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The Apple iBox: What Would It Take?

by Matt Allmer on 05/06/09 05:00:00 am   Expert Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

So there you have it. Apple has tantalized us with speculation that Apple may be working behind the scenes to position themselves as a game development powerhouse. Even though they've dismissed the rumor of acquiring EA, there's no doubt Apple is focusing—at the very least—on strengthening their spot in the mobile games market.

But questions are, no doubt, moving their way to the front of our minds: Do we see the Apple "iBox" in our future? Will we be burning build discs within an Apple Games dev environment? We already have Apple fanboys, is there room amongst the Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft faithful?

So, what would it take?

Setup (Double Click)
First, let's take a look at Apple's current status and the gaming industry's current barometer readings…

Apple Inc.'s status at a glance. What industry pies is Apple partaking of?

  • Entertainment Retail: Music, TV Shows, Movies, Podcasts, etc.
  • Mobile device manufacturing: iPhone, iPod touch, shuffle, etc.
  • Computer manufacturing: Macs and Mac Pro lines
  • Software development: iTunes, iLife, Final Cut Pro, Safari, etc.
  • Software platform development: Mac OS X
  • Business Solutions and networking: Time Capsule, Xserve, OSX Server
  • Entertainment hardware: Apple TV
  • Rumored: Chip-making
  • Rumored: Core Games
The gaming industry at a glance… 
  • Microsoft, Nintendo & Sony rule the roost
  • Online & social gaming is booming
  • Product cycles for consoles and gaming hardware is speculated to be longer and less frequent
  • Exclusive and/or 1st-party titles are crucial but seem to be decreasing
  • 3rd-party titles are key to long-term success
  • I've divided the industry into 4 primary game markets: Console, Mobile core (handheld), Mobile casual (phone), PC core and PC casual (online/social)

For the sake of focus, I left out console casual (Xbox LIVE arcade), serious games, viral, alternative reality and other qualified markets.

The first step in this road down the Apple Games rabbit hole is: What is Apple's current position in the gaming industry. Their previous claim to (meager) fame was Mac games. No longer. They have arguably shored up the once convoluted mobile phone games market with the Apple iPhone and sister device, iPod Touch. This has proven to be a very strong foot in the door.

Their current outreach to core game developers has, so far, been a renewed PC commitment with a loose EA partnership. More effectively, the iPhone SDK strategy has given Apple a viable relationship among game developers. The proof is the news of larger gaming companies taking a serious look at the iPhone platform.

Now, For the Real Fun: The Apple iBox
So, what approach is Apple most likely to take should Steve Jobs one day appear at a GDC press conference? What specs would the Apple iBox have?

Console Operating System
The easiest guess for the OS is Apple's OSX platform. It's a no brainer. It would have the very familiar look and feel that Apple is famous for. Animations would be smooth, the graphics would be clean and polished. The stability would feel very much like any of your friend's MacBook Pro.

However, aside from it being heavily based on the OSX kernel. It would most likely have a striking resemblance to iTunes. Of all of Jobs' applications, the one that is most familiar to consumers would be the media retail/management software. That leads to…

Distribution and Sales
Many in—and out of—this industry has predicted the future of media distribution being fully-digital. The days of discs and memory cartridges are numbered. But I don't think a company like Apple would place all of its eggs in a speculative basket. Instead, it would look at what's been successful. This means a download/disc hybrid system with small, low-cost download strategies such as offering downloadable games in a similar way Sony offered some its games.

But there is still a demand for tactile game storage. To be successful and innovative, the iBox would need to cater to the 3 segments of today's distribution evolution…

  • Play discs for the aging yet all-important core gamer
  • Offer downloadable games for the cutting-edge, tech savvy gamer
  • "Broadcast" games to the new, upcoming gamer

It's very possible the 3rd option is one or two generations away from becoming a mainstay. After the announcement of OnLive at the 2009 GDC, I haven't heard but a peep from that very risky segment of the industry. I'm sure Apple is keeping a very close eye on this. So then, answering the question of downloadable content would answer other hardware questions such as…

Storage Space
One of the sticking issues for me when I download console content and add-ons is storage space. I would love to try out the process of downloading a full game to my console but that would take up a ridiculous chunk of my hard-drive. I'm not ok with a console that boasts the support of downloading full games but is not capable of storing my full library.

To solve this, the iBox would need to quell any storage worries with a capacity in the terabyte realm. The "Gig" has been good to us but the time of the "Tera" is inevitable. If the iBox is going to make a splash amongst the game enthusiast, a mention of the "T" word would certainly do it.

