Why Apple's Game Center Is a Game Changer

It might not have been the highlight of the WWDC keynote address, but there's a lot more to Apple's Mac version of Game Center than meets the eye.

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Tucked in amongst the headline-grabbing retina display of the new Macbook Pro and the new 3D mapping technologies of iOS at this year's WWDC keynote address was a small section devoted to gaming, namely Apple's Xbox Live-like service Game Center. Previously an iOS-only service, Game Center is making its way onto the Mac in July with the release of OS X Mountain Lion.

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On the surface, Game Center for the Mac is merely a port of the existing iOS software. You can look up your friends lists, view your achievements, and issue challenges to other players. It's all very nice, but hardly groundbreaking stuff--at least, that's what I thought until Apple dropped the bomb: cross-platform play.

Now, cross-platform play isn't a new idea in the games industry, but it hasn't been widely supported, beyond of a handful of DS and Vita games, or been that successful. With Game Center on the Mac, Apple is tapping into its user base of 365 million iOS devices and enticing those gamers--many of whom perhaps don't game at all on other devices--to transition from their portable device to a larger platform.

It's being done in typically slick Apple style. Supported games will let you send out multiplayer invitations to friends, and regardless of whether they're playing on an iPad, iPhone, or Mac, they'll be able to play against you either in turn-based or head-to-head games. The huge popularity of iOS devices means there will be a fair few people who take them up on the offer, even if the games themselves are likely to be iOS ports rather than epic action blockbusters--at least in the short term.

But it's what the move means for the games industry in the long term that should have industry stalwarts like Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo taking notice. Those three companies have spent a huge chunk of their time trying to entice casual gamers over to their respective platforms with peripherals such as Kinect and Move. And yet, the vast majority of those gamers aren't playing on a traditional console or handheld. They're playing on iOS.

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If Apple can get those people used to playing on the Mac, then it's a much smaller leap to get them to play on something else--namely the Apple TV. While the rumors about an unveiling of an SDK that would allow developers to make apps and games for the Apple TV didn't come to pass, that's not to say it's not being worked on. Imagine if all those same games you love on iOS (and hopefully some new ones) were available to download and play on your TV at the click of a button, all with cross-platform multiplayer.

It's an enticing prospect, particularly as the Apple TV is comparatively cheap (£99) next to full-blown consoles. It might not win over the hardcore, but iOS gaming has captured the hearts and minds of many--the younger generation, in particular. GameSpot's very own commander-in-chief John Davison observed this with his family, pointing out that "Nine times out of 10" the iPad was his children's video gaming device of choice, besting the mighty Wii, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.

It's not as if that audience is being catered to much elsewhere. There was a telling lack of casual content at this year's E3, with the big three platform holders all choosing to show games featuring a lot of violence--too much, for some. It's as if they'd given up on that casual audience entirely. But if those companies don't take control of the situation now, they're in danger of losing the potentially lucrative casual audience to Apple. You might call that far-fetched, but remember: this is a company that has a seriously good track record in taking over and changing entire industries.

Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo have a lot to think about.

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