Sometimes new technology forces one to let go of old expectations that no longer apply. When we think of video games, we still tend to think of three categories: home consoles (like the PS3), mobile consoles (like the PSP), and, to a lesser degree, gaming PCs. During the last couple of years, though, a shift has taken place. The lines between all kinds of previously-separated categories are being blurred. And when you clear away the smoke and fog, you can begin to make out the shape of a giant Apple logo.
Since the iPhone looks the most like a portable console, it has gotten lumped into that category. Sony and Nintendo are fully aware that the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch are a threat to their PSP and DS lines. But what if that battle has already been lost? What if Apple has devoured the portable console market alive, and is now setting its sights on something bigger? What if Apple is about to overtake home console gaming – not by releasing a new console, but by advancing their iOS devices?
Two bits of news today stood out on this subject. The first was a press release by Apple, touting their milestone of 15 billion apps downloaded from the AppStore. The other news was a study by Nielsen that showed that games are the most-downloaded category of app on iOS.
Gaming has changed forever, and Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo had better watch out. Just like how the now-defunct Blockbuster was once synonymous with video rentals, these companies’ gaming empires could crumble while they cling to the past.
iOS’ Rapid Gaming Evolution
For the first two years of the AppStore’s existence, iOS (iPhone OS at the time) was home to thousands of casual games. Limited processing power kept more advanced games from showing their heads. Simple games that can be picked up and played for a few minutes at a time were the most you could hope for. Doodle Jump was an early standout, tower defense games like Field Runners flooded the market, and Angry Birds was the pinnacle. They were – and are – extremely popular, and they seemed to be the perfect match for a small touchscreen device.
Then, in 2010, three things happened that changed all of that: the first was that developers began to aim higher. The second was that the iPad released. The third was that the iPhone 4 released.
One of the earliest eyebrow-raisers was Rockstar Games’ iOS release of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. This critically-praised (but commercially-lackluster) title had previously launched on both the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP – but the iPhone’s version was arguably the best. In January of 2010, when the iPhone 3GS and 3rd gen iPod touch were the most cutting edge iDevices, having a game on iOS that matched the best of Sony’s and Nintendo’s portables was a big deal.
Then the iPad released. In it, Apple had a device that was bigger than a mobile device, yet was still portable. The iPhone 4 introduced the “Retina” display, which sported higher resolution than any other mobile device in the world (and still does, over a year after its release). Both featured a faster processor than previous iDevices.
With these two devices, a new era of iOS gaming development began. Quality iPad games were slow to arrive, but when they did (in the second half of 2010) they raised expectations of what iOS gaming could be. Titles like Infinity Blade, Dead Space, and the many console clones by Gameloft (see our in-depth look) showed that iOS gaming can not only crush the DS and PSP platforms, but it can begin to rival home console offerings.
Apple’s Winning Strategy
The most obvious advantage iOS has (despite its gaming hardware inferiority to the PS3 and XBOX 360) is cost. While this could change, iOS’ best console-level offerings all fall in the $10 or less range. Compare that with $60 for a PS3 game, and that alone is reason for many to switch. Also, many people already own iPhones and iPads. Why buy another device when the one they already paid for is a worthy substitute?
Some, however, will argue that there will always be a gap – that dedicated consoles will forever provide more gaming horsepower than Apple phones and tablets will. That could be the case, but it won’t be easy for the console manufacturers to keep it that way.
Apple upgrades their devices every year. One of the iPad 2′s biggest perks over the original was increased gaming capabilities. The next iPhone will likely pick up a lot of the same power. Apple could potentially keep doing this with every new release.
Sony and Microsoft, on the other hand, depend on a much-longer life cycle. They had a gentlemen’s agreement that this generation of home gaming systems would have a ten-year life cycle. They do this so they can sell cutting-edge hardware at a loss for the first few years – then make a large profit during the tail end. Yet we’re already hearing whispers of these two companies’ next generation systems. We can thank Steve Jobs for that.
Even if Sony and Microsoft were to cut their consoles’ life cycles down to six or seven years, how long would it be before iOS devices caught up? At the rate that they are advancing (and with Apple’s massive war chest for innovation), it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the iPad would only take a few years to catch up with, say, the PS4. And that is assuming that Sony could still make a sufficient profit on that shorter lifecycle.
Yes, iDevices still require touchscreen gaming, which many gamers are averse to. But do you really think Apple wouldn’t release a “magical” new controller that would be compatible with its phones and tablets? And have you heard about the new AirPlay capabilities in iOS 5? Everything you do on your iPad’s screen can be mirrored on your home TV set. If living room gaming is your thing, iDevices will soon do that too.
If all of this happens, Sony and Microsoft have nowhere left to run. They’re banking on their superior horsepower being their selling point. But the only way they can make powerful machines that turn a profit is by having long product cycles. If Apple is soon only a couple of years behind a new console release, gamers will gravitate more and more towards the iOS devices that they already have.
It’s an uphill struggle that Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo can’t win. Nintendo is already trying to adapt by planning a console that features a touchscreen controller. Whether that will help or not is unknown. But that kind of adaptive thinking is what it will require for these gaming leaders to stay dominant. If they don’t do that, expect them to be swept aside within the next decade.