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What you need to know about Apple TV and game controllers

Apple's fourth-generation Apple TV offers an App Store chock full of third-party apps for you to enjoy—including, yes, games. To expand the gaming universe further, the Apple TV is supporting Apple's Made For iPhone (MFi) standard for third-party controllers, which means you'll be able to game with a Siri Remote and Xbox-style controller alike.

So, how do third-party controllers work in the wide wonderful world of tvOS? We'll walk you through it so you can start gaming in no time.

What can I use to control an Apple TV game?

Currently, you can play games with three different devices: the Siri remote, MFi controllers, and your iOS device.

Games have to support the Apple TV's Siri remote

Many tvOS games are supporting MFi controllers to allow for more detailed interactions inside gameplay. But you don't have to worry about being locked out if you don't have a fancy controller: All games still have to support playing via the Siri Remote.

Apple does this by requiring developers to support multiple controller profiles: The Siri Remote offers a limited controller set, through which the core tenets of the game should be playable. Switch to a third-party controller, and you'll gain access to the extended control layout, which supports multiple buttons, shoulder and trigger buttons, multiple thumbsticks and a directional pad, and more.

For the end-user, this means that you won't be locked out of an awesome tvOS game if you choose not to buy additional hardware, but a third-party controller will add more complexity and a range of extra options for play.

All MFi game controllers work with the Apple TV

Apple may be primarily advertising the SteelSeries Nimbus Wireless Controller for the new Apple TV, and for good reason: The controller feels great in the hand and charges via Lightning cable. But you don't have to buy the latest and greatest controller to game on your Apple TV—any MFi-approved game controller that works on iOS will also connect to the new set-top box.

iPhone and iPods work as game controllers, too—if your game supports it

You're not just limited to a Siri Remote or third-party controller: The new Apple TV can use your iOS device as an additional controller if the game you're playing supports it. Typically, you'll see iOS controller support for games that have an iPhone or iPad counterpart, like SketchParty.

How do MFi game controllers interact with the Apple TV?

Connecting an MFi controller is as easy as turning it on and pairing it from the Apple TV's Settings app (just go to Remotes and Devices > Bluetooth). Once that controller's connected, however, there are a few things you might want to know.

Game controllers work as remotes, too

Everything your Siri Remote can do, your game controller can do, too: Just like you might navigate your Xbox with an Xbox controller, you can use third-party controllers to move through your Home screen or any other apps. The D-pad and left thumbstick both work to navigate through menus, while the A button works as a click, and the B button as a back option.

On the Nimbus, you also have a "Menu" button which, in addition to working as a back button, also allows you to pause games and movies alike.

Sadly, no: There's no way to get voice control in your games just yet. You can't trigger Siri except via the Siri remote.

You can only have two controllers (and a remote) hooked up at any time

Don't get too excited for four-player mayhem just yet: Unfortunately, you can only link two MFi controllers to your Apple TV at a time. That, plus the Siri Remote, seems to indicate a total of three possible players at a time (unless the game in question also offers iOS controllers, as well.)

Third-party controllers don't have accelerometers

If you're opting for a controller over Siri Remote or iOS device, be prepared to give away some more creative functionality: Standalone controllers don't currently support accelerometer tilt or motion controls.

How do I know if my game supports a third-party controller?

All games on the tvOS App Store offer a helpful indicator on their app pages in regards to controllers: If your game offers third-party controller support, you'll see Game Controller Optional below the description.

I do find that wording interesting—"optional"—given that, currently, Apple prevents tvOS games from requiring a game controller. It might be worded in such a way to open up the possibility controller-required games in the future... or it just might be a random word choice on the part of tvOS App Store staff.

How the Siri Remote works as a game controller

If you're planning on using the Siri Remote to play games, here are a few things you'll want to know.

You can hold the Siri Remote in either portrait or landscape, depending on the game—most controller-type games will require landscape, while point-and-click games should be fine in portrait mode.

When you hold the remote sideways in landscape, the touchpad should face to the left, with the Lightning port (and optional connected wrist strap) to the right.

The touchpad works as a D-pad; click the touchpad to hit the "A" button equivalent. The Play/Pause button becomes the "X" button, while the Menu button becomes the pause function to bring up the game's menu. The volume buttons, Siri button, and TV On/Off button remain mapped to their original functionality.

The Siri remote will recognize basic motion data while playing, but don't expect anything overly complicated: It currently can't determine precise altitude or rotation of the remote.

How third-party controllers work in games

When you connect a third-party controller, you have access to the full expanded controller layout. That means iOS games can incorporate any and all of those extra buttons.

Many games won't, of course, leaving you the traditional A/B button + D-pad controls to work with. But for those that do, you may gain access to the X and Y buttons, shoulders, triggers, and thumbstick controls.

Questions about game controllers?

Drop 'em in the comments and we'll try to dig up some answers.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

