Controllers unleashed: Apple TV gaming is about to get a Kraken-sized upgrade!

Apple TV Controller Hero
Apple TV Controller Hero (Image credit: iMore)

In every way, the new Apple TV is a step up from the version it replaced. The interface is better, its channel selection is massively expanded, and forget the haters — I find the new remote a blast to use. But as much as I love it, I found it hard at first to not feel a bit frustrated by the state of gaming on the platform. Thankfully, I have hope that this will soon be changing — starting with restrictions being lifted on custom controllers.

Remote limitations

The Siri Remote makes a lot of sense for watching TV and navigating content. It offers a touch area a bit larger than a postage stamp at the tip of the remote — just large enough for your thumb to swipe comfortably. This allows general directional swipes that are precise enough for Netflix or for fast-forwarding to a run scored in an game, but it isn't a good fit for videogames, which require extremely precise responses.

Take the classic Genesis game Sonic the Hedgehog. This game, by all rights and means, should be a natural fit for the Apple audience: The gameplay is easy to pick up, the content is kid-friendly, and the the $3 price is low enough to buy on a whim. But it is a flat-out miserable experience with the Siri Remote. Jumps will be missed, rolls will not be detected, and trying to change direction in midair is infuriating.

Put down the Siri Remote and pick up a third-party controller like the Nimbus Steel Series (opens in new tab), however, and everything changes. The game plays perfectly, bringing the magic of Sonic the Hedgehog to life.

Unfortunately, many Apple TV users may never know about the glory of third-party controllers: Up until this point, game developers have been forced to support the Siri remote, even when it doesn't make sense for their type of game. For example, the classic Sega game Streets of Rage II has been ported to almost every major system, but if Sega were to bring it to tvOS, it would be almost impossible on the Siri Remote — because the buttons aren't in the right place

But that could all be changing.

Take 10

With tvOS 10's release in the fall, Apple is quietly dropping its requirement that tvOS games support the Siri Controller.

This means that developers can soon require a third-party controller for playing certain titles on tvOS. It may come at the expense of not being able to sell the game to the portion of the Apple TV audience without alternative controllers, but we may also see titles that physically could not have been ported to the platform without a more traditional remote. It also frees up the developer's engineering resources, letting them focus more on the game than porting its controls to the Siri remote.

The Apple TV App Store has already devoted a portion of its store to this new policy: "Play with Controllers." I can personally confirm: Every game they've selected is a vastly better experience; Geometry Wars 3 is a precision twin-stick shooter, and with the Steel Series, it's absolutely equal to the PS4 version. Oceanhorn is a straight up Zelda clone, done with superb attention to detail. On iOS, the touchpad gameplay was tolerable - but on tvOS, with a third-party controller, the experience is extremely comparable to Link to the Past.

There's no question the move away from the Siri remote remote requirement will result in better games on Apple TV. I do wonder, however, if we'll see Apple get into the advanced controller business itself this fall — offering an Apple TV bundle with the Siri Remote and Magic Controller, perhaps?

Beyond control

What's more exciting, to me, is the ways tvOS could further expand for game developers. For all the improvements Apple has made to Metal and its other 3D developer tools, it's hard to not notice that almost every game on iOS is set in a 2D environment — most of those games that have been built specifically for the iPhone. Many of the games on tvOS currently are ports from these iPhone titles, but but there's no technical reason more sophisticated games couldn't run on Apple TV.

Our own studio works extensively with Unreal Engine on iOS, and the idea of porting some of the greatest Unreal games ever made to Apple TV is an entirely feasible project. Imagine playing Mass Effect, Life is Strange, Bioshock or Batman: Arkham City on your Apple TV: None of those game ports could be possible without Apple dropping the Siri Remote. Here's hoping this is just step one in the company's plan for TV game development. After all, a great gaming platform is yet another selling point for picking up a new Apple TV.

Head of Development at Giant Spacekat. Host of Isometric and Rocket on Relay.FM. Godzilla of tech feminists.

