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Why is Apple so weird about gaming?
You likely caught some of the downstream news for Apple’s 2023 iPhone event. Two new models, some new watches, and a big climate commitment. Cool.
Two notes caught my attention as someone who specializes in marketing to gamers.
First, they’re marketing their new A17 Pro chip as a gaming device. It’s right on the landing page. That’s great—mobile games are, far and away, the most popular way to play games. Apple even claimed that the new phone will be “the best game console.”
The second big thing was Apple adopting USB-C. USB is complicated for most people. I won’t bore you, but there’s a specific cable for each capability—power, data, and video. You can’t just grab any USB cable and have it do the same thing.
Sadly, Apple’s announcement does not simplify this problem, BUT it does mean you can use the same cable to connect an iPhone 15 Pro to a monitor. This brings me to a YouTuber Vincent Zhang, who hooked up an iPhone 15 Pro to a monitor to play a newish Resident Evil game. The initial feedback has been pretty positive!
I can’t speak to the technical or developer relations challenges that Apple may or may not face. But as a marketer, Apple simply isn’t top of mind for gaming for me.
Of course, Apple is already a gaming brand. They generate more money from gaming than Sony, Activision, and Microsoft combined. They’re not just a distributor, either. They fund titles for Apple Arcade. They’re also courting game-makers to bring titles from Windows over to Mac.
So why don’t we think of Apple as a gaming brand?
WOZ UP WITH THAT (…sorry…)
First, it’s Steve Jobs. A little background is due.
In 1975, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the co-founders of a little company called Apple, were assigned to create a single-player version of Pong. This multiplayer version had players disassembling a single wall of blocks as opposed to besting another player. It was called Breakout! and Jobs was assigned $750 to create a prototype.
As the story goes, Jobs tapped Wozniak for his ability to create complicated programs with a small number of chips. Apocryphally, Wozniak pulled four all-nighters to hit the deadline, Jobs collected the bonus (and withheld that information from Wozniak), and Breakout! became an international sensation.
Jobs and Wozniak went on to found Apple. Wozniak built the Apple I and II before leaving the company for personal reasons. Jobs went on to revolutionize five different industries—personal computing, animation, music, digital publishing, and telecommunications—before his death and claimed his place as one of the most important businessmen ever.
On games, however, their paths couldn’t be more different.
Wozniak was an obsessive game player who loved Tetris. After purchasing Game Boys for himself and his friends upon the device’s release in the United States, Wozniak learned the rules of Tetris from his son. From there blossomed an obsession.
He embarked on a 20-year bender with the title. His high-score submissions to Nintendo Power, THE popular 80s gaming magazine, were so numerous that he soon sent his name in backward to avoid catching the ire of eagle-eyed editors. Tetris so dominated his interests that he gave the game as gifts to former President George H.W. Bush and Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.
But Jobs, much like my old boss, didn’t like games. The Mac remained a second-class gaming system during the heyday of PC gaming in the early 90s, and Jobs, by contrast, abhorred games. It wasn’t until the App Store launch that gaming made serious in-roads into Apple products.
Here’s successful developer John Carmack in 2008 [emphasis added]:
The truth is Steve Jobs doesn’t care about games. […] He’s not a gamer. It’s difficult to ask somebody to get behind something they don’t really believe in. I mean, obviously, he believes in the music and the iTunes and that whole side of things, and the media side of things, and he gets it, and he pushes it, and they do wonderful things with that, but he’s not a gamer. That’s just the bottom line about it.
Carmack’s point about priorities is still true today. (Ask yourself how many executive team members harbor the same feelings.) From personal experience, living in LA,
Apple’s presence in music and film/TV is palpable. Billboards are everywhere, featuring musicians, actors, and filmmakers pushing the idea that Apple is a cultural force in culture.
But games? Not so much.
Apple likely sees a gaming “penalty” for engaging more deeply. More explicitly, marketing their gaming bonafide risks alienating other customers.
It’s a false dichotomy, of course. Apple customers already play games. Apple needs to articulate the difference between gaming as an activity vs. gaming as an identity. The former is true, as millions of gamers on iPhones can attest, but Apple’s gaming identity should look and feel different, just like everything else they do.
I like “cultural determinism” (h/t Matthew Ball) as an explanation when thinking about a company’s resistance to gaming. The culture in which an individual is raised significantly impacts their worldviews, beliefs, values, and behaviors to the extent that it largely dictates them. Steve Jobs was tepid about games, and a charismatic founder’s legacy goes a long way in shaping a company’s culture.
Of course, determinism isn’t destiny. But it doesn’t help when your current CEO says he’s “not a gamer” in front of a federal judge. It’s hard to see Apple do what’s needed to find its unique brand voice in the gaming ecosystem when successive generations of leaders don’t care for the medium.
ARE YOU MAKING THE SAME MISTAKE?
Many of you are reading this and are living the same mistake. You know that gamers are part of your audience. You’re seeing growth in that area but worried about fitting with your brand.
Or maybe there’s still residue from a gaming decision gone awry. Maybe you’ve got a gaming-focused product or sub-brand caught in stakeholder hell. Maybe you’re facing resistance from your reports?
Apple has the clout to slowwalk the obvious because they have so many other parts of their business. You may not have the same luxury. Ignore gaming at your peril!