Why Apple should cater to 'serious' gamers - and why it probably won't

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In 2016, the worldwide video game industry generated over $91 billion in revenues, mostly through mobile platforms like the iPhone and iPad. With its reluctance to serve hardcore gamers, Apple may be leaving some money on the table — but, perhaps, understandably so.

First, a look around at the gaming landscape. Arguably, the iPhone and iPad are the premiere destinations for "casual" games — quick-play titles like "Pokemon Go," "Words With Friends," or "Clash Royale." Both devices are extremely popular with the public, and the App Store is the most profitable option for developers.

It's profitable for Apple too, which takes a 30 percent cut from most App Store transactions. This snowballs even further with so-called "free-to-play" games, which when successful generate a steady supply of micro-transactions.

Apple does plenty to accommodate casual games. In fact it promotes them right up front at the App Store, and often features them in other marketing. Arguably, the graphics hardware in iPhones and iPads is built with gaming in mind, and there's not much call for its Metal API if not to power games and a few 3D-heavy productivity apps.

Where things take a turn is in trying to find "serious" games — complex ones that might take some time to beat. They do exist on iOS, as evidenced by titles like Nintendo's "Fire Emblem Heroes," but there's nothing on the App Store on par with console and PC titles like "Dark Souls," "Civilization VI," or "Titanfall 2."

A lot of that can be chalked up to interface problems. Smaller screens mean less room for buttons, graphics, and text, and a touchscreen is a horrible control option for genres like first-person shooters or anything else requiring fast, precise input. That could be solved by some sort of standard external controller, but Apple has never made one of its own, and third-party options have been a mixed bag at best.

Apple's attempt at an online service like Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network — Game Center — has meanwhile failed, and indeed was so neglected that when it did die, it took some people a while to notice.

Mac is a somewhat better place for hardcore gamers thanks to elements like faster processors and better control options, not to mention access to third-party services like Valve's Steam.

Here, though, there's at least one overriding problem: the price-to-performance ratio. Macs are usually far more expensive than comparable Windows PCs, and all of them — except for the outdated, $2,999 Mac Pro — rely on weaker mobile graphics cards, if not integrated Intel graphics. A $1,500 gaming PC can easily wipe the floor with a $2,299 iMac.

An iMac is just fine for casual or moderately demanding games, but let's face it: it's not going to attract "Call of Duty" players.

The latest Call of Duty game, Infinite Warfare.

There's also a vicious cycle in the Mac gaming library. While the situation is improving, developers will often skip the Mac not just because of hardware and software compatibility, but because the audience is smaller than mobile, consoles, or PCs. Because there aren't that many games, people don't turn to Macs for gaming. Rinse, repeat.

Why Apple should cater to the hardcore market

Reduced to the naked truth, the answer of of course is money. Many hardcore players are prepared to spend thousand of dollars on their hobby each year, including not just games but systems, accessories, and upgrades. Top-end gaming PCs, especially with VR headsets, can easily push $2,000 to $3,000 or more.

Consider also how much app revenue Apple might bring in if it were a first-choice platform for hardcore games, rather than a place they go months or years after initial release. The "Call of Duty" series alone generates billions of dollars, and while Apple might only snag a fraction of that, it might also claim millions from other A-list games. That would add up.

Gamers moreover are the sort of early adopters Apple craves. Appeasing them can translate into recommendations to friends and family, and a reliable market for advanced technology. We might not even have modern graphics cards if gamers hadn't wanted to see "Quake" run faster in 1996.

People once suspected that Apple might take a stab at the console market with the fourth-generation Apple TV, and here's another place the company seems to have dropped the ball. In an alternate universe the device is competing with the Nintendo Switch, selling accessories and high-priced games. It might never be as powerful as an Xbox or PlayStation, but as the Switch proves, there's no need to be fastest to win.

Why Apple won't

The Switch model may actually explain part of Apple's avoidance of the hardcore market. It already makes a fortune from iPhones, and while Macs and iPads aren't setting the world on fire, they do well enough. Why upset a winning strategy on the off chance of more success?

Apple may also be keenly aware of its poor track record in gaming. Game Center is just the tip of the iceberg — remember clickwheel iPod games, or the Apple Bandai Pippin, a console which sold some 42,000 units in its entire lifetime? Except for things like Metal and the App Store, the company has a demonstrable lack of expertise.

Ultimately, the most likely explanation is that even with a perfect strategy, there may not be much profit to be had. High-end gaming machines demand expensive parts, and Apple is famous (or infamous) for insisting on high profit margins. To compete on price with PC makers like Dell or MSI it would have to accept lower margins, which probably looks as bad to shareholders as it does management.

Then there's the issue of upgrades. One reason hardcore gamers gravitate toward PCs and consoles is that they can spend a few hundred dollars every few years and still keep a system on (or near) the bleeding edge. Apple prefers to sell people complete devices, which are not only more expensive but do offer some technical advantages — hyper-optimized design means Apple products can be thinner, lighter, and more power-efficient than ones cobbled together from off-the-shelf parts.

In other words, even with a modular Mac Pro coming in 2018, don't expect Apple to become hardcore-friendly unless it adopts a radically different corporate philosophy.