This year is set to be one of the most disruptive 12 months ever for the games industry. Straight from the most fiery E3 conference for some time, we’re now just a few short months away from the next generation of gaming consoles.
But, rather than being all sewn up by Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s PlayStation 4 or Nintendo’s Wii U, it’s Apple who’ve just made the real game-changing gaming announcement.
iOS 7 for iPhone and iPad is set to introduce an official controller API.
Apple will now allow gamepads into the MFi program, which green-lights the sort of officially certified accessories you see lining the shelves of brick-and-mortar Apple Stores.
Two controller forms will be accepted: a “standard” model that offers a D-Pad, shoulder buttons and four face buttons, and an “extended” controller that adds an extra pair of trigger buttons and a pair of thumb sticks. Each can be a standalone controller that connects over AirPlay, or can act as a frame to house the iOS device, popping the controls either side of the screen.
On the surface it doesn’t sound like a major deal – we’ve already had iOS gamepads from the likes of iCade and Ion. However, without any standardised API blueprint to work against, games developers had to put the effort in to optimising their titles for each manufacturer’s unique hardware control system. For many games devs, it just wasn’t worth the extra hassle to add support for a controller that only a few thousand people (at best) may own, especially when the iPhone and iPad’s touch controls worked out fine. But with the introduction of a standardised API, whatever Apple-certified gamepad you buy going forward from the release of iOS 7 will adhere to a unified design, a single system that any game dev can easily add support for.
For years now we’ve been told that the console business will die out as more and more “casual” gamers turn to the devices in their pockets for their gaming thrills instead. But this has left the “hardcore” gamer, those that prefer their adventures delivered with buttons and thumbsticks instead of swipes and taps, out in the cold.
With the introduction of a standardised controller, the iPad can now be considered a genuine portable hardcore gaming console, among its many other techy roles.
And the hardcore gaming experiences for iOS devices are now coming in thick and fast. The recently released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic port went down a storm, while the likes of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and the Modern Combat series are as far removed from the likes of Angry Birds as is possible.
Again, console stalwarts will point to the fact that some of the “hardcore” titles I’ve highlighted here are ports of older console titles. But with the knowledge that a traditional controller is now available to work with, more console-like games will certainly make their way to Apple’s devices, perhaps even day-and-date iPad editions of games that would once have been the reserve of Sony and Microsoft’s consoles.
And, unlike the uncharted waters of the next generation of consoles, there’s already an installed iOS userbase of well over 500 million. 500 million! Of course, iOS 7 adoption is needed to support the gamepads, and older iOS devices won’t be able to run iOS 7. But if even just under half of that number update to the new version of Apple’s mobile operating system, that would eclipse even the mighty PlayStation 2’s 155 million owners. And in penny-pinching times, you’re not asking gamers to invest hundreds of pounds on new hardware, just in an inexpensive add-on for their already-capable device.
In terms of software, games like SW:KOTOR are proving gamers are willing to pay a premium for hardcore games on iOS devices, pushing app margins higher for developers. It’s a market struggling games developers can’t ignore.
Taking on the big three
Of course, this isn’t quite a fair fight when you look at the hardware; the Xbox One and PS4 will be able to deliver incredibly detailed worlds, verging on the photo-real, with experiences exclusive to their platforms.
But mobile graphics are catching up rapidly. Apple’s full-fat iPads already offer high resolution graphics through their Retina displays, and according to some mobile GPU vendors, the gap between mobile graphics chips and home gaming ones are shrinking.
Gamers are already turning against the Xbox One for what many feel are draconian anti-piracy measures. By encouraging digital downloads and licensed “ownership”, Microsoft are effectively chasing the model set by Apple’s revolutionary App Store. The difference of course is that people have accepted the App Store model, even if they can’t trade the items they purchase through it. In the App Store, Apple delivered a disruptive platform through disruptive devices – the iPad and iPhone. The Xbox One is looking to introduce disruptive ownership systems in a traditional console market, and the two just don’t gel together well in consumer’s minds. Apple’s App Store has succeeded, and with the 50 billionth app download confirmed on Monday, the Cupertino company are reaping the rewards. As are developers, who’ve pocketed $10 billion in the process.
But what of Nintendo’s Wii U, selling so poorly that games publishing powerhouse EA look to be ceasing development for it altogether, and that many developers feel is hamstrung by its relatively low specs? The API announcement is arguably the final nail in the Wii U’s coffin – with an integrated high resolution touchscreen and the addition of physical controls, what’s the iPad but a more powerful Wii U gamepad, minus a certain moustachioed plumber? If the console fails and Nintendo are forced begrudgingly to license their properties out to mobile platforms, Apple will be first in line to pick up the pieces, possibly signing up their own valuable exclusives, and Nintendo will finally have a D-Pad to guide Mario around with.
The big sell
The stickler of course will be pricing and marketing. A £50 iPad controller isn’t going to sell. A line of £10-£15 controllers though from multiple manufacturers, with Apple’s in-store marketing magic behind it? Bundled in with an iPad or iPhone (however unlikely that particular scenario seems)? Now you’re cooking with fire.
And then of course there’s the Apple TV – with this announcement you’re just a step away from pairing a controller with that and calling it the iGame.
Though a quiet announcement, Apple are now taking gaming seriously. And gamers should be taking Apple seriously now too.
By Gerald Lynch | June 13th, 2013