We’re still in the early days, but I’ll come right out and say it: The smartest thing Apple did with iOS 7 was to implement a proprietary game controller network for hardware developers so that hardcore gamers could play iOS games with sophisticated controllers that mimic consoles like the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. The protocol provides stringent rules for how third-party companies develop their controllers — including shapes, button layouts and even connection standards — to create a “unifying experience” across the board. Peripherals for iPhone are just getting off the ground, but a promising peek at this year’s CES shows that creating and sticking to a standard may take gaming — already far and away the most popular app category for mobile — to exciting new places.
Let’s face it: controlling a mobile game can sometimes be a real pain. Apple created an experience with the first iPhone (and the first iPhone games) that relies on the touch screen and gestures to interact with games. By and large, this concept works perfectly when a game is designed and produced for mobile, largely because right now there’s no other option — either your touchscreen controls are good, or your game doesn’t get played.
However, the mobile platform isn’t just for mobile-first games: games that originated on consoles or PC have flocked to mobile as another way for users to access their games. A quick jaunt through the app store will spotlight on indie darlings like Limbo, World of Goo, Little Inferno and Bastion. Even better, classic games are turning up in droves, so users can play Sonic 2 or Rampage while on the go.
But sometimes in that transition, things don’t turn out as well on mobile as they did on the console.
The new mobile gaming
Take, for example, The Cave, a smart and well-written action-adventure game written by The Secret of Monkey Island creator and game icon Ron Gilbert. Originally released for the computer, I finally picked up the game during Apple’s holiday sale period, when it was just $2 — compared to the original PC and console price of $15, I couldn’t resist. I knew going in that the movement controls for the game were not much fun on the computer, but on a tablet they were damn near unplayable.
The limited inputs for mobile — namely just tap and swipe — made jumping over platforms a chore. Swipe too far to the side, you wouldn’t jump at all; swipe too far up, and your arc is so bad that you fall through the middle anyway. It’s a game that, while charming and enjoyable at some points, loses its value deeply when ported to mobile.
Unsurprisingly, when you bring a controller back into that equation, you’re much better off. With a significantly increased number of inputs, including a real directional pad, a peripheral controller makes the mobile experience less mobile, and that’s what matters.
Looking back on it, I believe I would have enjoyed The Cave, along with a few other games I’ve downloaded for mobile, much more with the increased functionality a controller brings. Apple’s controller ecosystem promises that: not only will mobile games have enhanced controller experiences, games that need controllers will have that. It has the potential to blow mobile games wide open.
And the hardware soon follows
That said, the environment for Apple’s controllers is still nascent, encompassing just two controller lines: the MOGA Ace and the Logitech Power Shell. Neither really took off or set mobile gaming ablaze in the first few months of iOS 7′s release, but that might have to do more with the high price ($100) and the limited mobile settings the controllers could work in than a flaw in the system Apple is developing.
However, there’s a lot of potential here, and it comes in the form of the next big controller line on its way: the SteelSeries Stratus. Introduced at CES on Monday, the Stratus is a normal-sized game controller, that unlike the handheld frames of its other controller cousins operates via Bluetooth for both iPhone and iPad. Multiple gamers can have a traditional gaming experience on a single iOS-enabled device, and play their games like they would on a console.
It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is all going. In conjunction with the latest version of Apple TV, a controller like the Stratus can conceivably turn a tablet into a working console for the big screen. It’s a much more sophisticated and familiar user experience compared to the “iPhone as controller” concept touted with the Apple TV when it was released, and it makes multiplayer sessions seamless.
While the system, including the iPad and Apple TV, costs more than a traditional gaming system out of the box, it’s not only reasonable given the higher-end console market these days — there’s an added value in that the iPad is still 100 percent mobile. While an iOS device will never match up in size or power to a traditional console — which pumps out pretty serious HD graphics in the latest generation models — Apple’s new A7 processor is a big deal. Essentially it turns even the iPhone 5s into a 64-bit console, able to push out some pretty nice 3D graphics without overloading the device or nuking the battery. This means that the latest-generation iOS devices can run games with decent graphics for the TV, and then unplug for further gaming on the go. With a combination of planning, the inertia of a huge installed base, and decent hardware on its hands, Apple has the opportunity to create a real console competitor, if not an out-and-out killer for some smaller companies.
But all of this hinges on something that’s actually out of Apple’s hands: the design of the controller itself. Sure, the guide has laid out the buttons and the inputs, but there are subtleties in controller design that take it from good to great. Microsoft, for example, was rumored to have spent upwards of $100 million in its design of the latest Xbox One controller. And Valve has left the actual construction of the Steam Machine to third parties, focusing instead on the controller’s design.
It seems unlike Apple to leave the design of a functional accessory alone without contributing at least an option of its own, but it might just be a matter of priorities — in order to take on the console gaming market, Apple needs to make a committment. Apple may enjoy the attention of mobile game developers with its current products, but it’s going to be the supporting hardware that could turn the iPad into Apple’s big gaming console.