iOS 7 game controller support remains a promise unfulfilled: A gamer's lament

Boy, MFi game controller support on iOS 7 hasn't worked out the way I hoped it would. Right now, it's a mess.

When Apple announced MFi controller support in iOS 7 at WWDC last June, I got excited. The iPhone and iPad are tremendously powerful devices and there are lots of great games, but not every game is good with touch screen controls. The lack of tactile response, the obscuring of what's happening on screen, and the sometimes-awkward hold you have to make to grip the device all added up to frustration for me, over and over again.

MFi controller support seemed like a great compromise: gamers who wanted real game controls would be able to get devices that worked. And the fact that support was built in to the operating system meant broad support.

Or so I thought. Five months after iOS 7's release, there's still only a relative handful of games that make use of MFi game controllers. Not to mention a paucity of MFi controllers.

What's more, the controllers that are available are either ridiculously specialized like the MOGA Ace Power and Logitech PowerShell, both designed to turn an iPhone into a handheld game console a la the Sony PlayStation Vita or Nintendo DS. They're also quite expensive expect to spend $70-$100 on one — even more than the cost of a game controller for a "real" console like an Xbox or PlayStation.

I recently put SteelSeries' Stratus game controller through its paces, which I quite like — but I came away feeling that MFi game controller support in iOS 7 is a nice benefit but not a must have, partly because the experience is so disjointed and inconsistent, with it not at all clear as to which games have MFi controller support and which don't.

Apple has to shoulder a lot of the blame here. The company has done a horrendous job of promoting games that have MFi controller support. There's no way to differentiate them in the App Store outside of checking the release notes for individual games. (Kevin MacLeod at AfterPad has assembled a list of MFi controller compatible games to help fill in the blanks — make sure to bookmark it.)

I'm beginning to get the feeling that MFi game controller support is going to be one of those orphaned technologies that Apple just ignores until it withers and dies, sort of lie what the company did with iTunes Ping.

Meanwhile, over in the Android world, we've seen specialized game systems like the Nvidia Shield appear — devices that work with Android software, but transcend the standard smartphone experience all together.

We've seen no such innovation from Apple, which brought us the "funnest iPod ever," right?

I've been carrying the mantle of Apple gaming for decades — I started my first Mac-centric game site back in 1994, and have been watching the business grow, shrink, and change ever since. iOS devices came and soon after the App Store arrived, and at that point gaming exploded on the platform. Games still take up the largest single chunk of the App Store, and represent a huge market and a huge draw for iOS customers.

Why Apple has such half-assed game controller support in iOS 7 is completely beyond my understanding. Making gaming on iOS devices a richer, more compelling experience should be a top priority in Cupertino. Instead, the way it is right now, it feels like a joke.