23 Comments
  • Or of course if you are REALLY serious about gaming...you could save the money and use money towards an Apple TV instead towards an XBox One or PS4 which both are built for gaming and work as excellent media streaming devices too :) Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Very insightful comment, coming from an android user continually posting in an Apple forum that is head and shoulders above what I would have expected.
  • Can the Xbox One or PS4 stream the content from my Mac Mini server? I'm not much of a gamer, but if they can do that you might be right. If not, then they don't really work for me.
  • Well, using Plex, they can.
  • Is that difficult to implement when I have 4 users on the server, each with their own files? The nice thing is that the Apple TV just works with my set-up. I just log in or out of each user depending on what files I want someone who is using the Apple TV to see.
  • Yeah but they don't want you to know that the Xbox or PlayStation does the same thing Apple TV does but a lot better Sent from the iMore App
  • Wow, really? Apple is really keeping that a secret from everyone? Thanks for letting us all know that the Xbox and PS are better at gaming..
  • It's a little early to make judgments about what the new ATV does and doesn't do better considering we are just getting it in our hands today... Also, that kind of comment makes me think this just isn't the device for you if you're a serious gamer. I have less time to invest in games so the more casual gaming experience could actually cause me to sell my seldom used PS4. I'll probably hang onto it since I already have it but doubtful I'll get a dedicated console next generation.
  • This is exactly where I find myself. I've often thought it would be nice if I could have a few games that I play once in awhile on my ATV, but in the long run, I'll be spending very little of my weekly waking hours gaming on any console. I must add that, my impatience in waiting for Apple to update the ATV in a significant way was pushing every closer to going with an Xbox, for gaming and for streaming ... my point simply being, Phew! That was close. As posted elsewhere, my ATV is here, in town, but I can't pick it up until Monday because that's when the truck will be unloaded. But I'm happy, and, I'm wondering if/when I should/will buy a game controller. Yee Haw!
  • No they don't. They do games better. And that's it. If you're a gamer, the reasons to get an Apple TV remain pretty much the same as if you aren't a gamer.
  • Beter is a relative thing. The Xbox 360 was better in the same ways you are talking about than the Wii, but the Wii was a better game machine for many people (just see the sales numbers). That said, I think ewelch is probably correct. Had Apple really wanted to compete in the high end console market this box would have an A9X chip and not an A8. It would support 4k video and have that as an advantage against Xbox and PlayStation. I'm looking forward to the 2017 AppleTV, because Game developers already know there is money in iOS and far less in dedicated console's. An A9X would have bested the Xbox 360, an A11X will crush the Xbox One. Time will tell.
  • My hope is for games from developers like Ketchapp ( Arrow, Jelly Jump etc ). Quick to pickup games that I can play for a few minutes like I do with my iPhone. You only have to look at the success of the Jewels type games and how much they have made developers on the iPhone to see that there is huge demand for quick access games just like there is for immersive third person shooters that absorb days of your life. The two can both win I think, its very much a case of what is good for one person isnt necessarily the same for someone else. Personally I expect apps on Apple TV to be HUGE...
  • I'm stuck in this 30+ year old world of longing for my past love of console gaming (mainly Madden) and the realization that as a professional, husband and father, I just don't have time for that experience anymore. This is why I haven't bothered with the PS4, so I'm rooting for Apple TV to build up enough of an install base to attract some bigger game developers to make the Apple TV a viable game console with a TV content focus. A PS3 level quality version of Madden for Apple TV would be perfect for me, but would certainly require a real controller and I don't think third party controllers will sell well. Apple needs to release one made by them and the demand for controller supported games will skyrocket.
  • I'd like to see this happen too. I don't see how games like Madden could exist on Apple TV while Apple insist that all games must be playable on the remote; there needs to be a section of the store for MFi apps only and if you don't have a controller paired then you don't see it. That has to be a better experience than seeing a load of games that turn out to be mostly unplayable because you don't own the "optional" controller.
  • Thanks for the information - your timing is impeccable!
  • my take is ... the word "optional" could just mean its an option, as apposed to being required... since there is no need to use a controller to play a game, if up to the user. Don't see a problem with this word. I guess if the motion stuff u would really like, u wouldn't be using a controller, but maybe MFI controllers could have motion sensors in as well if there is demand. SImilar to the old Force feedback pro joysticks or steeling wheel types where they offered the same "feeling" for going round a corner in a car,
  • Hey, thanks for great article. Is it possible connect your Xbox or ps4 controller to ATV 4 gen?
  • I've managed to connect a ps4 controller, but it doesn't seem to work!
    Can anybody help?
  • Just got Apple TV. Managed to sync up remote and 2 Madcatz controllers. Would also like to sync iPhone but have been told by support that Apple TV will only support remote and 2 devices at once. OK, a limitation, but understandable. But it will only recognize 3 devices at once. Meaning I can only have a short list and must enter settings to forget one device and then sync another. Not a limitation, a user unfriendly bug... Will we need to wait for firmware fix or wait for 5th gen to resolve this annoyance? More immediately, I've set up my boys with Crossy Road multiplayer, but am being forced to use remote as one of my controllers. Does this issue point back to app development or to tvOS, and are there any guesses on how to resolve this next annoyance?
  • I'm having the same issue! I bought two MFI controllers and one of them keeps getting assigned to Player 3, automatically giving the Apple remote Player 2. I want to know how to reassign controllers so that I can play with the two MFI controllers as Player 1 and Player 2
  • I have a brand new Matricom G-PAD. It will not pair with my Apple TV (4th Gen); However my G-PAD is identified my iPhone 6 Plus. An Apple support representative blew me off with "It's not an Apple TV sanctioned gamepad device". Please advise.
  • II bought 2 Ninbus controllers for my new Apple TV just so I could play games together with my son. Well, I have yet to figure out how to play using both controllers at the same time. They are both connected via Bluetooth, I did all that. It's just not clear how to play WITH someone. Is there some trick to activating a two-player mode? What games are there that have this type of mode? I bought games that claimed to have two player mode: Badlands, Galaxy on Fire, Chrossyroad and geometry wars 3, with no luck. Any help would be appreciated as my game experience is mostly from the 80's : )
  • I tried a game at the store that used the motion controlled in the remote. Reminded me of the wii. Do any of the controllers support motion control ? I understand you can't connect two remotes to a single Apple TV for multiplayer ? Is this correct ? It has to be a remote and then third party controllers ? Appreciate any advice on this.