Published June 20, 2012

Is AirPlay an untapped casual gaming console?

A big screen + multitouch device + a room full of people = a video game opportunity no one is taking advantage of. It might be because we can't because of hardware and software restrictions (Apple Law), but hopefully we're just limited to our imaginations.

AirPlay is a funny feature. It's not the easiest thing to discover, but pushing that first YouTube video from your phone to the living room's Apple TV is magical. It's hard not to AirPlay all the things from that moment on.

What can AirPlay do today?

AirPlay was initially released as AirTunes back in 2010, designed just for audio streaming from iTunes. In less than two years, it now supports audio, image or video streaming from iOS to Apple TV and, soon, OS X.

Any iOS app can inherently send their media to AirPlay. Impressively, The Smithsonian Channel app lets you beam video to the Apple TV while exploring additional related content on the device. The experience is an entirely immersive and an innovative multimedia experience for the living room. It's the kind of technology usually reserved for cutting edge museums or galleries.

As iPhones and iPads gain muscle on the hardware front, AirPlay is maturing to support the ultimate in computer-based multimedia experiences: video games.

AirPlay as a gaming platform

A few titles on the market today can do some pretty nifty tricks with AirPlay. Real Racing 2 has an AirPlay mode where the iPad becomes the controller while the action gets displayed entirely on the Apple TV.

Anecdotally, a friend of mine says it works great off an iPad 2 — with maybe a 1/4-second lag.


About that lag…

Spend some time AirPlaying different types of media and that lag becomes noticeable. Try mirroring a game from a cutting-edge iOS device like the New iPad and enjoy sluggish framerates and crumbling controls. For video games that demand precise timing, anything other than immediate feedback is unacceptable.

That lag is inherently a part of our Wi-Fi signals. Should AirPlay become a bigger consumer draw than it currently is, Apple will undoubtedly figure out some way to make it negligable.

But there are plenty of game genres where even a second of lag doesn't matter: puzzles, quizes, trivia, card games and board games. Basically, party games for the casual gamer. Pass the device around to let players act while the TV shows the room the current state of play, scores, and other "public" information.

Casual gamers aren't in such a rush

It doesn't take more than a few moments of thought to figure out how some of the most popular games for groups of all ages could be played on Apple TV with current devices:

  1. Scrabble. Scrabble for iOS was one of the first noteworthy games that allowed players to use mulitple iOS devices to play one game. Famously, it lets an iPad act as the board while each player uses their iPhones and iPod Touches to organize their tiles. Whatnot use AirPlay to let the TV show the board at all times. Players can use their own iOS devices or pass just one around to manage and place tiles.
  2. Settlers of Catan. My girlfriend and I have played games of Catan on the iPad dozens of times (though now she prefers to just play against computers because "its faster"). Because your resource cards must be kept secret, and you must be able to see the board to make a move, only the current player can see the board at any given time. Unlike the physical board game, this limitation means players cannot easily monitor the unfolding action or strategize while the others make their moves. Leave the board and score data on the TV at all times and you get a closer analog to the tabletop game.
  3. Pictionary. Pictionary is the Draw Something of the 70s. With the iPad canvas in hand being reflected on AirPlay, the artist may draw on the tablet while her teammates guess the form. Sketch history could be reviewed on the screen for laughs after the game is over, or emailed to the group for posterity's sake.

And these are just a few really quick thoughts. There are entirely new party game dynamics that result from having a fixed, large public screen and a portabe, personal second screen.

AirPlay's hurdles as a game console

I am not an iOS developer, but I do read way too much on iOS development for someone who does front-end web development all day. If there are any limitations in the way, my assumptions are the following:

  1. Fragmentation of HDTV resolutions. Apple TV requires an HDMI input, which pretty much guarantees at least 720p as the baseline television. Ideally, that means a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels. I've seen 720p resolutions referencing at 1024 x 768 pixels. And of course 1080p's resolution is 1920×1080. Or not. Our biggest lesson from Android is that designing beautiful pixels for multiple screen sizes is hard. However, console game developers have been doing this since games went HD, so there should be plenty of knowledge available.
  2. AirPlay is under-developed or under-documented as an API. Real Racing and The Smithsonian Channel are stellar examples of apps developed for the two-screen experience, but the lack of many others makes me think that there's something about the AirPlay API that makes this difficult right now. Sky Battles is another title that should make innovative use of AirPlay, but we'll have to wait a bit longer to see how. Maybe all of these developers got special help from Apple. Maybe they're just really, really, ridiculously good.
  3. Anonymous iOS devices have a hard time talking to each other. This isn't a true blocker, but while one AirPlay-enabled iOS device should be enough to make a fun party game experience, many would multiply the gaming possibilities. If you've ever tried linking an iPhone or iPod Touch to Scrabble on the iPad, the current state of affairs is painful.

Maybe the introduction of AirPlay to OS X and the upcoming iOS 6 builds out the AirPlay API enough to make developing AirPlay-enabled games easier for developers.

AirPlay alone does not a game console make

A group viewing one screen with an individual manipulating another is definitely enough of a platform to build on, but of course its still not a true gaming platform. Might it be close enough though?

There is some serious Wii-like potential energy stored up here for some kick ass gaming experiences on iOS with AirPlay, and I feel that, just like the Wii, casual, group-based games could help bring AirPlay to a broader audience.