What Gamers Might Expect from Apple’s WWDC

Apple could turn out to be a silent juggernaut in the new console wars. Here's what gamers should look for from next week's WWDC.

As any Apple nerd already knows, WWDC (Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference) starts next week and while there is likely little chance of new hardware being announced (other than possibly new Macs), they will undoubtedly unveil the latest iterations of iOS and MacOS X. Why mention this on a gaming site? Because whether they intend it or not, Apple’s platforms are already among the leading gaming platforms in the world.

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Apple could turn out to be a silent juggernaut in the new console wars. And the next iterations of their major operating systems could unlock clues as to where they are heading. Before I explore and speculate on what Apple *could* do in the gaming space, let’s look at some of their advantages and disadvantages.

Apple’s advantages

  • Platform buy-in: In January of this year, Tim Cook reported that Apple had sold half a billion iOS devices to date. That’s double the total number of current-generation consoles sold worldwide (100 million Wiis, 75 million Xbox 360s, and 70 million Playstation 3s).
  • iCloud app and data syncing: Games and apps you purchase on one iOS device can be synced to any other that you own. Data, like settings, documents, and saved games, can also be synced between those devices through iCloud.
  • Non-game content galore: Apple is by far the worldwide leader in digital music and video. All of the major streaming players integrate with iOS, and several also integrate with the Apple TV as well.
  • AirPlay: Currently a low-key sleeper feature on both iOS and Mac, AirPlay has the potential to make the Apple TV a full-fledged console powerhouse with just a few tweaks and developer traction.
  • The App Store: The App Store model can be great for indie developers. Instead of needing to find a publisher to promote and sell their game, developers can get a game on the App Store for the low price of an Apple Developer account ($99 a year + 30% of every sale). Apple then handles the storefront, payment processing, and some degree of the marketing (if the developer is lucky enough to be promoted).
  • 500 million customers: Game developers who want to get their game in front of the most people should take note of Apple’s account base of roughly 500 million customers (many of whom have credit cards or iTunes gift cards tied to their account). That account base is the second largest of any single company. Facebook tops them at one billion, but almost definitely has a  smaller number of credit card data on file. The third-place competitor Amazon clocks in at around 200 million accounts.
  • Cash hoard: Apple has well over 100 billion in cash to use at their discretion. To put this in perspective, Apple could buy Valve, EA, Activision Blizzard, and Nintendo at their current market caps without breaking a sweat. (Not that they would or should, but should they want to enter the gaming market in a big way, they could.)

Apple’s disadvantages

  • They’re not a gaming company. They don’t make exclusive game content or have deals with any big developers for exclusive content. The majority of games on iOS and Mac are either cross-platform or afterthought conversions. Gamers don’t see them (yet) as a viable primary platform for playing the newest and best games.
  • They’re not a services company. Nearly all of Apple’s profit comes from selling hardware – something the other major game hardware companies make almost nothing on. The quality and reliability of their web and software platforms leaves much to be desired, on the other hand. It’s not a good sign when a single indie game can take down their Game Center network. iCloud syncing is not the most reliable, with many apps choosing to use third-party services like Dropbox to sync data instead.
  • Apple is seen as a fickle gatekeeper. Their App Store for apps and games is powerful and broad, but lies behind their approval gates. Developers have to rely on Apple’s approval to get games in front of users. (This is true of other platforms, but Apple has more publicly struggled with the stigma of being a stingy gatekeeper.)
  • App/game discovery through the App Store is … problematic. Apple’s App Store is abyssmal for discovering good content unless you happen to see something when it is featured. Every few years, they tweak it visually but this doesn’t really help the experience of uncovering games or apps that are old, obscure, or even slightly out of the popular eye.
  • Touch interfaces are great for certain types of games, but awful for complex or fast-paced first-person games. You won’t see the full versions of World of Warcraft, League of Legends, or Half-Life 3 on iOS anytime soon. You may see vastly simplified knockoffs, though.

What gamers should look for at WWDC

Improvements to AirPlay

Honestly, AirPlay doesn’t even need major improvements, as much as it needs more visibility and simplicity in implementation. The current implementation seems mostly focused on serving plain video to an Apple TV; for games to be more attractive overAirPlay, integration needs to be more obvious and simple. On top of that, Apple needs to evangelize the hell out of this to game developers and then do a better job of promoting the games that support it.

Improvements to Game Center

The writing is on the wall for Game Center’s dated UI, but it needs other improvements as well. It’s not easy to discover and connect with friends unless you already know their username or their Apple ID is already in your address book. Make it easier to connect with friends through other social networks. Game Center should be the starting point for finding new games, playing games, and perhaps even meeting other players with similar interests. Give players a web interface to share their interests, achievements, and games with other players on social networks, through email, and more.

Improvements to iCloud syncing reliability

This is a no-brainer for improvement across all of their platforms. That it’s not incredibly reliable and robust already is perhaps the single biggest developer complaint. Any improvement would be good, but a measurable and sustained dedication to making iCloud a real, viable solution for data portability could go a long way to convincing developers to build their own apps and games on top of it.

Improvements to Apple TV

Apple TV may just be a hobby for Apple currently, but it’s pretty clear that the living room is a huge market. There’s plenty of room for them to expand, and lots of opportunity to integrate with their other platforms (Mac, iPad, and iPhone). Improvements in input devices, an App Store, and system-wide search and content browsing could take the Apple TV from hobby to a fourth spoke on the Apple product hub.

Pie in the sky hopes

A game-specific development tool for developers

Pure speculation, but what if Apple made a powerful IDE and frameworks specifically for building games separate from XCode. Something that even novice developers could use to create games – akin to their iBooks Author tool, but for publishing games. This is very unlikely, but it would be interesting to see.

App availability for Apple TV

The moment the Apple TV has an App Store is the moment it is no longer a hobby for Apple. I wouldn’t expect to see this at WWDC, but I think it’s clearly coming in the next year or two. This moment is also the moment that Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo fear most (along with the cable providers).


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