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Apple looms over E3 once again

It feels like Apple's hold on the gaming industry is stronger than it was the year before. Are traditional game companies finding themselves forced to play Apple's game?

James Martin/CNET

It's a rite of passage for every tech trade show.

Apple, the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, never has an official presence at shows like CTIA (mobile), CES (consumer electronics), and Computex (PCs). But if you read between the lines of the press conferences and press releases, every company at those shows is implicitly talking about -- and reacting to -- the latest Apple gadgets, new or anticipated.

And now, as we approach the annual E3 trade show, the focus naturally turns to Apple's role in the video game industry.

During E3 2011, we made an obvious observation that resonated in a chilly fashion with traditional gamers: one of the biggest forces in gaming has become Apple, and while the company doesn't attend the show, the shadow of its influence looms large.

Apple used to downplay its involvement in gaming, even when the iPhone was becoming the go-to destination for casual games that the Nintendo DS used to be. But at this year's All Things D conference, Apple CEO Tim Cook didn't mince words: "I view that we're in gaming now in a big way."

Really, Apple has been a force in gaming since the App Store opened its doors in 2008. The question asked repeatedly at last year's E3 was whether devices like the iPad have become the go-to gaming systems for many households over traditional consoles and handhelds, and whether the App Store's aggressive economy and freemium models of pay would influence the rest of the industry.

That's no longer a question anymore: they have. Even Nintendo doesn't deny it. But there's more that Apple has influenced, and will continue to influence.

Small games, big games
It was easier to defend old-school big-budget games with last year's bumper crop of excellent AAA games that clearly could never live on the App Store: Skyrim, Arkham City, Zelda Skyward Sword, and BioShock Infinite. It'll be easy to do that again this year, too, but the list of anticipated games doesn't seem as large.

What is a "big game"? There's no arguing the depth of gameplay in most AAA console and handheld titles, but the depth and quality of mobile games continues to grow. The recently released iOS game Air Mail feels like a stand-in for Pilotwings on the 3DS, and costs a fraction of the price. Meanwhile, classic console games are routinely released in the App Store, many going on sale for as low as a dollar.

Then there's the mindshare of popular culture in gaming: Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, and Where's My Water are the Space Invaders and Pac-Man of our age. There haven't been household gaming mascots from the Big Three console makers since Master Chief, Kratos, and Super Mario.

Online gaming, redefined
Console and PC gamers think of "online games" in terms of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs, such as World of Warcraft) and group-friendly shooters like Call of Duty. But that's an increasingly narrow definition. On smartphones, "online gaming" is Draw Something and Words With Friends. Think that doesn't matter? Zynga's made a fortune off that online connectivity, and plenty of companies like Popcap exploit Facebook Connect to share scores and other data.

The best online gaming platform for most casual gamers has become their phones. Apple and its App Store are leading that charge more than anyone. Comparatively, it's hard for handhelds like the Vita and 3DS to compete.

Casual games, casual controls
Why do video game industry enthusiasts bristle when mentioning Apple? Maybe because gaming on Apple's iOS devices involves a less-than-ideal touch-and-gesture control scheme, leaving button-based games settling for lousy virtual control pads. Apple's always only a physical control pad away from suddenly making a lot of iOS games just as fun to play on an iPad as they would be on a console. The iCade and its spin-off controllers lack analog sticks and universal support, but try one and you'll see the difference.

Meanwhile, the rest of the video game industry, as of the past few years, is meeting Apple halfway with motion-based games and touch games that avoid old-fashioned controllers. Everything from the Vita to the Wii U and Kinect is trying to reach that casual-gaming market that Apple has dominated.

Developers like lots of customers: The iOS pull
I remember attending an EA event showcasing Mass Effect 3 and its iOS spinoff, Mass Effect Infiltrator, last winter. Someone in the crowd asked when this would hit the PlayStation Vita. The EA employee admitted that wasn't currently in the plan. EA, in many ways, is a console and mobile-gaming force, splitting efforts between big console games and a ton of iOS and Android development houses it's acquired. Some of EA's games do hit the Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita, but the focus on mobile has become massive. So, too, with companies like Square Enix, Namco, Sega, Capcom, and many other traditional game publishers. Many of these games are no longer ports of existing titles, but newly developed original titles.

The money's where the largest platform is, and right now that's Apple's iOS. Yes, Android has a larger user base, but thanks to fragmentation -- tons of different phones, with a range of screen dimensions, CPUs, and graphics hardware -- it remains a tougher platform on which to create games. By comparison, the iOS world is one of nearly identical iPhones and iPads -- as streamlined a development platform as there is.

Apple TV and the inevitable apps
I say inevitable because it seems utterly obvious. The Apple TV is an iOS device. Every other iOS device has apps. At some point, the switch will be flipped: apps will be available for some TV-connected Apple device, or a separate Apple TV. (If the rumors are to be believed, that could come as soon as this month.) When that happens, Apple will have games for a TV-connected device. That means Apple will have a gaming console.

Tim Cook may say Apple has no interest in traditional gaming consoles, but he did admit that gaming on a TV would be "interesting." App developers might have lots and lots of interest. Game developers, not Apple, turned the App Store into an Apple gaming powerhouse. That same software development wave, from thousands of hungry and creative individuals, will do the same for Apple in the living room. You might not get Halo and Uncharted per se, but you could get something awfully close based on the already considerable power of Apple's A5 and A5X graphics.

Apps have drifted into the console market: the Xbox 360 has a slew of video and social apps, and so does the PS3. The PS Vita adopts the same grid-of-apps layout as a smartphone, and so does the Nintendo 3DS. Having good apps as well as good games has become part of the equation for any gaming hardware, and this year's E3 is bound to unveil new app partnerships.

Of all the Big Three gaming companies, Microsoft looks best set to compete: it's a computer company, too, like Apple, and has roots in PCs and mobile phones. Microsoft is an expert at software and user interfaces. The Xbox dashboard, Windows 8, and Windows Phone are already spiritually converging with a very similar "Metro" interface, and with the Kinect in place, an app-equipped 360 could be a true competitor to the Apple TV.

One new thing
Apple launches new hardware every year. The gaming industry can't match that pace. Does it need to? I love being able to play new games on my older console, and so do most console owners. It's a welcome change from the faster obsolescence cycle of most computer and phone hardware. However, it should surprise no one that interest in consoles has waned with the exception of the Xbox 360.

Also, the new hardware at this show is less conversation-starting. Both the PlayStation Vita and Wii U -- systems, needless to say, that feature motion and touch-screen elements -- were new, newsworthy. This year, there seems to be no such product. Meanwhile, not a day goes by (or so it seems) without an Apple TV rumor.

The pressure seems to be on E3, as WWDC lurks around the corner, to step up with a big bunch of product announcements. This isn't a requirement for a successful show, not by a long shot. But, many of these game development houses will be headed up north at the end of the week to attend WWDC. These developers are interested in what Apple will unveil with the latest version of iOS. A chunk of the gaming landscape now exists outside of E3, and it feels like the status of the whole show will never be the same.

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