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Opinion: Samsung's half-arsed approach to smart TV gaming leaves the door wide open for Apple

Opinion: Samsung's half-arsed approach to smart TV gaming leaves the door wide open for Apple
I'd always quietly assumed that smart TV gaming was building up a head of steam.

At the various conferences I've attended this year, there's been a lot of chatter, some impressive demos, and plenty of talk about the massive opportunities that lay ahead.

So when I got my hands on a spanking new 8 series Samsung Smart TV recently, the first thing I wanted to check out was its gaming prowess. Never mind the Wii U, I wanted to finally see what cutting edge TVs could offer to gamers in 2012.

The answer to that is... not a great deal.

Many of us will be aware that Rovio has been quick off the mark with a smart TV version of Angry Birds. Although a port of a 2D physics puzzler is hardly going to impress the hardcore, it does at least demonstrate that the current range of sets can comfortably handle anything we're used to playing on our tablets and smartphones.

One of the problems is, of course, control. Without a dedicated controller, most games default to borrowing the remote, with limited success. With Angry Birds, the game has been used as means of demonstrating Kinect-style motion control, via the TV's built-in sensor - albeit with the kind of arm-aching success that you might expect.

A handful of other games available on Samsung's store have opted for touch-based control via an Android app - a good idea in principle, but no use to anyone locked into the iOS ecosystem.

Dispiriting quality

After a few hours of prattling around with one dispiritingly awful game after another, it's fair to say that I had the wind completely taken out of my sails by the whole experience.

In all honesty, 98 percent of the games currently available look no better than the steaming turds that ended up on the first generation of digital TVs over a decade ago.

Meanwhile, there's a glimmer of hope on the smart TV gaming horizon, with the likes of Electronic Arts having thrown its hat into the ring - albeit only in the US market right now.

Board game versions of Monopoly and Game Of Life might not sound like the stuff of revolution, but the fact that it's bothering at all might tempt some of its rivals to start playing their hands as well.

But this softly softly approach is slightly baffling. Samsung has a clear opportunity to get the jump on Apple, and ought to be going all out to convince game developers and publishers to get compelling content onto its burgeoning platform sooner rather than later.

For mobile developers and publishers, being one of the first to market has obvious advantages.

For one thing, with about 100 odd game currently vying for attention, visibility on the Samsung Apps store is fairly high - though it's fair to say that the front end UI needs a bit of work to make it less of a faff to search.

That said, there's an element of 'Build It, And They Will Come' about all of this. If any genuinely decent games actually made their way onto smart TV, people would soon find them - especially the kind of early adopters who find themselves throwing a grand at a new TV.

Advantage Apple

More than likely, though, the rather half-arsed, second rate approach that we're witnessing right now will persist until a company comes along and shows how it should be done, and no company is better placed to do that than Apple.

The whole world seems to expect Apple to get around to the smart TV market at some point, but we also know that it won't come to market until it can deliver enough content to make it an absolute must-have.

Right now, the existing Apple TV boxes stop frustratingly short of delivering everything they could. Not only is there not enough fresh TV and movie content up there at tempting prices, the continuing absence of video games and other apps narrows their utility and makes it hard to justify owning one.

Sooner rather than later, logic suggest that Apple must relaunch (and possibly rebrand) its stuttering Apple TV strategy and open the doors to a fully-integrated App Store.

Having Apple TV as part of the iOS ecosystem makes so much sense, it's tantamount to self-harm for the company to play the waiting game on a market with such overwhelming potential.

Right now, the AirPlay features inherent in current Apple TV boxes that are relevant to gaming are little more than cool tech demos to hint at a future direction. Games with specific Airplay dual screen support are undoubtedly cool, but after initial support, interest has cooled - partly because the intrusive control lag can be a real hindrance.

Nintendo difference

But having recently seen how well Nintendo has implemented the dual screen gaming concept on the Wii U, there's no question that Apple can do much better next time.

From our selfish consumer perspective, we want it all. We want an entertainment device that services all our needs, not just a few of them - and Apple has it within its grasp to join all the dots and leaves everyone else playing catch up.

The big advantage it has already is the vast number of people who have long been locked into its iOS ecosystem - people who have spent maybe a decade making music and video purchases, and the last four routinely buying Apps in their hundreds.

We all know once you're in, it's hard to leave, no matter how tempting the rival offerings have become.

But for gamers - and the games industry - the added allure of an Apple device that usurps the Xbox and PlayStation as the big screen gaming platform of choice will be hard to resist.

Of course, the added advantage Apple has is that it doesn't have to persuade people to buy a whole new monitor in the process. While it will undoubtedly offer an all-in-one solution, it can continue to offer Apple TV in a form factor similar to its existing box, at an attractive price.

The fact that Microsoft and Sony are gearing up to release new consoles in the near future makes 2013 a fascinating year in prospect, and each will be nervously watching the other, all desperate to achieve the same goal: to own your living room.

But with the existing players in gaming still invested in retail and physical media, you can't help but feel that Apple's long-term download-only model has put them in the box seat as we enter the latest phase of this fascinating battle for consumer spend.

There's no such thing as 'not enough time' in Kristan's world. Despite the former Eurogamer editor claiming the world record for the most number of game reviews written before going insane, he manages to continue to squeeze in parallel obsessions with obscure bands, Norwich City FC, and moody episodic TV shows. He might even read a book if threatened by his girlfriend.

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