In just a handful of years smartphones and their $1 apps have come from nowhere to become the world’s defacto handheld gaming experience, and the same shift could very easily take place in loungerooms. Along the way to becoming the world’s most valuable company, Apple has already radically reshaped the computer, music, mobile phone and tablet industries. It would be naïve to think the videogames console industry would be immune from similar change if Apple’s much-rumoured HDTV set, iTV, arrives in 2012.
Your humble mobile phone has compressed 30 years of gaming evolution into a mere decade, going from the basic days of monochrome Snake to current iPhone games like Infinity Blade II and Dead Space, which do an excellent job of aping the look and feel of dedicated handheld gaming experiences.
The biggest factors in iPhone’s gaming success have been price and accessibility. By bolting gaming functionality into a device people already carry, then letting them download $1 games quickly and easily through the device itself, smartphones provide a compelling impulse purchase that few can resist.
All you have to do is look at the lackluster sales and buzz surrounding Nintendo’s 3DS and Sony’s PlayStation Vita to get a sense of how hard traditional gaming has been hit by smartphones. In stark contrast to these lagging sales, take a look at the App Store download counter at apple.com as the numbers flick over in a blur. They were at 24.9 billion downloaded apps when I looked today.
I’m not saying that games on iPhone are better than their counterparts on 3DS and Vita. I think it’s safe to say 3DS and Vita games are twice as good as their smartphone counterparts. Asking consumers to pay $70 for a game that’s twice as good as a $1 game on iPhone is a big, big ask though, especially when you’re also asking them to purchase and carry a second device on top of the phone they already own.
It’s true that there have yet to be any concrete announcements about Apple’s iTV, but there are a lot of persistent rumours swirling, and Apple has a proven track record of keeping technology under wraps until it announces it one month and then starts selling it the next month. The iTV would certainly include its App Store, along with a more powerful chipset than we’ve seen in iPhones and iPads. This makes it all too possible for Apple to supply games that deliver experiences that are at least half as good as those on Xbox and PlayStation, but at a fraction of the cost, and without the need to buy a console.
It’s a fair argument that touchscreens aren’t able to match the dexterity of a dedicated controller, but it’s entirely possible Apple could sell a Bluetooth controller as an optional extra with its iTV. If consumers are able to choose from a massive range of enjoyable games, accessible as simple $1-5 impulse downloads, the argument for buying a dedicated console and paying $100 per game will become a tough sell for many people.
The PS3, Wii and 360 could well be the last successful dedicated home consoles. Apple and its impulse-purchase apps have already defined how we consume mobile entertainment. It’s not a big leap to imagine the same app economy defining loungeroom entertainment within a few short years.
By Naz Pattison - Naz is a gaming industry veteran and freelance journalist, who has worked as the editor-in-chief of IGN Australia, at the Official PlayStation Magazine, N64 Gamer and Game Informer.