To Apple, Love Tailored Experiences

The Apple TV sure seemed like a good idea… at first!

Universal Apps from Apple TV announcement

On the surface (sorry), it seemed like Apple had made all the right decisions with its new product announcements yesterday. [For future anthropologists: new Apple Watches, a bigger iPad with a stylus, and Apple TV with an app store, and iPhones with better cameras and pressure-sensitive input. Also, the title of this blog post is a reference to something that happened a few months ago that nobody cares about now. — Ed.]

I’ve wanted an iPad with a stylus since before the iPad was even announced, so long ago that my image links don’t even work anymore! And I’ve been wanting a lighter laptop to use as purely a “personal computer” in the strictest sense — email, social media, writing, whatever stuff I need to get done on the web — and keep finding myself thinking “something like a MacBook Air that doubles as a drawing tablet would be perfect!” In fact, the iPad Pro is pretty close to what I’d described years ago as my dream machine but cheaper than what I’d estimated it to cost.

There’s been a lot of grousing online about how Apple’s acting like it invented all of this stuff, when other companies have had it for years. On the topic of pen computing, though, I can unequivocally say no they haven’t. Because over the years, I’ve tried all of them, from Tablet PCs to the Galaxy Note to the Microsoft Surface to the various Bluetooth-enabled styluses for iOS. (I’ve never been able to rationalize spending the money for a Cintiq, because I’m just not that great an artist). I haven’t tried the iPad Pro — and I’ll be particularly interested in reading Ray Frenden’s review of it — but I know it’s got to be at least worth investigation, because Apple simply wouldn’t release it if it weren’t.

Even if you roll your eyes at the videos with Ive talking about Apple’s commitment to design, and even if you like talking about Kool-Aid and cults whenever the topic of Apple comes up, the fact is that Apple’s not playing catch-up to anyone right now. They’ve got no incentive to release something that they don’t believe is exceptional; there’d be no profit in it. The company innovates when it needs to, but (and I’m not the first to say it): they don’t have to be the first to do something; they just have to be the first to do it right. And they’ve done exactly that, over and over again. The only reason I may break precedent and actually wait a while to get a new Apple device is because I’m not convinced I need a tablet that big — it’d be interesting to see if they’ll release a pen-compatible “regular-sized” iPad.

And if I’ve been wanting a pen-compatible iPad for almost a decade, I’ve been wanting a “real” Apple-driven TV set-top box for even longer. The first time I tried to ditch satellite and cable in favor of TV over internet, I used a bizarre combination of the first Intel Mac mini with Bootcamp to run Windows Media Center, a Microsoft IR remote adapter, a third party OTA adapter, and various third party drivers for remotes and such, all held together with palm fronds and snot. I’ve also tried two versions of the “hobby” Apple TV, relics of a time when Apple was known for glossy overlays, Cover Flow, and an irrational fear of physical buttons. Basically, any update would’ve been welcome.

But the announcement yesterday was a big deal, obviously, because they announced an App Store and an SDK. Which turned it from “just a set-top box” into a platform. That’s as big a deal for customers as it is for developers, since it means you don’t have to wait for Apple to make a new software release to get new stuff, content providers can make their own apps instead of having to secure some byzantine backroom deal with Apple to become a content channel, and some developers will come up with ways to innovate with the device. (Look to Loren Brichter’s first Twitter client as a great example of UI innovation that became standard. Or for that matter, Cover Flow).

And for games: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the iOS App Store has done more to democratize game development than anything, including Steam as a distribution platform and Unity as a development tool. Whether it was by design or a lucky accident, all the pieces of device, software, market, and audience came together: it was feasible to have casual games ideally played in short bursts, that could be made by small teams or solo developers, and have them reach so many millions of people at once that it was practical and (theoretically) sustainable.

I hope nobody expects that the Apple TV will become anywhere near as ubiquitous as the iPhone (or even the iPad, for that matter), but still: opening up development creates the potential for independents to finally have an audience in the console game space. It’d be like the Xbox Live Indie Games and XNA, if all the games weren’t relegated to a difficult-to-find ghetto separate from the “real” games. Or like the Ouya, if they’d made a device that anyone actually wanted to buy.

Game developers love saying that Apple doesn’t care about games and doesn’t get how games work — as if they’d just inadvertently stumbled into making a handheld gaming device that was more popular than Nintendo’s and Sony’s. You could look at the new Apple TV the same way, and guess that while trying to secure deals with big content providers and compete with Amazon or “Smart” TV manufacturers, they’d accidentally made a Wii without even trying.

There’ve been enough game-focused developments in the SDK, and the company marketing as a whole, that suggest Apple really does get it. (Aside from calling Disney Infinity “my favorite new Star Wars game”). But there’s a couple of troubling things about the setup, that suggest they expect everything on the TV to play out exactly the same way that it has on smartphones and tablets.

