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, 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.

Brianna Wu

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