Apple launched their first Apple Silicon-powered Mac lineups this week with new Macbooks at all parts of their stack and a Mac Mini. Apple Silicon is just Apple’s fancy name for their overgrown ARM-based system on chip designs, first featured in the iPhone and iPad. On desktop and laptop form factors, these parts boast a lot of efficiencies that Apple wasn’t getting from Intel due to Intel’s technological stagnation – lower power consumption, higher performance per watt (and even flat out higher performance), and for Apple, who monopolizes TSMC’s top end node at any given point in time, access to economies of scale from their supply chain and capability to push millions of units at a moment’s notice. Currently, Apple has almost the entire 5nm production at TSMC to themselves, which is why the iPhone 12 lineup sold millions of units worldwide in a year where Nvidia and AMD have struggled to sell even just hundreds of thousands of GPUs and CPUs.
Looking at the early reviews for it, and it has Apple DNA to a tee – non-repairable or upgradable, soldered components, highly disposable, but built in an ecosystem that is made to last for a while. Outside of my snark at Apple (although, seriously, an all-in-one chip with no upgrade path means the whole system is disposable and that is awful!), the M1 chip is quite an impressive leap forward, considering that I found their claims of higher performance than the latest Intel chips to be rather over-aggressive.
And that led me to a few thoughts on the current state of things, on a day where I’ve already been mass reading tech literature. Apple has, historically, been a company that sort of dismissed gaming. However, in recent years, Apple has moved through their App Store ecosystem and the Apple Arcade to push gaming more to the forefront. Currently, all of the major game console manufacturers design almost none of their own silicon – they might envision a total system design or individual elements to tie things together, but Sony and Microsoft are fully dependent on the intellectual property they license from AMD, and the Switch is basically an Nvidia Shield tablet in a Nintendo-ified form-factor. Were Apple to decide they wanted to, they could very well build an Apple TV as a game console, selling full-fledged games, leveraging Apple Arcade and their developer ecosystem, and there will be an audience for such a thing.
Outside of Apple, one other such company that could make a similar move is Amazon. Amazon has quickly become the backbone of much of the modern internet through their AWS cloud offering, making a viable business out of selling server instances to companies. Through this work, Amazon has been pushing in a curiously similar direction as Apple – content focused business to pay the bills, while they bankroll a custom silicon processor built on ARM technology (in Amazon’s case, Graviton CPUs). Now, Amazon is using them purely as elastic compute capacity and doesn’t have a GPU with traditional display output functionality in that silicon, unlike Apple’s A- and M- series silicon, where the GPU is of some significance to the user experience. However, the fact that Amazon has spun up a silicon design team that has working, high-performance ARM server cores in the wild signals that they could very well do the same on GPU. In fact, Graviton already has machine-learning functionality that could inform the design of a GPU fairly easily.
Amazon, in my mind, is actually almost more interesting as a culprit, because they have a strong focus on publicly-available cloud infrastructure, their own working CPUs, and a whole game studio with strong development talent working on multiple titles. It is for that reason that I might speculate that Amazon could also similarly launch a game console. They have a whole brand of devices already, a network of media content that rivals Apple’s with original video content, movies, music, and Ebooks, their own app infrastructure that runs currently on Android but could easily be ported to a customized Amazon OS (similar to the Android-derived Kindle Fire OS), and with Prime, could offer a lot of benefits to console buyers – monthly payments for the hardware and even games, cloud storage and hosting for game saves and even perhaps cloud-based game storage and loading for assets, and fast shipping for accessories that you could, perhaps, order right from the device without leaving your game.
To be clear, I’m very much speculating here, as there are only barely signs that someone with yarn and a corkboard might string together to point at the conclusions I’ve made here. But I do think the idea is sort of interesting – Nintendo’s pivots prove that console gaming doesn’t always have to be about raw visual fidelity and samey gameplay in familiar genres – it can be lighthearted, casual, more accessible and focused first and foremost on fun. Not to suggest that Apple would be that, or that Amazon Game Studios is that (their in-development portfolio has some very predictable fare in it, as a matter of fact) but I do think that Amazon and Apple both turning their attention towards gaming at a time when both are making custom hardware that reduces or removes their reliance on technology partners supplying them is indeed a curious move, and I don’t altogether believe it is that much of a stretch to think that both will turn to content as a means to further entice customers to spend on their money makers.
And that leads nicely to my last little topic for this rambly 12:00 AM post – World of Warcraft. Blizzard, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, announced already that immediately at the Apple M1 system launch, WoW was supporting the Apple Silicon and would run natively on it, no need for Rosetta to translate the x86 code, as Blizzard had already done the work. For me, this was surprising because of two reasons. The first is that I imagined that the number of WoW players using Macs was a very small minority, and secondly because modern Blizzard doesn’t really do Mac day-and-date releases anymore – Overwatch still doesn’t support MacOS even now, 4 years after launch!
But it did lead to a weird segment of my brain lighting up – basically, with this: if WoW can run on Apple Silicon on desktop, then in theory, at least, it should run on iPhones and iPads with similar architecture, right? And that thought is funny to me, because I know that for as long as tablets have existed, people have tried to use remote applications and various other means to run WoW on devices that shouldn’t really support it. WoW as a game is not really one that would play anywhere near well on a touchscreen – you’d have to click target, click hotbars, and generally it is going to reduce your response times to nearly nothing. But wait! Blizzard has controller support in WoW now, and with the Apple Arcade updates, most iOS devices can use them too!
And then the thought hit me that realistically, why can’t we just play WoW on any hardware strong enough to? If Apple Silicon can run it, then their mobile versions should be able to do so as well. If x86 hardware can run it, then there is no reason that the PS4, Xbox One, PS5, and XSX/S (boy I hate that split Microsoft!) couldn’t also run it. Sure, for traditional play, it might not necessarily be ideal, but to someone who wants to play the game, why not let them if the hardware enables it? Hell, Square Enix makes a decent buck on Final Fantasy XIV by making players buy licenses for both PC and the PS4 to access content – I currently have an account which has paid for the base game, Heavensward, Stormblood, and Shadowbringers on PC and has paid for the base game and Shadowbringers (which contains the prior expansions anyways) on PS4!
Like, I certainly don’t want to play WoW on my PS4 compared to my ridiculous gaming PC, but for a lot of people, the console option makes a lot more sense economically. And sure, WoW can run on a potato wrapped partially in tinfoil, but the PS5 and XSX would likely be able to handle the game running at full-tilt with all the luxuries enabled. Which then leads to my ultimate question for Blizzard and my startlingly brief closing statement to this whole post, which is simply this: why not?