Apple's videogame future

Even the most blinkered of Apple skeptics will admit that the rise of the iPhone—and its close siblings, the iPod touch and iPad—as been nothing short of meteoric. Since the inception of the original 2G iPhone back in 2007, Apple has shifted an incredible 190 million units of its combined iOS range, making it one of the most successful platforms of the modern era, and the company recently overtook Google to become the most valuable brand in the world.

One area where Apple has enjoyed particular (and some would argue unexpected) success is in the distribution of games. The iTunes Store now boasts over 350,000 items available to download, a large percentage of which are focused solely on finger-friendly entertainment. Titles such as Angry Birds ( ), Fruit Ninja ( ), and Flight Control ( ) have sold in the millions, making gamers out of people who ordinarily wouldn't even dream of picking up a traditional controller, let alone purchase a portable console.

Apple's conquest of the interactive entertainment arena shows no sign of relenting, either. Recently, the company acquired the services of former Nintendo UK Head of Communications Rob Saunders and Activision's Nick Grange. While neither individual is involved explicitly with games development—their expertise lies in the field of public relations—such bold moves are nonetheless a clear indication that Apple is keen to take control of its own destiny when it comes to gaming, and could hint at a wider attack which will leave stalwarts such as Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft reeling.

While it's tempting to assume that Apple's fresh gaming-focused strategy is merely to buttress its existing portable iOS business, we believe the Cupertino-based company has something a little more dramatic planned. Apple is a company that is constantly looking to expand into new and fertile territory, and there's another equally profitable arena that is just waiting to be dominated: your living room.

Taking on the game consoles

Apple has made no attempt to conceal its desire to take control of our televisions; Apple TV ( )—a set-top box which grants access to movies, TV shows and music—may have experienced some teething problems, but it continues to be an ongoing venture for the firm. What better way of solidifying its future than by adding the ability to play games into that package? Or perhaps Apple is cooking up something even more drastic, such as a fully-fledged gaming system?

With the iPad 2 ( ), Apple certainly has the hardware to make such a daring move. The iPad 2's technological prowess is nothing short of incredible when you consider its svelte frame; already impressive iOS titles like Infinity Blade ( ) are given an additional layer of detail that approaches the sort of lavish imagery we're accustomed to seeing on our Xbox 360s and PS3. With the current generation of iOS gaming arguably giving the Nintendo Wii a run for its money in graphical terms, an all-new Apple "console" based on the Apple A5 ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore CPU—which powers the iPad 2 and is expected to make its way into the next iPhone model—could easily be up to PS3/360 standard...or possibly even beyond.

In terms of raw specs, the A5 CPU offers twice the processing power of the previous Apple A4 chip, and is aided by a dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 graphic processor, which is a staggering nine times more powerful than the one seen in the current-generation iPhone. Players of Infinity Blade or Real Racing 2 ( ) will attest that iOS gaming is perilously close to matching the graphic standard set by the current crop of home consoles. Should Apple choose to augment the power of the A5 CPU further with an even stronger GPU and more RAM, this intimidating configuration of hardware could be put to very good use inside a home console or set-top box.

It's undeniably exciting to hypothesize what such a platform could potentially be capable of, and more importantly, what innovations Apple could come up with. The recent E3 reveal of Nintendo's Wii U touch-screen controller (itself not too far from an iPad in terms of design) indicates that such an interface could have a bright future—and in the case of an Apple console, this could be achieved effortlessly by allowing you to connect your iPhone or iPod touch via either a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Those of you irked by constantly having to feed your Wii Remote or 360 pad fresh batteries every few weeks will no doubt welcome a scenario where you need only take out your perennially juiced-up mobile phone to interact with your home games console.

The App Store advantage

There are other interesting elements to consider when speculating about such a machine. Industry experts are keen to point out that the era of physical media is slowly but surely coming to a close, and services such as Valve's groundbreaking Steam are revolutionizing the way in which we purchase video games. It's important to remember that Apple already has a robust online storefront in the form of the iTunes Store; they're perfectly positioned to capitalize on this new world of digital downloads.

A unified App Store that links your portable device, iPad, and games console could prove decisive in the home gaming arena. Both Sony and Microsoft would kill to have such a framework in place. What's more, such convergence would also allow you to play your favorite iPhone titles on your TV set—all with the assistance of your iPhone-based controller, of course.

And then there's the question of storage. Cloud computing is already becoming an integral part of our everyday lives, with companies like Google offering online email, photo and video storage that can be accessed via your phone or computer. Services such as OnLive and Gaikai are proving that streaming games across the Web is perfectly possible, and it's only going to become more feasible as cable networks become faster.

Although we can't see physical memory vanishing from games consoles quite yet, the promise of cloud storage is tantalizing. Sony already offers PS3 cloud-based saves for its PlayStation Plus owners, but Apple could deliver the opportunity to store entire games externally, bringing to an end the problem of full harddrives. The App Store has already spurned physical media, so why couldn't Apple break new ground by allowing you to store all of your purchases online, rather than on your system's drive?

Another plus point is that Apple wouldn't have to work hard to ensure that such a gaming system receives the appropriate amount of third-party support; such a machine would be virtually guaranteed input from all of the biggest developers and publishers, purely because they're already firmly behind iOS. Activision, EA, Sega, Konami, Capcom, Square Enix—these video gaming veterans have already taken a chance on Apple, and have reaped the benefits. And then there's a new generation of developers and publishers to consider; iOS stalwarts such as Rovio, Chillingo, and Gameloft have already created pocket-sized slices of gaming brilliance, and we're sure they're itching to prove they have what it takes to entertain on a larger scale.

It would be fair to expect such a console to continue the aggressive pricing strategy of iOS releases, although we doubt that the next Call of Duty would retail for anything close to 99 cents. Still, with expensive physical distribution channels gotten rid of and the promise of a potentially greater volume of customers, firms like Activision and EA may be convinced to launch their blockbusters for way below what is currently accepted as the norm for physical copies.

Just as Apple has torn up the rulebook on pricing in the mobile arena, it could easily do so again with a home console. When faced with the option of buying a PS3 or 360 and then having to shell out $50 or more on a new game, the notion of an Apple console with sub-$9.99 releases could prove irresistible to the average consumer.

Beyond games

As we've touched on previously, Apple's set-top box vision may not solely be about gaming. Just as the iPhone and iPad have effectively become all things to all men (not to mention women and children), a home entertainment center linked to an iOS-style App Store could offer almost boundless possibilities. You could use it to create a podcast using GarageBand, edit home movies using iMovie, or simply check out some tasty recipes using one of the many cooking applications.

While these activities may sound mundane compared to blowing away pesky terrorists in the latest modern combat epic, consider the broader appeal; just as the Nintendo Wii has created a whole new generation of gamers with its wide-reaching approach, an Apple console could go way beyond just being a mere gaming platform and could become the centerpiece of your living room in the same way that the iPhone has become the mobile focal point in the lives of millions of people worldwide.

Of course, what we're suggesting here is nothing more than conjecture, but we'd be shocked if Apple wasn't watching the highly lucrative home gaming market with envious eyes. With Nintendo's Wii successor now officially unveiled and Sony confirming that development of the PS4 is well underway, the opening salvos of a new next-gen war are about to be fired. What better time for Apple to steal the thunder of its gaming rivals by confirming a new, all-in-one set-top box capable of sating all of your multimedia needs: music, TV, movies and—possibly most importantly—games?

[Damien McFerran is a freelance games writer. He maintains The Mean Machines Archive and Nintendo Life.]

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