The new Apple TV may not be a console rival right now, but the big picture could tell a different story
The new Apple TV is the biggest evolution of the product so far, bringing new hardware along with a new iOS-based platform, with some casual multiplayer gaming to boot. Though the set-top-box isn't yet a full-fledged console competitor, does it still have the ability to disrupt living room gaming?
The new Apple TV is an entirely different beast from the Xbox One and PS4, and Apple isn't (yet) framing it as a direct competitor. In terms of raw power, the hardware doesn't come close to those current-gen consoles and, while third party MFi-based controllers are supported, the default controller solution (you either use the remote or an iPhone or iPod touch) isn't geared towards console-style gaming.
tvOS games will be be based on iOS games, with developers either porting their existing games over or creating entirely new titles designed for the living room. Mobile gaming is inherently casual, and has proved massively successful, and we've seen casual console gaming do well in the past, most notably with titles like Wii Sports on the Nintendo Wii.
On the other hand, we've also seen attempts to put mobile gaming on the big screen lead to disastrous results, most notably the hotly anticipated but ultimately half-baked Android-running Ouya micro console. There are similar products out there, including the Nexus Player and Amazon Fire TV, that add the option of playing mobile games on the big screen, but none of them have created anything remotely close to a living room gaming revolution.
What makes Apple's product different? It's about the strength of its mobile gaming ecosystem.
Despite Android's gaming improvements in the last few years, it's hard to deny that iOS gaming still has a leg up. One prime example is of one of the year's biggest mobile games, Fallout Shelter. The title was announced by Bethesda at E3 in June, and launched on iOS the same day, but has only recently made its way to Android.
Widely staggered releases like that aren't unusual, and we've seen plenty of other high-profile games, like the Infinity Blade series, that remain iOS exclusive.
Motion controls are another aspect that we caught a glimpse of during the demo of tvOS exclusive title Beat Sports. The game, which tasks players with timing swings with the Apple TV remote to hit projectiles, was strongly reminiscent of something you might have played during the Wii craze that peaked around 2007-2009. The system, and its unique (at the time) motion controls dug its claws into the casual gaming market and sold like hotcakes, shipping more than 100 million units in its lifespan.
Casual gaming has since moved to mobile screens, but it's easy to see a scenario where the App Store's casual gaming dominance reinfects the TV. For one, you can't get your whole body into a casual iPhone or iPad game.
Speaking of getting your body into the game, we wouldn't be surprised if Apple were cooking up some VR behind closed doors (the company has already been granted at least one VR-related patent). With many expecting virtual reality to be the next big thing in gaming and entertainment, perhaps the new Apple TV is laying the groundwork for a future Apple VR headset, to take on the likes of the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus.
Universal game purchases could also play a big part in this equation. If the system sells well and enough key mobile game developers make their titles tvOS compatible, new Apple TV owners who are already iOS users (we'd bet that would be the vast majority) could find themselves with a host of titles that already work on the big screen, without having to pay another dime.
In that sense, the Apple TV could be a sleeper hit in the gaming world; not a direct attack on consoles, but an indirect, slow-burning one. The new Apple TV's entertainment chops are its biggest asset right now, with a crisp-looking interface, deep Siri integration and content pages that collate all the areas on the device where you can watch a TV show or movie, be it iTunes, Netflix or elsewhere. Apple's presentation at yesterday's launch event was focused almost entirely on these aspects.
While users won't necessarily pick up the little box because of its gaming prowess, those that pick it up for streaming may, at some point, try it out for gaming. Once they realize how many games in their iOS library are compatible (assuming universal apps become the norm), these users could gravitate towards playing them on the big screen, and perhaps start picking up additional tvOS titles down the line.
This is often how Apple operates: pitching a product for one purpose, while it more gradually and stealthily invades other areas.
Before yesterday, Cupertino's presence in the living room was still somewhat of a "hobby," but the new Apple TV is the company's first full-tilt assault on the living room. Though Apple isn't directly gunning for Microsoft and Sony, give it a few years and we may look back and see this as a first step in a longer-term plan to disrupt their status quo.