First is that the Apple TV has a heavy reliance on cloud storage and streaming of data, with a pretty severe limitation on the maximum size of your executable. They’ve demoed smart phone games on stage (Infinity Blade) that were 1 GB downloads, so it’s not inspiring to see a much smaller limit on downloadable size for games that are intended to run on home theater-sized screens. Maybe it’s actually not that big a problem; only developers who’ve made complete games for the Apple TV would be able to say for sure. But for now, it seems to suggest either very casual games, or else forcing players to sit through very long loading times. The latter’s been enough of a factor to kill some games and give a bad reputation to entire platforms.

Second is the emphasis on universal apps. They mentioned it at the event and just kind of moved on. I didn’t really think much of it until I saw this from Neven Mrgan:

You could take the most mercenary possible interpretation of that, which is what people always do once the economics of software development comes up: “Big deal! Having one app is what’s best for consumers! What’s best for consumers always wins, and it’s the developers’ responsibility to adjust their business model to enable that!” Also “Information wants to be Free!!!”

Except what’s best for consumers is that the people making great stuff can stay in business to keep making great stuff. And we’ve already seen on iOS exactly what happens when developers “adjust their business models” to account for a market that balks at paying anything more than 99 cents for months to years of development. Some big publishers (and a few savvy independents, like Nimblebit) came in and made everything free-to-play with in-app purchases. Maybe there is a way to make a free-to-play game that doesn’t suck (and again, Nimblebit’s are some of the least egregious). But I can’t see anybody making a believable case that the glut of opportunistic games hasn’t been a blight on the industry. I was out of work for a long time at the beginning of this year, and it was overwhelmingly depressing to see so many formerly creative jobs in game development in the Bay Area that now put “monetization” in the job title.

Believe me, I’d love it if one of these publishers went all-in on the Apple TV, and then lost everything because they didn’t take into account they were pandering to a different audience. But that’s not what would happen, of course. What would happen is that a couple of the big names would see that they can’t just fart out a “plays on your TV screen!!!” version of the same casual game and still make a fortune off of it, so they’d declare the entire platform as being not worth the effort. And then smaller studios who are trying to make stuff that takes specific advantage of the Apple TV “space” will be out of luck, because there are no big publisher-style marketing blitzes driving people to the platform. You need a combination of big names and smaller voices for a platform to work: again, see XBLIG.

It just seems as if there’s no recognition of the fact that there’s a lot more differentiating a game you play on your phone and one you play on your television than just the screen size. It seems especially tone-deaf coming from a company like Apple, who’s made a fortune out of understanding how hardware and software work together and what makes the experience unique. (Part of the reason that iOS has had so much success is that they didn’t try to cram the same operating system into a laptop and a smartphone).

At least the games on display showed evidence that they “get it.” The game demoed by Harmonix took advantage of the stuff that was unique to the Apple TV — a motion-sensitive controller and (presumably) a home theater-quality audio system. And even Crossy Road, which would seem like the worst possible example of shoveling a quick-casual game onto a TV screen and expecting the same level of success, showed some awareness of what makes the TV unique: someone sitting next to you playing the game, or at least having other people in the room all able to see something goofy happening on your screen.

I haven’t seen enough about tvOS to know if Universal apps are actually a requirement, or just a marketing bullet point and a “strong recommendation” from Apple. (Frankly, since I’m trying to make an iPad-only game, I’m ignorant of the existing requirements for iOS, and whether they restrict developers from releasing separate iPad-only or iPhone-only versions of the same software). So maybe there’ll be a market for separate versions? And somehow, magically, a developer will be able to release a longer, more complex game suitable for a home entertainment system, and he won’t be downvoted into oblivion for being “greedy” by asking more than ten bucks for the effort.

And there’s been some differentiation on the iPad, too. Playing XCOM on the iPad, for example, is glorious. That’s not a “casual” game — I’ve had sessions that lasted longer than my patience for most recent Xbox games — but is still better on the iPad because you can reach in and interact with the game directly. I could see something like that working — I’d pay for a game with lower visual fidelity than I’d get on Xbox/PS4/PC, if it had the added advantage that I could take it with me and play on a touchscreen.

So I could just be reactionary or overly pessimistic. But it’s enough to take what first seemed like a slam-dunk on Apple’s part, and turn it into an Ill Portent for The Future Viability Of Independent Game Development. As somebody who’s seen how difficult it was to even make a game in The Before Times, much less sell one, the democratization of game development over the past ten years has been phenomenal. And as somebody who’s finally realized how much some game studios like to exploit their employees, it’s incredible to be in an environment where you can be free of that, and still be able to realize your passion for making games.

The reason I first wanted to learn programming was being at a friend’s house, watching them type something into their VIC-20, and seeing it show up on screen. It was like a little spark that set me down a path for the next 40 years: “Wait, you mean I can make the stuff that shows up there, instead of just sitting back and watching it?” It’d be heartbreaking to see all the potential we’re enjoying right now get undermined and undone by a series of business decisions that make it impractical to keep making things.

Worst case, it’ll be another box that lets me watch Hulu. I was down to only eight.