When Apple revealed the latest edition of its television brainchild, Apple TV, in September this year, it was not the A8 processor or new and improved “tvOS” operating system that caught the majority’s attention. Instead, what seems to be on many a critic’s (and new media devotee’s) lips is the groundbreaking addition of a bespoke touch base remote control, enabling the device to not only play back our favourite movies and series, but also double as a sophisticated gaming console. Its TV functionality aside, the new set up box enables users to open up their App Store, browse around a wide array of leading video game titles, and download them to immediately be played on the device. An effortless and cost efficient way to bring accessible, casual gaming into the global plethora of mainstream living rooms? I am not so sure.
The new Apple TV is by no means claiming to go head to head with dedicated consoles such as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but is positioning itself as a secondary games delivery system, possibly better described as a merger between an iPhone and Nintendo Wii. And as with Nintendo’s 2006 year console, Apple seems to aim at democratizing gaming; the company is to some extent simplifying the experience by eliminating complex set-up systems and difficult-to-maneuver button controls. What startles me, however, is the company’s revelation that the maximum size of an Apple TV app is restricted to 200MB. Not a controversial statement per se, but interesting considering that many AAA game titles are way beyond this limit. As a comparison, most top tier consoles are able to store more than twice the size of Apple TV’s total capacity and even the latest iPhone allows for apps over 200MB(1). In that sense, it is difficult not to question Apple TV’s functionality as a viable gaming platform and as a dedicated video games enthusiast, I can’t help wonder: what does this mean for the overall gaming experience?
Early this year, I penned a column on the often considerable difference, both in terms of price and quality, between console games and their smartphone counterparts. For example, I discussed how the structure, content, design and graphics often are significantly more developed on an Xbox than on an iPhone, making a console experience so much more immersive. Shortly thereafter, digital entertainment powerhouse, Nintendo, announced a partnership with fellow Japanese firm, DeNA, for the release of several new mobile games along with a dedicated online portal(2). Being that Mario and his fellow characters have long been off limits to all non-Nintendo gaming devices, the game structure carefully crafted to stay true to that of the brand, the move was somewhat unexpected and suggested that the company’s IP might make additional cameos outside of the Nintendo ecosystem going forward. In fact, the launch of mobile games could in extension mean that the company’s titles will be playable on the aforementioned Apple TV device, raising a significant question: how will this affect Nintendo as a business and the quality of its pet project, Mario, as a game?
Like Apple, Nintendo is a master of its own hardware; in my opinion, some of the very best games available on its systems are those developed by the Japanese powerhouse itself. My fondest Mario memories are all relating to the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) or the Nintendo 64, playing games that have ultimately redefined the franchise and saw (still sees) an array of varyingly successful imitators. In a way, The Mario franchise has always been a so called ‘system-seller’ – many consumers have bought its consoles as a direct route to Super Mario and his friends. As such, I can’t help at thinking that something fundamental goes missing when removing the game from its original Nintendo set-up. If a person’s first interaction with Mario is through an Apple TV or iPhone, will he or she develop the same fascination as I have with the iconic 30 year old franchise?
At the end of the day, I think it is important to remember that Apple and Nintendo are two fundamentally different companies with dissimilar views on gaming. Whereas the former has allowed games to be part of an enormous App Store, the latter has traditionally let the development of new game titles lead the entirety of its business. Therefore, it is not too farfetched to predict that an eventual Apple TV edition of Super Mario would be a watered down derivative of the original; perfectly playable but a far cry from top tier in terms of design, compatibility and function. At the same time, it is important to remember that a consumer’s expectation on a gaming experience is directly related to his or her perception of cost versus value. Whereas I am personally happy to go the extra mile for exceptional quality, others might regard the accessibility and simplicity synonymous with Apple the most important aspects when purchasing a game. Perhaps there is a place for Mario on both Nintendo and the new “tvOS” system, targeting different demographics with significantly different needs?
As a principle, I welcome all attempts to democratize gaming – in fact, I have no doubt I’ll join the considerable group of Apple TV owners within a not too far off future. Nevertheless, iconic franchises such as Mario will never become Apple ‘system-sellers’ for me, nor do I think they should be. As mentioned in my previous column discussing console games translated into mobile, it is important to remember that the titles that have been the most successful on the small screen are those that are viewed as complements to their predecessors rather than perceived as equals. So far, Apple is yet to develop any of their own gaming franchises but I hope that they eventually start creating independent ‘system-sellers’ that give new and existing gamers an added reason to buy and believe in their product. Even so, I don’t anticipate Apple TV to compete directly with top tier gaming consoles anytime soon. Rather, it is to be viewed as a secondary new media entertainment delivery system which has the potential to introduce gaming to those who are not willing to purchase a dedicated video games device. I will personally continue to enjoy Super Mario on its original platform, but that being said, the prospect of having a ‘Siri’ remote control maneuver App Store games like Flappy Bird sounds compelling in its own motion-sensitive controller way.
Dan Amos is Head of New Media of Tinderbox, the dedicated digital division of leading global brand extension agency, Beanstalk.
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