Games are at the intersection of technology and liberal arts, but Apple fails to see them
This past Thursday night, more than 100 million* people, including myself, watched live The Game Awards 2021. This event is an annual celebration of video games industry, where best games and developers of the year across different categories — voted for by critics and players — receive their awards, amidst announcements of new games or gaming content. For those who are still living under a rock and considering video games as a niche marginal past-time, The Game Awards would be an eye opener. The quality of the show’s production is up there with the Oscars, the production value of AAA games presented is eye-opening (I mean, have you seen that Hellblade II trailer?), and the caliber of celebrities on-stage and in the audience is staggering — talents such as Guillermo del Toro, Jim Carrey, Simu Liu, Keanu Reeves, Giancarlo Esposito, Sting, Imagine Dragons, and many others participated in the show.
In an era when the film industry is struggling both creatively and financially (granted, in part due to the pandemic — but many problems run deeper), and music as a medium is increasingly relegated to being ambient sound you enjoy in the background when you work or cook, video games are booming. According to IDG, in 2021, gaming is estimated to generate approximately $250 billion in revenue globally, with linear TV being a second with less than $200 billion. Home entertainment, box office, and music are barely visible in a rear-view mirror. By a large margin, games are the biggest media and entertainment industry in the world, and has been such for a while now — but it’s still just getting started. Sky is the limit for games both financially and creatively — across PC, console and mobile, with the advent of streaming, AR and VR, between AAA and small independent projects, there are now games for every category of players, young or old, social or isolated, core or casual. The potential of video games as an interactive storytelling art form is undeniable, and more and more high profile creative talents shift their attention from music and film to games as a way to better express themselves in innovative ways. In the minds of new generations, certain game franchises are like rock stars or seminal film and TV staples of the 80s — people are growing up with games as an inherent part of their culture code, and will remain engaged with games through their lives.
The following Friday morning, I woke up and, as usual, scanned through the overnight news as I had my breakfast. Amidst dozens of headlines reporting on the winning games and new announcements, one article at The Verge jumped at me — this one. The timing of this article couldn’t be weirder. In a period where the industry and fans are celebrating the amazing present and future of the art form, there is a story about Microsoft desperately trying to get their innovative game subscription service, Xbox Game Pass, to iPhone, and Apple essentially saying “no”. Apple either prioritized existing App Store rules over the emergence of game streaming trend, or thought that the absence of Xbox Game Pass content on their platform would somehow benefit iPhone customers.
For a while I’ve been staggered by Apple’s long-standing resentment, or perhaps complete lack of interest, in video games. Don’t get me wrong — in fact, by sheer revenue from games, Apple is actually among the top companies in the world. But as much as App Store is a juggernaut for mobile games, and in-app purchases generate Apple billions every quarter, you just don’t think about Apple as of an influential decision maker in the space. Long standing incumbents such as Nintendo and Sony are thriving and defining gaming platform paradigms, and even Microsoft — that has barely been a customer-facing company and has historically prioritized enterprise, office software and cloud solutions — recognized critical importance of gaming and is heavily investing in Xbox and Windows as a gaming platform. On top of these “big three”, all of the Apple’s big rivals are aggressively trying to get into games. Google is working on an (admittedly struggling) cloud streaming service Stadia. Amazon is doing the same with Luna and is developing ambitious new IP at Amazon Game Studios. Facebook is ramping up its Gaming division.
A couple of years ago, Apple launched its own gaming service, Apple Arcade. It was a nice first step, and there are indeed many very good games on the service. For a moment, it felt that Apple finally “got” games and started to become serious about this space — it even prompted me to write an article about it. Fast forward to 2021, and Apple Arcade seems to be stuck in limbo. We don’t know how Arcade is doing financially (Apple doesn’t disclose), but it’s certainly not set the gaming world on fire. Not just the service seems to be limiting itself with simpler mobile and family-friendly games (there is nothing even remotely close to GTA or Far Cry), but as time goes on, it has been leaning even more on casual segment, and the pace with which new games are being added to Arcade is glacial. Beyond a number of indie mobile games developers, very few people in the games industry even think of Apple and Arcade as of an influential, innovative player in the space.
Perhaps Apple is content with where they are in gaming. With the company’s market value approaching unbelievable $3T, they are certainly doing many things right. Perhaps I’m biased and exaggerating the importance of gaming. But I’m very certain that if Apple doesn’t attempt to become a major player in gaming as soon as they can — beyond the App Store cut revenue, — it risks to damage its brand relevance with their soon-to-become most lucrative segments of their target audience.
Steve Jobs famously said that Apple stands at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. As much as Apple excels at semiconductors, hardware and software engineering, it has never lost sight of a bigger picture — of how and why ordinary people use their products and how Apple can improve their lives. Apple has always, and rightfully, taken pride in how some of the most creative, influential film directors, musicians, photographers, scientists, doctors use their products — just look at this “Behind the Mac” campaign video. Apple wants to be a major player in not just technology, but media and entertainment. iPod and iTunes revolutionized the music industry and Apple Music is a strong player in music streaming. Apple TV+ is their major play for being a part of the mainstream conversation among film and TV critics and fans. Apple brand is synonymous with “relevant” and “trendy” in media (although Netflix and Spotify would heavily argue with that — but it’s another story). But what could be more relevant or trendy than gaming?
