The Apple Gaming Console: An Idea So Crazy It Just Might Work, Maybe
Remember the Apple Pippin?
Of course you don't. Apple buries its failures like John Wayne Gacy, and keeps a smiling face on every new move it makes. Dig a little, and you'll find out that the Pippin was an ill-fated, poorly selling Apple game console.
So take note as the Jobsian Cupertino Cult starts to cast its roving eye toward gaming, videogames, the land of electronic entertainment -- the big one. Rumors range from a new Apple tablet computer's possible support for gaming (obviously) to talks about an EA acquisition (not likely), all the way up to the central speculation that Apple might just launch its own console in the coming years.
If you squint, you can almost imagine that it's true.
After years on the sideline, Apple may finally be taking serious interest in games again.
And why not? The iPhone has been making loads of money, and a lot of that money comes from downloadable games.
But before you get too excited, remember the Pippin, the original Apple gaming home console that has gone down with the Newton and that small box-shaped Mac as an epic Apple Fail.
Still, you don't have to like Apple to wonder if it has a chance at breaking into the brotherhood of gaming-console makers. After all, not many people thought Microsoft could pull it off, and these days the Xbox 360 is the hardcore gaming platform of choice, a model for weaseling into the industry. And with a reported $27 billion or so in the bank, Apple has the resources do just about anything it wants.
So what's it going to take? If Apple wants to avoid the Pippin Mach 2, there are few key things it has to do to make it in the winner-takes-all nerdfest that we affectionately call the Videogame Industry:
1. Be prepared to lose money, a lot of money, for a while.
Once upon a time, a couple of smart fellas could get some wire and sit in their garage and invent a gaming machine. Times have changed. Microsoft proved that if you want to swim in the big-boy pool, you have to be ready to spend a lot of cash.
Sure, Apple is good at making money, but is it ready to spend it?
According to VentureBeat's Dean Takahashi in his book, "The Xbox 360 Uncloaked," the original Xbox lost the company an estimated $3.7 billion. More surprisingly, he points out that internal estimates pegged the possible losses at more than $3 billion up front, a number Bill Gates had in hand when deciding to sit down at the no-limit poker table that is the gaming-console business.
Microsoft threw down that much and, more than that, stuck with it year after year before it finally hit gold with the Xbox 360. Takahashi figures that Microsoft has sunk tens of billions into the Xbox line, and continues to invest an estimated $6- to $7 billion a year to generate a few hundred million dollars in profit each year.
Apple has been accustomed to organic growth and the explosive, exponential expansion of new markets hit with surprising technologies. If it wants in on the console bloodbath, it needs to be prepared to commit the resources -- because consoles remain the Stalingrad of the gaming business. Just ask Sega.
2. Stop jerking developers around.
Back when Apple had 3 percent of the personal computer market, it used to encourage and coddle its developers. Anyone who was crazy enough to actually spend time and effort developing for the Macintosh felt special, smart and a part of an elite group, even if they would have been better off financially in the PC market.
Roscoe, how many times do I gotta tell you to stop those no-good Duke boys from putting voice apps on mah store!
Then the iPhone happened.
Apple kicked off the biggest California Gold Rush since 1849 when it threw open the doors of its App Store. At first a trickle, then a torrent, of developers raced to write applications for the system, based on rumors of people making hundreds of thousands of dollars off applications that made farting noises. The smell of money was in the air and developers, by the thousands, started pouring their creative talent and energy into making the iPhone the coolest software platform in town.
Today, as Bejeweled knockoffs and endless castle-defense clones pour into the App Store, Apple can afford to blow off a few thousand eager game developers. App Store developers are a dime a dozen. Successful console developers -- with experienced, capitalized and large development teams -- don't want to be treated like Cuban boat refugees. Do that and the most capable developers will paddle off to other platforms -- like the Google Android, the Palm Pre or even, gasp, the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP.
3. Or, if you are going to jerk developers around, buy some studios. Perhaps plan on buying a lot of studios.
Do you like my new iGun? It shoots attitude.
Purchasing Rare helped the Xbox. Buying Bungie saved the Xbox.
First-party games serve an important place in the game-console ecosystem. For one thing, they tend to rake in the dough (see Nintendo). And even when the in-house studios don't knock it out of the park, they provide a clear signal that the console maker believes in its system, and will place big-dollar development bets on its own hardware.
No console has ever succeeded without strong first-party support.
So, Apple has recruited a few game executives. That's a start. Instead of talking about buying EA -- something it could afford to do, but wouldn't make for a good fit -- Apple needs to get serious about assembling studios under its wing that have a track record for delivering hits. Too bad id already sold.
4. Come to E3.
Love it or hate it, the route to the world of games runs through E3. If Apple really intends to launch a new console in 2013, as some have speculated, then it had better plan on showing up at E3 in 2011 with something.
E3 officials anticipate expanding the expo show space in order to accommodate Steve Jobs' ego.
To avoid E3, or show up at the last minute, is to misunderstand the baroque structure of the game business, which requires lots of relationships with lots of different people. The court of Louis XIV had nothing on intrigue and politics compared to the game business, and E3 is royal ball where hype fuels deals and makes things happen. And while you are at it, Apple better plan on becoming a fixture at the Game Developers Conference. Now.
And, hint hint, Apple, you probably wouldn't hurt yourself to throw some ridiculous parties. That always gets the fans talking.
5. Apple has to stop acting like Apple.
The things that have made Apple an astounding success in the past few years -- beautiful and easy-to-use products, snobby chic, upscale margins and CIA-like secrecy -- won't serve it well in the videogame business.
If Apple launches a beautiful and easy-to-use console that costs too much, it will fail (See 3DO); doesn't have developer support or fan support, fail (Phantom); or just doesn't have the financial stamina to stay in the game, fail (Dreamcast). All the hype and elegant design in the world won't help if one of these pieces is missing.
An artist's rendition of what a new Apple Gaming console might look like.
And keep in mind, past performance is no guarantee of future success.
Apple upset the portable-music business because it was inert and there were no good options to compete against the iPod. Apple turned the same trick with the iPhone, showing that an application store was what cell phone customers really wanted (and if you could throw in a science-fiction-cool interface, all the better).
With gaming, things are different.
The world of gaming doesn't need Apple right now. With the big three console makers cranking out one crazy idea after another, and innovation in game design continuing to sparkle with creative energy, if Apple wants a spot in this line dance, then it better learn the steps.
Busting in with a prima donna attitude and a stony-eyed Steve Jobs glare will only earn Apple something it already has: a failed game console no one remembers.
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