WWDC 2014: Game Controllers State-of-the-Union

Apple’s own thoughts and plans for the MFi controller program

This year’s WWDC is in full swing, and Apple has once again made it abundantly clear that gaming is a major focus for them. Between completely new technologies like Metal to updated frameworks like Spritekit, Apple continues to build out their gaming ecosystem for developers.

But what of physical game controllers? Apple didn’t say a thing about them during the WWDC media keynote – does that mean last year’s big gaming push is being ignored?

Good news for controller fans: it turns out exactly the opposite is true. The MFi controller program is alive and well, and is set to receive a major push from Apple in the near future, according to their Platforms State of the Union presentation given immediately after the media-friendly WWDC keynote.

Apple wwdc platforms state of the union mfi controller update

While short, there is a surprisingly large amount to unpack in that slide, and in the accompanying description. Lets dig in point by point…

Thousands of Games

This one is pretty straightforward: Apple is saying there are thousands of games with controller support. Of course, they don’t list any of those games anywhere. Places that do list those games, such as this very site, don’t come anywhere close to that. Afterpad provides the biggest and most comprehensive list out there, and we’ve seen about 340 games with support. Either we’ve missed thousands of games, or Apple is playing a little fast and loose with their counting. I lean towards the latter… *ahem*… moving on…

In-store Demos

Again, the specifics here may be a little questionable, but at least this one has some basis in reality – at the time the speaker informed the audience that there were in-store demonstrations of MFi controllers, there really WERE in-store demonstrations! Of course, Apple just started rolling out those demonstrations within the past week. And those demonstrations are only available at a few locations, such as the Apple Store a few blocks away from WWDC. But that’s beside the point…

The important takeaway here is, Apple is starting to demonstrate MFi game controllers for Apple Store customers, live and in person. This is a big deal – this means casual passers-by will actually see Apple employees and customers playing the games, will actually be able to try the controllers out for themselves with a few games, and will hopefully leave the store with a controller.

This is a big deal for the platform. Controller makers are going to be less reticent to release devices now that they have a guaranteed in-person demonstration platform at the world’s most valuable retailer. Developers are going to want to update their games for controller support on the off-chance Apple will choose to demonstrate those games live. Shoppers will get a chance to see, touch, and play with those controllers in person. Expect this to play a significant role in accelerating the growth of game controllers on iOS.

Controller Forwarding

Controller forwarding allows any iOS 8 devices to share any MFi controller connected to it with another device, simply by connecting the two devices. In its current incarnation, controller forwarding allows iPhones and iPads connected to MFi controllers to allow those controllers to work with any Mac running OS X. This works by connecting the iPhone or iPad to the Mac over USB, then launching a compatible Mac game The iPhone or iPad conveys the MFi controller’s input signals through the cable to the computer, and the computer never realizes that it isn’t connected directly to a controller

This is interesting for a variety of reasons. It certainly expands the number of MFi controllers with Mac compatibility from just Bluetooth controllers to ANY MFi controller. That’s a big deal for a relatively new platform – it won’t fragment the controllers into Mac compatible and iOS+Mac compatible.

But lets get serious about this. The number of people who are going to be connecting iOS devices to their Macs to play games with MFi controllers is nowhere near enough to justify the amount of work implementing this feature must have taken. I don’t think Apple spent time coding this in order to allow iPhones in PowerShells to play games on a platform that is fully capable of supporting ANY game controller, from Xbox 360 gamepads to Wii sticks. What other reason could Apple have for developing this technology?

When you start to think about the potential uses for controller forwarding outside of OS X, the feature gets interesting. Specifically, I’m thinking about the Apple TV.

Apple currently has a team of top-grade engineers working on the next-generation Apple TV. While I certainly don’t have any specifics regarding what that next iteration will look like, I’d bet a lot that gaming will play a major part of it. The idea of using an iPhone in a MFi controller as a sort of second-screen input device for an iOS powered Apple TV console is intriguing. It would open up the potential for new interaction models in a way not completely dissimilar to how Airplay streaming between iPhone and Apple TV already works.


So that appears to be it for controller support at this year’s WWDC. We will continue to check the store regularly on the off-chance we missed the several thousand compatible games Apple references. We’ll take a closer look at the in-person controller demonstrations at Apple Stores, and hopefully document the expansion of the stores featuring those demonstrations. And as Yosemite and iOS 8 get further along in development, we’ll delve more closely into controller forwarding, and hopefully have some more concrete details of how those features work. Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed to stay up-to-date with the latest in MFi controller, iOS, and Apple TV gaming news.