E3 2011: Why isn't Apple at E3?

With iOS dominating the mobile game space once ruled by Nintendo and Sony, you'd think Apple would be a major player.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
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Dan Ackerman
3 min read
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LOS ANGELES--This is largely a rhetorical question, as Apple is not fond of making appearances at trade shows, including CES and Computex. In fact, Apple dropped out of the one trade show it regularly participated in, the Macworld Expo, a couple of years ago. Additionally, this year has an additional wrinkle, as Apple is hosting its own WWDC conference the very same week as E3.

Yet, the question is not as ridiculous as it seems. One area of interactive entertainment that has experienced tremendous year-over-year growth recently is the mobile games segment currently dominated by iOS and the triple-play of the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. This is especially surprising, as Apple has traditionally ignored the games market, offering little in terms of support for PC-style games on the Mac OS X platform (or its predecessors).

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E3 and the video game bubble
Live from the Microsoft E3 press conference.
E3 2011: Complete coverage

The touch screens and graphics capabilities of these mobile iOS platforms have given lie to the claim that gamers need a dedicated portable gaming platform, such as Sony's PSP or Nintendo's DS. Games such as Angry Birds have had a much bigger cultural impact than any of the launch titles for Nintendo's 3DS handheld, and, unlike the highly proprietary nature of games for traditional portable gaming devices, the low barrier to entry for iOS games makes it possible for nearly anyone to publish a game or app (Microsoft's Xbox has also done an admirable job of opening its platform up to indie game developers).

But, iPad and iPhone games are hard to come by at E3, even though many of the major game developers at least dip a toe in the waters. For example, EA has an iOS version of many of the big franchises the company owns. Many are lackluster, but the recent iOS version of Dead Space was a critical hit, showing how close the iPad can come to mimicking a living room game console. Gameloft makes impressive clones of popper console games for iOS, and Telltale produces iOS versions of many of its excellent PC adventure games. Even classic gamemaker Atari (or the French company that currently owns its IP) has made a splash in the Apple world, releasing a 100-game app collecting classic Atari games.

The numbers tell a similarly compelling story. There are currently more than 160 million iOS platform devices in the hands of consumers (counting from the original 2007 iPhone), which is only slightly behind lifetime sales estimates for the Wii, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 combined. Add to the explosive growth of the iPad the emergence of Android phones and tablets, which are just at the very start of their days as a game platform.

While Apple may never attend E3 as a participating company, the future smart money may be on the game developers and publishers who are here devoting an increasing share of their time, money, and attention to iOS and Android games, rather than traditional living room or handheld console games. But, despite this, there's one major reason Apple may never be on the ground at E3, or considered a major force in gaming: for all the progress iOS has made as a gaming platform, the OS X operating system that runs on every MacBook laptop and Mac Pro desktop is still a mostly barren wasteland for games.