The Appdroid Apocalypse is coming, and it poses a threat to the survival of the console business as we know it. Surviving, or better still, thriving, will require understanding the coming changes and changing business models in response. It won't be easy, and for some companies it may prove impossible. For others it's a huge opportunity. Either way, the Appdroid Apocalypse is arriving soon, and we'd all better be ready.
What is the Appdroid Apocalypse? The same App Store/Android Market that's busily eating up market share from the Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP is coming to a family room near you. The Apple TV and the Google TV will eventually offer the same gaming apps that you find on iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch and Android, but they'll be played in your family room. Yeah, the same place your console is plugged in. These apps, numbering in the tens of thousands, cost an average of less than $1.50. Thousands of them are free, or free-to-play. The most expensive ones are still under $10. The Apocalypse part is where this new console business turns the existing console business into a scorched wasteland... or at least, a market where sales are declining from year to year rather than growing.
Whoa, wait a minute, you say. That's not what Apple TV does... Apple hasn't said anything about offering Apps on Apple TV. Sure, and they didn't do that for the first year of the iPhone, either. Everything is there to make it happen; the new Apple TV runs on iOS, after all. You think maybe Apple hasn't noticed they've made a billion dollars selling Apps? Or the potential of selling a few billion more in family rooms? Apple can flip a switch and turn on an App Store for Apple TV at any time. They probably just want to get everything ready for the launch, so they can hit the ground running. It could happen soon, or they could wait a year. But it's going to happen.
Google is in a similar place. They see how much action they've gotten from the Android market, and how Apple has done with the App Store. Does Google want to lose the family room to Apple? No way.
One thing Apple and Google have in common is that neither one particularly cares what happens to the traditional console business. Gee, Microsoft might lose a lot of money? A happy side effect of Apple and Google's plans.
Where's the evidence for this Apocalypse? Let's look at the numbers. Android phones are now being activated at the rate of 200,000 per day, according to Eric Schmidt. Combined, Android (8.5 million through 2009) and Apple smartphones (according to this report) will be in excess of 150 million by 2012, and with iPod Touches and iPads, along with Android tablets, it may be well over 250 million units (Gartner Group projects over 100 million tablets sold in 2012). Compare this to an installed base of 132 million DS units as of June 2010; that's likely to grow by another 15-20 million units by 2012, but that still leaves it about half the size of the iOS/Android installed base.
Nintendo's DS business is faltering; both hardware and software sales are down (43% and 23% over the last six months). The 3DS is coming next year, but it will likely be $250 to $300, and it still won't have a business model akin to Android or Apple's relatively open markets. There are over 300,000 Apps in the App Store, and the Android app market has hit 100,000. By comparison the DS has in the low thousands of titles, and many are no longer available because you just can't find a cartridge. All of the apps are always available, since there is no physical inventory.
At least 25% of those apps for iOS are games, and the average price is around $1.50. Thousands of them are free, and many are free-to-play. Apple and Google are integrating advertising into their platforms, which promises to keep game prices low as publishers can make money from ads. Freemium business models, such as used in social games like Farmville, are wildly successful (to the point where Zynga is looking at $1 billion in annual revenue by 2012); this is not a model planned for consoles. Nintendo has some 241 downloadable titles available for the DSi, but they are mostly $5 or $8 (and the DSi is a small part of the overall DS base). Nintendo is careful to preserve its retail business by keeping retail titles out of its download store. They saw what happened when Sony introduced the PSPGo, which offered no way for retailers to take a cut from software sales since it was all downloads.
The handheld videogame business is rapidly being outsold by Apple and Google, and the trend will accelerate. Sony has done pretty well with the PSP (over 50 million sold) but it has paled in comparison to the DS and the iPod; their attempt to get into the future of the business with the PSPGo (which used digital distribution) failed miserably as a high price and massive retailer pushback doomed the device. They may try again with the PSP2, but they'll have to innovate with their business model to find a way to get retailers to support digital distribution (Sony also needs to get their internal music and movie units onboard, which also promises to be a fight). Nintendo has come out squarely against the idea of digitally distributing core titles. The even more fundamental problem is that Sony and Nintendo offer devices that are only game machines, while Apple and Google offer devices with a wide range of functions. The greater efficiencies of scale mean that Apple and Google can put more and more power into their handheld devices at lower and lower cost, and they release new hardware on a yearly schedule instead of the 3 year or more schedule of Sony and Nintendo.
Now Apple and Google are poised to bring this business model innovation into the family room (here's an overview of their current offerings). You'll see an App store for the Apple TV and the Google TV, offering many different titles. Developers can easily release software without elaborate bureaucracy. There will be thousands of titles available at average prices an order of magnitude below standard console games.
These Google TV and Apple TV boxes will not be close to the power of current consoles; at least, not at first. But they'll be plenty powerful enough to run, say, Farmville. Or any of the thousands of games on iPhone or Android. Advertising will be built in, and free-to-play business models will be welcomed.
And this is how the classic console industry starts to decline. Does anyone think the last two years of declining sales have just been a fluke?
Do these things mean AAA console titles are obsolete? No, there will still be demand for them. But development costs have to be kept in check to make these titles consistently profitable. Mid-range titles are getting squeezed by lower sales and higher budgets, and there's only so many AAA titles the market can absorb.
Surviving the Appdroid Apocalypse means investing in new types of games and new business models. We're already seeing EA buying mobile and social game companies; Activision is talking about a subscription model for Call of Duty. It's a difficult task, though, to take a company mostly based around a 2-3 year development cycle for its games and completely change the way it approaches business. There will be wrenching readjustments along the way. Creating a steady flow of profits on free or 99 cent software is a huge challenge, and it will mean different development models.
It's not all bad news, though. The changes favor smaller developers who can more easily adjust to a new market of smaller budgets and shorter development times. The indie developer has many more possibilities opening up than seemed possible a few years ago.
It's also true that marketing becomes a huge issue when you're trying to stand out among tens of thousands of titles all competing for attention, and that will be a big problem for smaller developers. Developers of all sizes will have to be able to make a profit on a game that may be given away. Big publishers will have many advantages going into this market due to their size, audience awareness, and the amount of dollars they can throw at things. Small developers will have more of a chance to break through into a big market than they've had before, but it won't be easy.
We're all going to have to figure out out how to first survive, and then thrive, after the Appdroid Apocalypse. Because it's coming soon to a family room near you.