The sleeper game news out of WWDC last week was that Apple plans to fold actual Apple-baked game controller support into iOS 7 as well as OS X 10.9. Alas, it doesn’t entail an Apple-crafted controller, only third-party licensed game controller support, and yes, iOS already has game controller support courtesy Bluetooth; the difference in iOS 7 involves Apple’s new developmental guidelines and an API that goes hand-in-glove with Apple-blessed products from gamepad-makers like Logitech and Moga. Word from sites like Pocket Gamer is that the new controllers should be available this fall, around the time iOS 7 hits.
We’ve even seen semi-detailed mockups of the controllers, laid out by Apple in its iOS prerelease developer library: a wraparound iPhone 5 shell harboring a d-pad, dual analog thumbsticks and both face and shoulder buttons (that’s it above) as well as a traditional wireless gamepad, presumably angled toward OS X gaming (shown below).
According to Apple: “The new Game Controller framework, added in iOS 7 and OS X v10.9, makes it easy to find controllers connected to a Mac or iOS device. Once discovered, your game reads control inputs as part of its normal gameplay.” Apple breaks controllers into two basic types here: a standard or extended “form-fitting” controller (allowing players to access both the touchscreen and controller buttons) and a separate wireless controller. The company also specifies that the controllers “must be optional,” meaning there has to be a way to play each game without a controller; as Apple puts it, “controllers must enhance gameplay — they must not be required.” Apple adds that device discovery will be intrinsic to iOS 7 and OS X 10.9′s new “Game Controller framework.” For companies like iCade and SteelSeries, who already make iOS game controllers, that means no longer chasing after discrete game support — just design to the API and honor Apple’s “controllers must enhance gameplay” principle and you’re theoretically in business.
That is news of a sort: Apple throwing its weight behind anything explicitly gaming-related is a big deal considering Apple’s historically timid embrace of gaming. You might call Apple the anti-Nintendo of gaming: Instead of adopting Nintendo’s holistic approach to game design, handling software and hardware to architect the experience end to end, Apple treats games pretty much like it treats Google Maps, Facebook or Pages — like anything else, in other words: average, ordinary apps that live in its App Store, and that just so happen to be games, too.
Today, that App Store involves a tightly controlled touch, swipe and motion-driven ecosystem. As a game controller for touch, swipe and motion-driven games, the iPhone and iPad are terrific little on-the-go devices. Casual players can pull down time-wasters like Plants vs. Zombies or Angry Birds Star Wars or Temple Run Oz. Parent-gamers can pull down stuff like SpongeBob Moves In or Talking Ben the Dog or any of Fisher Price’s apptivity games-slash-activities designed for kids. Traditional gamers can fiddle with tower defense games, Plague Inc., Battle of the Bulge and Minecraft. True, with over 900,000 apps to sift through, Apple has discovery issues, and the junk-to-value ratio is high, but with over 150,000 of these deemed “active games,” you’d be insane to call iOS’s games library meager.
Well, insane until you start comparing genres, anyway. The most popular games on core-gaming-angled consoles last month, by comparison — core gaming still outpacing all other gaming tiers in games industry revenues — included Injustice: Gods Among Us, Dead Island: Riptide, BioShock Infinite, Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Defiance. While the latest iOS devices are arguably capable of crunching games like those, iOS has an interface problem when it comes to the sort of control heterogeneity and finesse they require. This is why you’re not seeing major gaming franchises ported over unaltered — not because the latest iPad or iPhone can’t get the job done, visually speaking, but because nobody wants to play Call of Duty: Black Ops II on 4- or 10-inch touchscreens.
Apple’s slowly backed into gaming for years, driven by its ecosystem instead of driving that ecosystem. To torture the Swiss Army Knife metaphor, gaming feels like the nail-file, or maybe the scissors in iOS’s utility lineup — the sort of thing people use because hey, it’s there, and why not? But most people don’t buy iPhones, iPads or the iPod Touch to game foremost.
That said, the notion that tablets can’t cater to core gamers — that it’s consoles or tablets and never the twain shall meet — is a false choice. It smacks more of Apple’s indifference to gaming than some fundamental design-choice virtue involving mobile game interfaces.
At risk of repeating myself because I keep writing about this, Apple could change all this if it got serious about iOS’s cross-demographic gaming potential instead of just dropping these incremental advances. Backing into solutions only gets you so far. What’s missing? For starters, an Apple-endorsed method to connect your iOS devices to a larger display that doesn’t involve Apple’s laggy, unreliable AirPlay. iPads and iPhones can’t replace 60-inch HDTV screens and Dolby 5.1 sound systems. If Apple wants to court Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield buffs or get that breed of developer onboard doing faithful ports instead of (mostly very bad) touchscreen-based knockoffs, it needs to embrace a more holistic approach to gaming (to say nothing of what it might do if it actually applied some of its trademark intrepidness to this particular sphere).
Of course Apple doesn’t need to embrace holism any more than Sony owes us a PlayStation tablet or Nintendo ought to design a smartphone. But it feels like a missed opportunity and, at least on the popular view of things, iOS games feel stuck in 2007 with chart leaders like Angry Birds, Temple Run, Plants vs. Zombies, Fruit Ninja, Tetris, Cut the Rope, Doodle Jump and Bejeweled – not exactly arguments for design vibrancy. It’s a shame, in 2013, that a company known for leading in so many other ways seems content to follow here, at best dabbling in the most lucrative segment of the entertainment industry.