Should Nintendo fear the Apple juggernaut?

These days, when people aren’t talking about the Apple Tablet, they’re talking about how Apple’s next target is the Big Three gaming companies. The iPhone will topple them! iPhone is a revolutionary gaming device! Well, certainly a little optimism is warranted; the iPhone has inarguably changed the landscape of mobile phones, personal media players, and to a lesser extent personal computers. Why shouldn’t Apple extend its holy sovereignty to gaming?

It already has, in fact. But Apple has come kicking and screaming the whole way. The iPhone, you understand, was not meant to be a gaming device, and in Cupertino, Apple’s intentions are paramount. Apple could never accidentally create a platform for gaming; if it wasn’t meant for gaming (or enterprise, or medical use, or reading e-books, etc.) from the beginning, Apple doesn’t want it happening at all. Because if Apple didn’t intend it, it’s outside of the bounds they set into the platform (regardless of how well it works, much like tethering) — it breaks the mold and, ironically, that’s the last thing Apple wants.

gatedIt’s no secret that the Apple ecosystem is a gilded cage. It’s a nice cage, and large, and yes indeed that gilding is very attractive by Jove, but all the doors are shut until Apple opens them. If you think otherwise, you’re probably already scrawling some crude flame in the comment section below. Thank you for your insight. Really, though: Macs are a carefully-tended walled garden of semi-delights (to mix several metaphors), and that’s part of why they’re so good at what they do. Attempts at expanding the garden have been made in fits by Apple, with varying success. Serious music production has never really caught on, nor scientific or medical applications, and any real expansions (personal media, mobile, and video primarily) have been engineered by Apple and not third parties. Why should it be any different for gaming? If Apple doesn’t do it, no one will. And Apple’s not going to do it.

But this is all getting rather vague. There are more substantial objections to an Apple expansion into gaming than my half-baked theories on their corporate philosophy. I’ll just enumerate them here in list form. I’m using the iPhone as the basis for these, but the points apply to the tablet without serious modification.


The iPhone isn’t a gaming machine. It’s a smartphone. This produces limitations which are for some invigorating, and for some troublesome. For instance, you’ll never see a decent platformer on the iPhone. FPSes are awkward. RPGs take up too much space. You’re essentially limited to casual games and things like tilt-to-control racers. There are some notable exceptions; John Carmack loves the platform, for instance, and will probably be making some interesting stuff. The iPhone may be suitable for some games, but it wasn’t built for them, and that makes a difference for Apple.

Part of the hardware objection, but worth noting on its own, is the fact that battery life would be off-the-charts bad. How long can you really play a high-quality title on the iPhone? An hour maybe, before you’re down to 25% battery? Remember this is also your lifeline to email, the web, and so on. Unlike a DS, you can’t afford to let it run down. A portable game system needs to be as efficient as it can, and the iPhone is already an energy hog. No one wants to be tethered to an outlet to play their favorite handheld. And the thing already explodes when you use it too hard.

A few developers are putting out real iPhone games, but where is your Valve, your CryTek, your Rockstar? These are the people who make AAA titles that sell millions and make billions. Ubisoft may outsource some company to make a little Assassin’s Creed 2 clone to cash in a bit on the mobile contingent, but it’ll just be a way to sell the real game. They’re not going to spend $50m to develop a truly amazing game for the iPhone. No one will. Hardly anyone does as it is for existing handhelds (Dragon Quest IX notwithstanding). Apple could align itself with developers, but my feeling is they wouldn’t mix well. Apple is pretty much oil to their partners’ water to begin with due to their iWay-or-the-highway (clever, no?) approach to “collaboration,” and I don’t think that the major game studios would take a shine to it either.

Do you see people hitting that “purchase” button when a game costs more than $10? Neither do I. Real games cost upwards of $40-50 when they come out. That won’t fly in an App Store or iTunes environment, where the emphasis is on multiple small, easy-to-swallow buys.

Apple doesn’t do games. They don’t put out games, they don’t make it easy to play games, they don’t encourage developers to make games for their platform. This is the last time Apple and Mac users were excited about games:
Seriously. Ever since the Great Halo Disappointment, nobody has considered Apple’s gaming enthusiasm as being anything other than a lark. Meanwhile, Nintendo is so completely identified with games that one implies the other in almost any context, Microsoft is hard at work building a gaming platform that dovetails with their entire ecosystem, and Sony is actually gathering steam with the PS3, as its lower price leads more people to find that it actually might be the most powerful and versatile system on the market. Apple struck at mobile phone makers when they were at their most complacent and vulnerable; gaming consoles and companies are stronger and more successful than they’ve ever been. It would be an insanely bad time to take a swat at them.

Pop quiz: what game had the most lucrative launch of all time? If you answered Modern Warfare 2, an extremelyviolent and graphic game being accused of turning kids into terrorists, then you are correct! Apple is already choosy when it comes to what appears on its devices, and the kind of ultraviolence that sells games probably isn’t going to fly. Apple isn’t as positively warm and fuzzy as Nintendo usually is, but it would be a pretty major shift to start pushing games like MW2.

applecashThey don’t want to
Don’t you think that if Apple had any inclination to make the iPhone or Mac into a gaming platform, they’d have at least shown a little of that by now? Where’s the gamepad accessory for the iPhone? Why isn’t Apple courting the big developers to get some titles on Macs? There’s no indication that Apple is interested in games except as a class of apps to take a cut on. Almost all game development so far has been driven by the “there’s gold in them thar iPhones” mentality.

They don’t need to

This readership more than any other should be aware of Apple’s solvency in this worldwide financial crisis; indeed they have thrived mightily. The iPhone shows continual growth, they gain a tenth of a point of OS market share every month or two, and they’re making money hand over fist via iTunes and the App Store. Why the devil would they want to get into gaming, a market that would expose all the company’s weaknesses, bring their best hardware to its knees, and complicate their entire strategy — one which is working perfectly? I’m not saying that Apple doesn’t like to rock the boat, but they don’t do it when they stand a good chance of being thrown in the drink.

There you have it. Of course, with my luck, Apple will probably announce a huge gaming initiative tomorrow.

All that said, Apple does have an increasing presence in gaming. It owes this in no small part to Nintendo, which has popularized casual and mobile gaming to a huge extent with the Wii and DS. The iPhone may take a bite out of the more casual games coming out for the DS, but beyond that I don’t see a major effect. And as long as it’s enough for Apple to make a few bills, they’re not going to try too hard to change that.