Computers that are Televisions · Things That Are A Bit Like Other Things

More on Apple TV and games consoles

Further to my previous post: I’m used to thinking of iOS devices (iPhone, iPad) as undermining the PC. From that perspective, my response as a developer is partly skewed by frustration at seeing relatively open platforms replaced by more closed ones.

Thinking about an iOS device as an alternative to the games console—the classic successful closed-system consumer computing product—makes an interesting change. But it’s a perspective in which my response is also skewed, this time by general affection for Nintendo in particular.

The best-selling console worldwide at the moment is Microsoft’s Xbox 360. It has been around for roughly 7 years, unusually long in console terms, and has so far sold about 70 million units. (That’s perhaps 30 million in total behind the Nintendo Wii, which sold far more in earlier years but has now almost stopped selling. I believe that Xbox 360 sales are now also falling, though I can’t remember where I read that.)

Meanwhile, the iPad has been available for about 2 years and has so far sold… about 70 million units. An interesting coincidence.

Historically, it seems to have been the case that that technically successful improvements to input devices in gaming—joystick, D-pad, motion controls, touch, motion tracking, arguably even the ability to provide your own CD as soundtrack in the original PlayStation—have prompted significant increases in popularity.

Meanwhile, improvements to output devices—most obviously 3D, but also things like resolution and frame rate increases—seem to appear incrementally and be largely ignored. (Anecdotally: whenever my kids play with a 3DS, the first thing they seem to do is switch off the 3D.)

The Wii, Xbox 360 and iPad have all carried improvements in input technology over earlier games devices, but as with any technology in gaming, their success depends entirely on their use in fun games. The initial success and later decline in the market of the Wii’s rather basic motion control is well documented (it’s all about Wii Sports, right?). Kinect, for the 360, has sold around 19 million units and is probably also slowing in sales: is the natural size of the market limited, or does it just lack worthwhile games?

So, what happens next?

I pretty much admitted in my previous post that I don’t know how you drive an Apple TV. I’ve never seen one in action.

I assume that a version with apps would need to be controlled from an external iOS device. (Apple execs have talked quite convincingly in the past about the disadvantages of a large vertical touchscreen.) I’m guessing that this logic might be one of the inspirations for Nintendo’s forthcoming Wii U, which looks quite like a Wii controlled by an external iPad-like controller.

It seems hard to imagine why many people would consider buying a dedicated games console when they can have a device like an Apple TV box that plays up-to-date games with minimal fuss, is regularly upgraded, and presumably is supported by major games companies because of the potentially huge market ahead of it.

But it all depends on the input device.

What sort of compelling big-screen games are made possible by a touchscreen controller? They can’t be the same as the current touchscreen games. Those won’t benefit from any extra distance between controller and screen.

I don’t think I believe that Apple would launch an interactive TV without some understanding of how games will work to their best advantage. Games are a big deal, both on the iPad and in existing home entertainment contexts. What don’t I know?

2 thoughts on “More on Apple TV and games consoles

  1. I like dedicated stuff in my life, and I also like it when dedicated stuff does other stuff. I like a phone that is a phone but also does the internet too. I like a console that plays games but also lets me watch videos and play music. I like a computer less because it has too many options for my leisure experience and is too fiddly and reminds me of work. I’ve played around with Apple’s integrated lifestyle stuff – well iTunes, an iPhone and some Airport Express functionality and for the most part I find it a frustrating waste of time. I’ve don’t want my computer on all the time, I don’t want a dedicated NAS to hold my stuff, I don’t want to be able to control speakers with my iPhone. It all takes too much fiddling around and complexity. Streaming stuff over my heterogenous network is slow. I can pay Apple maybe 2.5k EUR to right this or I can just make do with what I have. I see the potential Apple gaming experience to fall into this trap – too many devices being forced to work together and not really succeeding. However for those on all Apple kit already perhaps it’s just an inevitability.

    To go back to the question though – I think using iPads/iPhones/iPods as controllers would work ok – of course it would. It will probably inevitably be incredibly fun too. I just don’t want to think about it.

    Apple have a lot more time to think and worry about it than I do. I sincerely hope it’s not compelling enough for me to have to go and buy one (an Apple TV) though or if also (inevitably) there is enough between gadget API to make it work without a centralised ‘TV’ concept. I’m resisting iPads but when a friend’s kid with one can make a simple and hilarious video of himself in next to no time you do kind of go “Oooh, cool” and for a fleeting moment the PC on your desk just looks like a dinosaur.

  2. I finally caved and got a tablet last week (mainly because I had a bunch of credit card points to redeem). It’s an Android Ice Cream Sandwich device, and it is definitely growing on me the more I use it. The main reason I got it, though, is to replace the aging universal remote that controls all the devices in my family room. Turning the lights up or down by swiping on a tablet has a nice ‘house of the future’ vibe to it, but it is arguably less easy to use than the old remote. There are plenty of apps out there that promise to allow me to remote control my media PC from the tablet, but I’m not sure any of them will work as well as the $40 mini-keyboard and trackball controller that’s also sitting on the coffee table. As I was playing a few rounds of Temple Run I found myself wishing for an old school micro-switch joystick instead of the onerous but oh-so-cool swiping.

    And then whilst I was fiddling around with the tablet cueing up Thor on PC, my son said “could we watch it on the tablet? that would be cool!” Cooler than watching it on the projector with the surround sound?

    I wrote a blog post a few months ago where I put forward the theory that the reason the iPhone was such a success was pretty much down to the acceleration curve on the swipe scrolling. It’s a “perceived quality” thing. The immediacy of the interaction and the illusion of momentum bypass our conscious mind (where we usually fumble about with user interfaces) and our unconscious mind goes “ooh – THING!” and because the illusion of physicality works we instantly “LIKE” the device because we subconsciously ‘understand’ how it works. It doesn’t matter that it is arguably less functional than the devices we had before. That and it’s shiny, of course.

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