If Apple claims it’s standing at the intersection of technology and liberal arts, it’s unbelievable how they don’t see gaming — since games are positioned at exactly the same place. In consumer-grade computing, there is nothing more technologically innovative than AAA gaming (Unity just recently bought Weta Digital, not the other way around!). Games have been for decades pushing the technological envelope across requirements for GPU performance, storage, displays, audio experience, and much more. But in addition to technology, games are the pinnacle of creative expression in all entertainment. We are seeing people like Keanu Reeves, Elijah Wood, Guillermo del Toro and many more experimenting with interactive storytelling instruments only available in games as an art form. By allowing a player to be in the middle of immersive, interactive worlds, making choices and facing consequences of their actions, games evoke emotions and responses from people that no other art form can. And of course, games can not just excite, entertain, frighten or delight — they provide grounds for competition and socialization too. All the talk about metaverse? Gaming companies have been building towards it way before Facebook decided to rename itself to Meta. Speaking of metaverse, I can’t imagine how Apple’s reportedly coming VR goggles would be of any interest to many people if games are not their huge USP.
Technological innovation, cultural relevance, innovative art form, competitiveness and social interaction — games encompass all that, and they are already a huge industry. No other media Apple is interested in — be it film, TV, music, traditional sports, or else — can claim they have it all. And on top of all that, games attract the audience of highly lucrative customers. From teenagers to people in their 30s and beyond, current gamers are usually people with disposable income, with families, and of course, with particular interest in both consumer technology and entertainment. I can’t think of a single other place or entertainment and media market that fits better with Apple’s expertise, brand positioning, ambitions and growth opportunities, than AAA gaming — and yet, Apple is doing close to nothing to innovate in this space.
As a heavy user of Apple products, I’m very happy that I don’t need to look elsewhere when I need to listen to music, watch TV or film, read books and listen to podcasts. Apple has strong offerings in each of these spaces, and I never need to venture beyond my iPhone or iPad. But I also play games — and there is close to nothing Apple can offer to me in this space. 95% of games on the App Store and in Apple Arcade don’t interest me. The games I play are either not available at all, or run very poorly on Apple’s platforms — so I need to turn to my Windows PC, PlayStation, or Nintendo Switch. I can afford having both Mac and PC, but many people don’t, or won’t justify the investment — and considering there are hundreds of millions of people who tend to use their PCs for both work and play, Mac would not be an option for them. Out of the entirety of this year’s The Game Awards show, how many games are even available on Apple products? Very few. How many games Apple had any involvement with? To my knowledge, just one — Fantasian from Apple Arcade was nominated for Best Mobile Game category.
Granted, one does not simply walk into games industry and expects to be successful (Google, Amazon and many more would clearly attest to that). But out of all key tech companies, Apple, in my mind, has the most critical need and very strong incentive to do so — and also, they have all the cash in the world and, increasingly, many pieces of the puzzle. Apple Arcade needs to evolve into a place where core gamers — those who currently invest in consoles and expensive AAA games — would want to go to play the next GTA, Forza, The Last of Us, or Halo. It will take significant investment in either purchasing studios outright, or striking multi-year partnerships — but if Microsoft can spend billions on Zenimax, or Apple itself can invest a fortune in films and TV shows with Tom Hanks and Jennifer Aniston, why can’t they pay their way into mainstream gaming too?
More than any of their competitors, Apple already has the hardware and software ecosystem that would be a great environment for AAA games. A-series chips in iPhones and iPads have been running circles around competition for years, and now M-series chips in Macs are redefining the expectations from PC CPUs and GPUs when it comes to performance and battery life. All of Apple’s platforms run the same software ecosystem and use the same family of chips, which makes it easier than ever to scale software — including games — development across these platforms. Imagine an M-based console, powerful at least as much as PS5 or Xbox Series, the size of an Apple TV or Mac Mini box, coming with a controller and a subscription to Apple Arcade+ with an exclusive selection of groundbreaking, innovative AAA games that you can also play on your iPhone, iPad or Mac? Imagine one or two of these games winning in The Game Awards, and their directors receiving these awards from Simu Liu or Hideo Kojima? I’m fairly sure Apple execs would enjoy that kind of recognition — and if they don’t, their kids surely will.
Instead, as of today, an iPhone user needs to jump through weird hoops to even play Xbox Game Pass games on their smartphone, and Apple is apparently not interested in making this experience any easier.
Apple has everything (and hopefully, the vision too) to make this world a reality. And if they don’t, before they know it, generations of their future customers might grow up and purchase something else, because Fortnite, GTA Online, Deathloop or The Elder Scrolls would mean so much more to their lives than a device with an Apple logo that can’t run any of that.
Disclaimer: Although I work in the games industry, I have no insight into the topic of Apple’s future plans with gaming. Everything in this article is my personal opinion stated as both a gaming and Apple fan, and doesn’t represent the position of my employer.
*My estimation. The Game Awards 2020 earned 84M livestreams, which was a 84% jump in viewership from the previous year. It’s safe to assume TGA 2021 at least crossed the 100M viewership mark.