  • Awesome to hear.. I have 1 steel controller.. was thinking of getting a second..
  • It's literally the best built and functioning game controller I've ever used. Looking forward for it getting more use from it!
  • You mean like Infinity Blade on tvOS ? It's same performance as my iPad Air 2. By nature since these both use same chip, one could say there is no reason "any game released for iOS, past or present, could not be done for tvOS as well."
  • The only problem I've had is lag. I have all the Zen Pinball tables, but it's unplayable with the Siri Remote. I use my Steel Series Stratus, but the lag also makes a game like pinball unplayable. It might not be a big deal in many games, NBA is still great, for example, but pinball is impossible with any lag. Is there a solution on the horizon?
  • That's interesting, I haven't noticed any lags. Is it possible there's an interference in your room? Try disabling Wi-Fi if you can and see if it is improved. There are some problems with bluetooth+Wi-Fi with Apple devices that I've seen all over the Internet.
  • I tried turning off wifi, but then I can't start the game. The AppleTV is kinda useless without wifi.
  • Make sure you set the TV to Game mode for the AppleTV input.
  • No need there. I got a TV with a 240 refresh rate. I mainly use my TV for Islanders hockey and lacrosse. Any slower that 240 and the puck or ball really jitters. Essentially, the TV is always in "game mode." Also, zero lag issues on the XBOX 360 and XBOX One, only on Apple TV. Have you tried your controller with Zen Pinball? I'm wondering if it's just that game, or if even the slightest lag makes pinball unplayable, but other games can pass.
  • Someone on Reddit reported that on tvOS 10 beta 3, he could connect his PS4 controller via bluetooth. It's extremely laggy but it worked. It would be interesting to see how far Apple opens this up in tvOS 10.
  • I checked and it doesn't work, I can see the "Wireless controller" on the results of a bluetooth search, but I can't pair to it. On the other side, OSX Sierra works with it flawlessly.
  • This is great! The only games I have really enjoyed are the Big Giant games, Bastion and Transistor. Final Fantasy Tactics and Swordigo are awesome as well. I'm on the fence about buying Nintendo's upcoming system, but hopefully the Apple TV will start carrying more than just iPhone ports, endless runners, casual games, and pay to play games.
  • Briana Wu is a guy
  • I don't know... I hope a Standard of sorts is developed. Otherwise I can see having to buy different controllers for different games.
  • Apple has had a standard for game controllers since 2013.
  • Meh, I’ll have a look see when FULL versions of some really big titles start coming across, (or good quality copies/alternatives), like Tomb Raider, The Clancy games, Assassins Creed, F1 2016 etc etc…...
  • Galaxy on Fire Manticore for me.
  • Talking of game controllers when is your game coming out on PC ? (Probably get banned for asking that and no I have nothing to do with gamer whatever they are). Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Wanna buy an MFi controller for my iPad Pro.
  • It's on my to buy list as well. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • I don't have an Apple TV.....yet! But I do hope to get one soon, and as a lifelong gamer who plays both the latest high-end new stuff (I.e Doom 2016 on both XB1 and PC - the PC version looks way better), modern casual gaming like Alto's Adventure, One More Line and Downwell, as well as the old stuff; be that the very same Sonic 1 and Streets of Rage 2 mentioned in this article....only in actual official game carts....on real model 1 Genesis hardware, or even further back to the Atari 2600 versions of Missile Command, River Raid, and Pitfall in actual official carts running on real Atari 7800 hardware (I have about 40 systems and 1000 games in total), I REEEEAAALLY want to see Apple get into gaming. And with as solid as Apple TV is, and as casual gaming-centric as we are as a society, I don't think we have much to worry about in terms of it being just another Pippin (20pts to those who get the reference). If AppleTV gets serious about games, it's gonna turn it from something that'd be really nice to have into something I just can't not have! :-) Cheers!
  • Unreal Tournament!
  • all this gaming and features, and it is *still* only slightly larger than a hockey puck... Take that Foxtel.. :P (minus the PVR)
  • This is exactly what I was hoping would happen. Having a job, being married, and living in a larger city, I just don't have that much time for gaming so it's hard to justify a $400+ PS4 etc. and this is the next best thing, especially if I'll be able to switch back and forth between the phone and Apple TV. I have the last gen Apple TV but I'm sure the next gen won't be out for a few years, right?