Controller
This is arguably the most crucial piece of hardware. It can certainly help bring in more interest (see Dual Shock) or scare many away (see Dreamcast, Jaguar or even Xbox's first controller). I can only hope the following is offered…

Motion detection has proven to be a great feature to attract the mainstream. For the iController, think WiiMotion Plus as standard but forget the asymmetrical design of a TV remote look-a-like and a peanut-shaped thumbchuk. For the sake of a more streamlined approach, the iControllers would be symmetrical. Think of splitting the X360 controller in half, reduce the number of buttons, give it WiiMotion Plus capabilities, which are also free of any annoying cord attachments.

Lest we not forget Apple pioneered the way for mainstream touch screen input. It's not much of a stretch to see Jobs & Co. utilize this technology to their advantage. Might this fabled tablet have anything to do with Apple's long-term gaming strategy? Perhaps a boundary-breaking "media hub"? Sort of like a remote control for all things house-hold entertainment? Or even a "house remote". Play your music, sync your mobile devices, boot up your laptop or iBox, look up driving directions, schedule in soccer practice, turn on the coffee maker, dim the lights, etc., etc.

Target Market
And what about graphics card and processing? Addressing this question has recently defined a console's target market. Nintendo has gotten along very well without the latest and greatest in processing power, while PS3 and X360 game accumulate the most hype with pretty promo spots and hyper-real, buzz-generating visuals.

At this point, the safest approach Apple could take is a marriage between the two. Although, this would go against the tradition of Apple products looking the best and handling the most graphics-hungry content.

One the other hand, Apple is a master at accessibility in the software and user-friendly arenas. So, would Apple then take the next step in marrying both the core market and the casual, mainstream crowd? Only time would tell.

Networking
It's no secret, a solid networking base is very important if it's going to a spot next to the TV. Imagine, when you come home, you don't plug in your iPhone to sync it, it syncs wirelessly through your wi-fi connection to both your laptop and iBox! You can now check your email, calendar, videos and podcasts on either you laptop, iPhone or iBox.

Think of how the Wii lets you browse the internet via Opera: iBox's Safari. Check. Think of watching movies via Xbox LIVE! & Netflicks: Rent a movie via iBox & iTunes. Check. Listen to music? iBox accesses your iTunes library. Send videos of in-game footage with relative ease because the tools are based on iMovie. There's no longer a need to send console-exclusive messages if the console can access your email!

Of any company capable of making a gaming console, Apple has the biggest advantage in the networking arena. And on that note…

3rd-Party Development
…of all the companies capable of making a gaming console, Apple has a very big obstacle to over-come in the 3rd-party arena. The Cupertino firm is certainly not known for its open arms when it comes to non-Apple approved developers looking to make Apple-approved products. The key factor is creating products that meet the very stringent demands of "Apple-approved".

Two years ago, their public image was much more prune-y but the injection of the iPhone SDK has softened it to "begrudge-ened". They still have a ways to go if they plan to learn from Nintendo's current hump of creating an environment that emits 1st-party favoritism.

Other Lessons and Obstacles
Let's not get ahead of ourselves with all this hullabaloo about Apple being poised to take the gaming industry by storm. While such a powerhouse would certainly make a splash, a good number of shortcomings have the potential to sink their efforts.

The first of the 2 biggest obstacles I see is the attitude and culture the company is famous for. While it is very attractive to consumers, the development community often prides itself for being scrappy, intellectual adventurers on the hunt for innovation in less-than-pristine cracks and crevasses of society. This is a stark contrast to Apple's shiny ducks marching in a straight line as they proudly tote around their crossed T's and dotted I's.

The second obstacle is the history of Apple's high price points. If there is any lesson an aspiring console-maker can learn from, it's the buzz-killing power of an expensive gaming console, a lack-luster launch title line-up combined with a high-learning curve SDK environment.

The chances of the iBox having sub-par launch titles is high based on history. (Even established console makers struggle with a next-gen launch.) And the SDK will be unproven. So, it would be very wise to avoid any price point north of $350. And that would even be stretching it.

Shut Down
Speculation and debate aside, as a gamer, game developer, tech enthusiast and overall, multi-media junkie, the idea of Apple officially taking off the gloves and entering the gaming ring is definitely an intriguing one. Should they one day confirm such a scenario, it will be a promising day for gaming and I'll only hope they grab a hard hat, turn on a flash light and charge into the nooks, crannies and cultural crevasses with us.

Here's to hoping.

Matt Allmer
http://renderedvision.com


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