Peter Cohen
  • I 100% agree. I was so excited when they announced the Gamekit and MiFi controller support back in June, expecting there to be a plethora of games and controllers to be released by iOS 7's release.
    What I wanted most is a sleek, thin iPad case with build in MiFi controls. There was one on Kickstarter long ago, but I haven't heard anything from the project in months.
    Apple must be blind to this huge missed opportunity..
  • For me the joy of iOS gaming isn't its ability to emulate the console experience, but its accessibility. Play anytime, anywhere. Relying on a hardware controller accessory to fully enjoy a a game limits that accessibility. Carrying around a separate accessory is a hassle, and if I'm at home in front of the TV with time to kill, I'd just as soon boot up the Xbox or (more likely) the PC. The NVIDIA Shield is cool for sure, but a commercial flop, likely for some of those same reasons. I think it's natural for developers to work towards a touch-friendly gaming experience first, and then worry about controller support if it's applicable to them. By and large, I hope virtual joysticks (and any remappings for physical controllers) become a relic as game design is adjusted for finger input.
  • I so much agree on Simon on this. Developers should focus on touch friendly games. I have played FIFA on iOS and dont even get me started about the experience.
  • I think hardware controls are great for porting legacy titles that depended on them and I fully encourage that. But the better solution would be for developers to make better use of the eye tracking, gyroscopes, and multitouch surface.
  • Good, but why not have both? Some nice games for controllers would be great, I don't get why people are against choice. Must be an Apple thing.
  • Choice is great, I just understand that it's a very small segment developers would be chasing. If they made games that really needed a hardware controller to feel right, they'd be publishing on XBLA, not iOS. That said, there are some great games that don't come to iOS from XBLA because of the control issue. I've needled the guy at Vambleer about bringing Luftrausers to mobile, and he said they aren't specifically because of the control scheme. It would be nice if that could be solved just by adding iOS controller and Bluetooth controller support, but then they're limiting their game only to people with hardware controllers, and they still have to deal with all of the overhead of keeping multiple versions of a game supported.
  • That's why I love the SteelSeries Stratus. It's small enough, that it also goes with me wherever my iPhone or iPad goes, because a normal-sized controller would be too bulky. ____________ Sent from the iMore App
  • But the steel series is simply inferior when compared to console grade controllers. Review after review remarks on the cramped experience and how it simply is not as responsive and offers inferior performance as compared to a console grade controller. Sure there is a place for a more compact type of controller but for gamers who want a no compromise controller we are out in the dark. Compared to android where there are several companies offering console grade controllers for decent price, IOS IS AN INFERIOR GAMING SYSTEM SIMPLY BECAUSE OF THE LACK OF CONTROLLERS. That is intolerable to me. The sophistication of the a7 chip of the iPhone means it has pixel pushing power comparable to an Xbox 360. But the lack of a decent controller makes the gaming experience frankly ridiculous, except for those limited subset of games that work well with touch control. It's like taking a BMW M3 and releasing it with a hard plastic seat and a foam rubber steering wheel
  • Kevin MacLeod's list of MFi games is good, but I've been using an app called Phonejoy which I stumbled upon before the list of compatible games over at AfterPad.
  • I think mifi is not going to take off until apple releases a new Apple TV to actually play games on. The controllers are to high and everyone who plays games expects a controller to be of the quality of a ps3 controller. Sent from the iMore App
  • I am totally behind the comment before mine. The Vita TV manages quite well with streaming gameplay, why not the Apple TV? That feature could really launch iOS gaming beyond anything else given its current trend in retro style evangelism.
  • I agree. At the moment there is a mark underneath app titles that say whether is has in-app purchases, another to state controller support would be great. Also, and this may not win me any favors with developers, but Apple runs its walled garden of app acceptance. If they wanted to push this, why not make a new condition that "game" genre titles need to support the basics of MFi controllers. I don't believe the API is difficult...
  • Could somebody tell me which wireless controllers are actually compatible with IOS 7's GCController SDK ? I've just tried an iPega wireless controller and whilst the bluetooth connection works, Apple's SDK doesn't detect it. Is the SteelSeries compatible? Thanks!
  • Thank you. It boggles my mind why Apple would create a gaming system as powerful as the iphone 5s or the iPad with the A7 chip, and then ghettoize IOS gaming. Simply put without a decent controller gaming experience lags substantially as compared to android. The 5s can pump out graphics comparable to the Xbox 360, but without a decent controller so many games provide a sub optimal experience to even the old NES. I can't comprehend why they want to cripple the iPhone as a gaming system. With my PC I spent $40 for a great logitech controller that provides a fantastic game experience for those games that don't work best with mouse and keyboard. The MFI controllers are an overpriced joke and the quality is terrible. Mad Catz CTRLi MFI gamepad looks awesome and has gotten great reviews but they keep delaying its release and it's impossible to even get any feedback from the company trust me I've tried. It shouldn't be impossible to get a console quality controller for a device as sophisticated as my iPhone. It's ridiculous that we have this incredibly advanced Machine completely crippled by lack of a decent controller. Does Apple want the iPhone to be a vastly inferior gaming device as compared to android phones? There is stupidity and then there is STUPIDITY. For gamers making the decision as to which system to invest in the lack of a decent controller for iPhone seriously makes it hard to prefer it as a gaming system even though it my opinion the processing power makes it the best choice