Steve Jobs, as he was launching the latest version of Apple’s iPod, declared war on game console makers Sony and Nintendo. “It’s the best portable device for playing games,” Jobs said of the new iPod touch. Using the touch and the iPhone, Apple hopes to do battle with the Nintendo DS and PSP. But it’s a battle they will likely lose, for two reasons: One, the hardware isn’t optimized for gaming, no matter what Jobs says; and two, Apple lacks any killer apps when it comes to games.
These are uncharted waters for Apple, a company that hasn’t historically been game-friendly. Now, of course, they have something that both Nintendo and Sony surely envy: the direct distribution channel of the App store. Rather than ordering a game online and waiting for it to be delivered, or visiting a physical store to pick it up, consumers can buy and be playing games on their iPod touches and iPhones with a mere few clicks. Nintendo doesn’t offer this at all, and Sony’s efforts through PlayStation Network are medicore at best. Cutting out the middlemen not only means more money for Apple, but also for the games publishers and developers — so ostensibly, everyone wins.
But for gamers, usability is key. And while the big screens and fairly powerful hardware found on Apple’s latest devices sure can make things look good, their touch screens are limiting, game play-wise. Just look at the Nintendo DS, a touch screen device that has proven very popular, but one that includes both a stylus and directional pad, as well as opposite buttons, to back it up. Apple’s devices lack both. And “pushing” a touch screen-rendered button is a far different experience than that of pressing an actual button.
So far the hardware hasn’t scared off publishers. There are already several heavyweight publishers with games in the App store, with more to come. Sega has Super Monkey Ball, and Electronic Arts just launched Spore Origins. Gameloft, which is known for their mobile phone games, has Asphalt 4 and Real Soccer 2009; and Vivendi Games Mobile didn’t waste any time getting their Crash Bandicoot’s face in there, in a family-oriented 3D go-kart game at that. Add classics like Pac-Man from Namco Bandai, and revamped versions of the classics, like Bomberman Touch from Hudson Soft, and you’ve got a pretty strong lineup. Problem is, these games are available on other formats as well. And the conversion of games originally developed for the competing formats will mean poor optimization, and frustrated gamers. What Apple needs are original titles optimized for its devices, key titles that aren’t available elsewhere.
Another stumbling block for Apple is pricing. Your basic PSP system starts at around $170, and the Nintendo DS is at $130 or so. The 8GB iPod touch, meanwhile, the cheapest of the two Apple devices, sells for $229. And it’s not available to try in game stores.
Nintendo and Sony can sleep soundly, at least for now. While Apple can expect publisher support thanks to the App store model, in order to truly distinguish themselves, they’ll have to offer something original, something that neither Sony nor Nintendo can offer on their own, well-entrenched portable devices. (Ideally, they’d snare Blizzard to make an exclusive World of Warcraft client available; with its reach beyond traditional gamers, it could be the killer app.) And those titles will have to truly make use of Apple’s devices in order to convince gamers that they are, in fact, the best ones on which to play games. Until then, Apple should retreat from this battle.