Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz's widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial, is a weekly dissection of an issue weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
When it launched the App Store a few years ago, introducing a marketplace for new software for its iPhone and iPod Touch devices, Apple's relationship with the videogames business changed overnight. Ever since the appearance of the iPod, the company's engagement with media has been growing - turning it into a key distributor of music at first, then movies and TV shows, and most recently books and magazines.
Videogames had been the red-headed stepchild of the bunch. Apple just didn't seem to be interested in games - a disinterest that was deeply encoded in the firm's culture dating right back through the nineties, when game developers threw their hands up in frustration at the firm's unwillingness to spend time or money on turning Mac OS into a viable gaming platform.
Perhaps the problem was cultural, stemming from the ethos which saw Macs as creative tools and looked down its nose at videogames as a consequence. More likely, it was generational - the firm's decision-making is incredibly focused on a small team of executives, headed up by Steve Jobs, many of whom are a little older than the "event horizon" for the first gaming generation.
Either way, there's a strange irony to the fact that Apple became a major platform holder in the gaming world without ever really wanting to. Once the numbers started to roll in, and the company realised just how much of the revenue on the App Store was coming from games, whatever cultural or generational issues had dogged gaming in its eyes would inevitably fade very quickly.
That's precisely what happened this week when Jobs unveiled the company's new iPod line-up at an event in San Francisco. Apple may not have planned to become a gaming platform holder, and Jobs may not be a gamer, but the firm has shed all of its qualms about the medium, and has begun to embrace its position in the games business.
The statistics reeled off by Jobs weren't the really important part of the event. Yes, iOS devices are outselling Sony and Nintendo's handhelds combined on a week to week basis - that's a solid achievement, but not actually all that relevant.
Such figures are similar to the occasional claims that the PC is the world's biggest gaming platform based on PC hardware sales. Now, the PC may well be the biggest gaming platform, but PC hardware sales do little to prove that, since PCs are multipurpose devices and many of them will never be used for gaming. The same holds true for iOS devices.
What was much more important was the tone of Jobs' statements on gaming. For the first time, Apple seemed to be aggressive in its approach to the sector - directly laying down a gauntlet to Sony and Nintendo, talking up the installed base, the distribution platform, the software library and the device capabilities, all from a specifically gaming perspective.
In the past, Apple has always treated games on iOS as a slightly amusing aside, raising an eyebrow at the wacky and weird things people choose to do with their devices. This week, games were serious business. Jobs has got gaming religion - he sees his firm as a gaming platform holder, and if that means taking the fight to Nintendo (a new rival) and Sony (a long-standing rival), then so be it.
Rhetoric aside, a number of concrete factors in the press conference point to this more aggressive approach to the gaming sector. First, of course, there's GameCenter, the company's stab at an Xbox Live/PSN style service, which allows users to maintain friend lists, compare scores and achievements and invite friends to multiplayer games - as well as providing a game matchmaking service. It is, bluntly, a much better service than anything Nintendo or Sony offer on their handhelds, and a fairly clear challenge to them.
Secondly, and equally importantly, there was the unexpected unveiling of an Epic Games title for iOS, a graphically stunning game which was demoed by walking around a medieval citadel and then taking part in a bout of swordfighting. A free demo of the engine, titled Epic Citadel, was later placed on the App Store for everyone to try.
For most people, the important part of this demo was simply how incredibly good the game looks - with graphical quality which was more like the present generation of HD consoles than like a handheld. It's apparent that Apple's conversion to gaming has not happened overnight - services like GameCenter are the result of a lot of work over many months, and Epic Citadel shows that 3D gaming was a central consideration for Apple in the hardware design of its recent devices.
The promise of console-quality gaming on a handheld device is a major lure, although the majority of iOS games will almost certainly remain in 2D - titles such as Words With Friends and Angry Birds aren't the platform's top sellers because that's all it's capable of, they're successful because they're excellent uses of the platform's capabilities and fit well with how people use the devices. Even so, an RPG or adventure game set in a world as gorgeous as that of Epic Citadel would undoubtedly turn heads, even among iOS gaming refuseniks.
Finally, there was a subtle touch - the unveiling of the TV advertisement for Apple's new iPod Touch devices. At least half of the advert was dedicated to footage of games on the device, significantly more time than was given over to the new headline features (HD video recording and the FaceTime video conferencing system).
Having finally embraced its position as the gatekeeper of one of the fastest growing gaming platforms in the world, Apple finds itself with a unique window of opportunity. Although the gaming world is excited about Nintendo's 3DS, it has yet to penetrate the consciousness of the wider audience - and it will almost certainly lack decent online functionality of the type promised by GameCenter.
Sony, meanwhile, is in the wilderness with the PSP - a device which, although it continues to get high-quality software releases, is in desperate need of a hardware refresh to bring it up to date with consumer expectations of a piece of portable hardware of this type.
In the meantime, Apple finds itself with a range of devices which are comfortably the most powerful handheld gaming platforms around, which sport a mature and trusted digital distribution system, a large installed base, a huge software library and, in the coming weeks, a built-in online gaming solution.
Some analysts have compared Apple's entry into handheld gaming to Microsoft's entry into the console market - yet the comparison with Microsoft's multi-billion dollar landgrab actually underestimates the threat posed by Apple's devices to Nintendo and Sony, if anything. How they respond in the coming 12 months - and how Android handsets develop in the same timescale - is likely to determine the shape of the handheld gaming market for years to come.
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