. Equipped with an accelerometer, gyroscope and touch surface that acts as a directional pad, the new remote is powerful and kind of makes you wonder why every other remote you own is so big when it does so little. The Apple TV remote works much like the Wii remote of yore, interpreting speed, direction, and motion as you move it around in space to do things like swing bats and steer cars.

Third party controller and Apple TV remote
Third party controller and Apple TV remote

In addition to the remote, Apple is also opening up the platform to third-party controllers in what feels like something of an un-Apple move. Whether or not third party controllers become a popular part of the Apple TV gaming experience remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that Apple would welcome third parties into a revenue stream that it thought would be significant.

There may be games that will feel faster and more fluid on controllers. There may even be games designed around the idea of the controller experience on Apple TV. But for the most part, the controller experience will likely appeal to a relatively narrow crossover audience of “gamers who are familiar and comfortable with traditional console controllers” and “gamers who will buy Apple TV with the intention of gaming on it.” And really, that gets right to the heart of why Apple TV isn’t going to be console killer or the be-all, end-all of casual gaming or much of anything at all, really, in the traditional gaming space: because so-called “hardcore gamers” aren’t going to get excited about it.

Apple TV doesn’t have the titles to draw gamers to Apple TV and away from their consoles and PCs. While bringing previously console-only titles to Apple TV is a pretty big power move, console games are still a very different animal, and it likely goes without saying that Apple TV’s specs don’t hold a candle to the consoles when it comes to graphics and performance. Apple TV’s games are casual at their core, and limited space and third party app restrictions will likely mean that they’re perpetually on the “lite” side of the spectrum.

You aren’t likely to see too many existing iOS games ported over to Apple TV in a hurry, though. As 9to5Mac points out, the restrictions Apple’s placed on developers for Apple TV with regards to the use of local storage mean that many will have to completely restructure the way in which their games load content. Here’s the clause in question from Apple’s App Programming Guide for tvOS:

There is no persistent local storage for apps on Apple TV. This means that every app developed for the new Apple TV must be able to store data in iCloud and retrieve it in a way that provides a great customer experience.

Along with the lack of local storage, the maximum size of an Apple TV app is limited to 200MB. Anything beyond this size needs to be packaged and loaded using on-demand resources. Knowing how and when to load new assets while keeping your users engaged is critical to creating a successful app. For information on on-demand resources, see On-Demand Resources Guide“. 

That stipulation, paired with the restriction on app size, means that developers are going to have to do some serious adjusting in order to get their games on Apple TV. For the sake of context, the exceedingly popular iOS game Monument Valley packs a 261.9MB punch, and heavyweights République and Infinity Blade both weigh in at a hefty 1GB. Putting these games on Apple TV isn’t some kind of impossible feat, but restructuring asset loading will require developers to refactor massive amounts of code in order to make their games Apple TV-compliant.

In many ways, Apple TV’s gaming functionality seems like the antithesis to console systems. It’s all about shorter, social gaming, not the prolonged and immersive experiences often found in console games. And that’s okay. Consoles and Apple TV intentionally inhabit very different spaces within the gaming world. There are many ways to be a “gamer”, and many, many gamers prefer casual gaming experiences. The big question mark is whether or not casual gamers have any real desire to take their games from their phones and tablets to their televisions.

Maybe they will. Maybe Apple will find a way to make some money on that portion of the causal gaming market. Maybe we’ll see more games cropping up around the idea of social gaming with iPhones and the “remote controller.” Maybe it’s enough to be a set-top box with games that seem more like just another feature than a selling point. But any way you swipe, tap, or spin it, Apple TV is only a casual threat in the gaming space. For now.