Apple Is Right to Block MFi-Controller-Only Games on Apple TV
There has been much gnashing of teeth in the iOS gaming community about Apple's decision to require all Apple TV games support the built-in trackpad remote. Many gamers and developers feel that game makers should be allowed to make their games require a third-party MFi controller in order to be played. These people (correctly) feel that a large number of console-style games will play so terribly with Apple's remote control that not being able to play at all is superior to a poor control experience.
These folks aren't wrong in this point, but they are wrong in the belief that allowing developers to require MFi controllers at this time is the solution to the problem.
Apple's decision to launch the new Apple TV is 2 different bundles, neither of which include an MFi controller in the box, immediately relegates MFi controllers on the Apple TV to an extreme niche. Smaller even than the iPhone / iPad demographic.
Many of us were hoping that an app playing Apple TV update would be Apple's change to make a big move into the gaming market. Apple did not do this. The new Apple TV is not a gaming box. The new Apple TV is a refinement of the old Apple TV, but now it also happens to play games. Apple is not marketing it to gamers, it's marketing it to average people.
The fact of the matter is, to average people, most games will play perfectly fine with the Apple TV Remote, making this issue almost non-existant. Most of the games on this list do NOT make full use of a console-style controller. Most use one analog stick for movement and a couple of buttons for controls – an input scheme that will work perfectly well on the Apple TV Remote.
But what about the handfull of more complicated games? The Modern Warfares, the Grand Theft Autos, the MOBAs – how can games with complex inputs possibly be made to work on the Apple TV Remote? Can they be made to work as well as a console? The answer is no, but they don't have to.
Bad Controls Don’t Matter
If the iPhone has taught us anything, it's that average people don't actually care how badly a game controls. The proliferance of shooters and complex console ports to iOS – many of which "real gamers" would deem unplayable on a touchscreen – should tell you as much. The are made playable (sometimes just barely) because crafty developers are able to overcome the obvious control limitations.
Lets take shooting games. On a real MFi game controller, you use a minimum of three inputs at the same time: left analog to move, right analog to look around, right trigger to shoot. You'll periodically use a fourth input to stab, throw a grenade, zoom in, crouch, activate a switch, etc.
On a touchscreen, this control sceme is untenable. People only have 2 thumbs, and they can't move, look, and shoot at the same time with virtual sticks and virtual buttons, let alone use other commands. So developers implemented other options:
- Some allow you to use the gyroscope and accelerometer to look, freeing up left thumb to move and right to shoot
- Some combined looking and shooting, having the gun automatically fire when you look directly at an enemy
- Specialized attacks can be mapped to a shake – it's satisfying stabbing an enemy by shaking your phone at him
- Action buttons can be made context-sensitive. No need to map "use" to the Y button when it can just replace the "shoot" button when you aim at a switch
- Superflous functionality can be removed entirely. Do most gamers really need to crouch?
Call of Duty veterns might look at this and wince. But again, Apple isn't targeting them. Average gamers just want to run around a battlefield shooting stuff, and these controls allow that. If you're a pro gamer who wants more, Apple has a solution: buy an MFi controller.
Now lets see how a shooter could work with the Apple TV Remote:
- Movement can be handled with the touchpad. It'll feel very similar to moving on a touchscreen.
- Looking can be handled with the gyroscope in the remote. Judicious use of auto-locking will allow casual gamers to play
- Shooting can be mapped to one of the two face buttons
- Actions can be mapped to voice input. Yell "Grenade!" to throw a grenade. Say "time to sneak" and your character crouches and moves slowly. Say "reloading" to force-reload your weapon.
Again, pro gamers will bristle at this list. But again, Apple has a solution: buy an MFi controller.
How would GTA work on the Apple TV Remote? Well…
- Move with the touchpad, and the camera turns when your character does
- Shoot with a button. Auto-lock on the nearest enemy
- Carjacking replaces shooting when directly next to a car and looking at the door
- Use voice to switch weapon on ground, switch radio station in a car
- Remove jumping and crouching entirely
- Tilt controls for flying vehicles, wheelies, and other side commands
You get the idea. No, the experience isn't perfect. But it also isn't so bad that you'd need to completely block off the remote from working in the first place.
The Reality of The New Apple TV
Let's call the new Apple TV what it actually is for most people: a $150 media consumption box. This is not the new iPhone – it isn't going to sell hundreds of millions of units in a year. It'll probably sell closer to 5 million.
Many – possibly most – of those 5 million customers will not be gamers. They'll be buying a video box they can control Siri with. When these customers open up the App Store, Apple wants to sell them apps. If these people see a bunch of games that require a third-party controller they don't own, these people will simply not download those apps. Doesn't matter how cool the game is, doesn't matter how cheep the controller is.
Their kids might download those apps, though. It's a lot easier to talk mom and dad into spending $5 on copy of Minecraft than it is to talk them into spending $55 on Minecraft and a controller. However, if the kid's playing Minecraft all the time and the remote is constantly going missing and running out of power, suddenly that controller the kid's been begging for seems like a lot easier sale.
But what about the games that will never be ported?
The last arguement for allowing developers to require MFi controllers goes like this: big-time console developers might port their games to the Apple TV if it was as simple as porting the code over, then copying over the same control scheme they used on the Xbox / PlayStation and requiring customers own a controller. However, these developers won't port it if they have to also figure out how to make it work on the Apple TV Remote.
Sounds good in theory, but the fact is, these games were never getting ported over any time soon. Wasn't going to happen, even with a "controller required" option.
If developers are going to spend the time and energy to port a game to the iOS codebase, they're going to aim for the target with 1 billion users: iPhones and iPads. The Apple TV, with it's paltry userbase, will be a distant second.
Coding is the hard part, slapping a (possibly terrible) input method together is easy. If a big-name console game is coming to iOS, it's developers are going to spend the time to make it work on a touchscreen and accelerometer. If they do that, it's easy to make it work on the Apple TV remote.
There will be no situation, ever, when a developer spends the time porting a game to iOS, then decides to ignore the billion-strong iPhone market and instead target only the percentage of Apple TV customers who own MFi controllers. Never. If a developer did that, they would be insane.
Apple is right to avoid fragmenting the Apple TV user base right now. The number of early adopters isn't going to be huge, and the last thing Apple needs is early customers telling their friends to avoid buying an Apple TV because "the good games need an extra controller".
This would be a bad situation. But more than that, it would be a distinctly "un-Apple" situation. Apple wants apps to "just work". Apps that are segregated behind a $50 paywall don't "just work".
In the future, who knows? In a few years, the Apple TV will be cheaper, the hardware will more powerful, the userbase will be bigger, and Apple could potentially starts selling an Apple TV with an MFi controller in the box. In this world, with 100 million Apple TVs in homes around the world, it might make sense for Activision to bring Call of Duty to the Apple TV and require a real game controller. But on launch day? Forget it.
I'm the biggest MFi controller proponent out there, but it just doesn't make sense for any games to require them right now.