Commentary: Apple TV is tackling the future of television, but can it be the future of video games as well? Right now, its opportunities still lie ahead.
Start up the new Apple TV, and there is an App Store. Click on it and you can download games. Real games, like Geometry Wars 3, Transistor and Crossy Road.
Does this make Apple TV a game console? And could it ever, really, be something that takes on PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo and the rest of the gaming world? I'm of two minds about it.
I played a handful of games on the new Apple TV using both a paired wireless controller and Apple's own included remote.
Maybe it's limiting Apple TV to a 1080p resolution, but the A8 processor seems to let a bunch of games shine. Shadowmatic, a game that's already on iPhone and iPad, has brilliant textures. Games like Mr. Crab, Geometry Wars 3 and Oceanhorn look like they could have been downloaded on an Xbox 360/Xbox One or PS3/PS4. They're good enough graphically to impress, and generally run with a smooth frame rate in HD.
These games are simpler, indie-style games: They don't break the bank graphically, and don't aim to be anything like super-serious AAA console games. Witcher, Fallout, Halo, Uncharted, you're quite safe. But what about Nintendo? Nintendo's arsenal of high-design games and franchise mascots have no match on Apple TV's game library, but Apple TV is capable of delivering some simple fun. Just like phone games, that might be enough for a lot of people. Maybe it'll mean not getting a game console. For non-gamer types, Apple TV could end up being a bit of an open door.
Games like the arcade-style Geometry Wars 3 require proper controls to be fun. You can play on the Apple TV remote using a trackpad -- in fact, all games on Apple TV are required to be playable with it -- but I wouldn't recommend it. Other games are fine with that little remote, for one-button or Nintendo Wii-style motion control gaming. If bigger, better games are ever going to arrive on Apple TV, however, they'll need the deeper controls that you can get out of an accessory like the $50 Steelseries Nimbus. The controller is like one used for a PC or game console, with all the buttons and sticks you'd expect.
A handful of games I already own on my iPad or iPhone were suddenly, and instantly, available to download on my account on the Apple TV. One purchase, multiple platforms: Microsoft and Sony have already explored this on Xbox One and PCs, or PlayStation 4 and PS Vita respectively. Nintendo's Wii U and 3DS barely overlap at all. It's not a guarantee that a game you buy on an iPhone or iPad will also get you the Apple TV version for free; it's up to developers to decide. I hope most of them agree to the crossover. Some games, like Alto's Adventure, already feature iCloud cross-saving. This allows for saving progress on the Apple TV, and picking up where you left off on the iPad or iPhone as well as vice versa. That feature could be huge for more in-depth games like ports of Final Fantasy titles, or The Room.
Obviously, this is just day one -- the first Apple TV preorders are literally just being delivered. Of my existing, pretty massive iOS game collection on iTunes, 20 are currently available for cross-download on Apple TV. Canabalt, Does Not Commute, Transistor, Bean Dreams, Shadowmatic and Edge are a mixed bag, and some pretty good games to start. But the games that come to Apple TV will inevitably be a small subsection of all the titles you can get on iPhone or iPad.
Apple currently requires developers to have their games work with the included Apple TV remote, in addition to third-party game controllers. Gamepads have extra buttons, and can work far better for a lot of more complex games like the ones you'd see on your Xbox or PlayStation. Some of these games -- like ports of PC or console games -- might not be easy to map onto the remote at all. Nintendo's original Wii remote was, in some ways, a similarly simple controller like the Apple TV remote. However the Wii remote also allowed for a more traditional controller to be plugged in that added other buttons, too, and some games required it.
The Apple TV uses an unusual form of app storage which shuttles files on and off the device as needed. Apple TV apps start as a file under 200MB in size, while the rest of the game's files live in the cloud, downloading as needed. Transistor, a great iOS game, only takes up about 160MB on Apple TV after initial download, but 1.8GB on my iPad. That's pretty cool in theory, but will these games erase and re-download parts as needed? I haven't played larger-scale games enough to determine that. But I'd prefer a way to download a whole game locally that I play a lot, if I choose to.
Right now I still think of Apple TV games as pleasant perks than the main draw of the new box. But I might stick around and play a lot more on it if my iOS games all cross-saved nicely, and I found interesting games I could quickly play online. Hearthstone on the iPad became the game that sucked me away from every other game system I own...what could that game be on Apple TV? It's not impossible for this to happen.
What impresses me isn't that Apple TV could kill game consoles -- it's how it already makes a semi-compelling case as a game system already, with just a few games. And Apple TV's success with games would legitimize games on streaming boxes down the road: Fire TV , Android TV boxes and Nvidia Shield already play games, too. Little TV-connected boxes might not seem like gaming console threats now, but enough of them might be in place to disrupt the landscape down the road...or at least offer people another way to play.