Apple Gets Smart About Controllers for Apple Arcade, But Will it Matter?

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Apple has had a problem with game controllers for a long time now. They just never seemed to get the fact that, while touch is great, it isn’t great for everything. Anyone who has ever tried to play games with on-screen controllers knows what I’m talking about.

At first on iOS, there were no controllers unless you jailbroke your iOS device. I can remember doing this and playing all kinds of classic games with emulators using either a Nintendo WiiMote or Classic Controller, both of which were well suited for a lot of those older titles. I think a jailbroken iPad 2 was just about the best portable emulator player I’ve ever used.

Unfortunately, the need for stability outweighed the need for fun as I started using my iPhone and iPad more and more at work and for writing. This put an end to my jailbreak days, which also put an end to being able to use a controller with iOS. Before long, I had largely abandoned gaming on iOS and went back to Nintendo’s 3DS. The controls on iOS just never cut it for me.

There were Bluetooth game controllers that were “compatible” with iOS. Compatible in the sense that they could connect via Bluetooth. However, games had to be specifically coded to use them, meaning that there were very few that took advantage of each of them.These were a non-starter for most iOS users.

Then came the beginnings of true controller support for Apple’s mobile devices. I was excited about Apple finally opening up to MFi controllers, but they totally botched this process for the first couple of years. They required manufacturers to use specific parts and construction, which made the controllers both expensive and inferior. That’s a really bad combo for a new product and both customers and developers stayed away because of it. By the time Apple overhauled MFi for controllers into something reasonable, it was too little, too late. Most games I see for iPhone and iPad still don’t have controller support, even if they would benefit from it.

Apple had another chance to get game controllers right when they came out with the new 4th Gen Apple TV with its own App Store in 2015. MFi Game Controller support was there, which was good. It was after MFi had been revamped, which was better, and there were a few good enough options on the market by then. However, Apple made another critical error that would doom gaming on their new App Store. They required that all apps make use of their mediocre touch-sensitive Siri Remote. That decision hamstrung developers, who in turn, responded by not bothering with Apple’s new App Store opportunity. Apple reversed course on this decision a few months later, but it was too late. The damage had already been done and the Apple TV App Store remained a ghost town.

So now, four years after the Apple TV debacle and several more since the early mistakes with MFi controllers for iOS, Apple has finally gotten out of its own way and decided to make the easy and smart decision: allow XBox One S and Playstation DualShock 4 Controllers on the Apple TV and iOS devices. These controllers are the industry standard and they are what every hardcore gamer already owns. It would have been nice to see Nintendo’s Pro Controller here as well, since it is a good option that many gamers will also have as well. However, the Microsoft and Sony options are the most popular and most widely available. Now gamers won’t have to spend extra on a controller just to potentially play a handful of games on iOS. It also makes things a lot easier for someone picking up a controller for the first time to play on iOS. There are new and used options for these two controllers available at every game and electronics store.

This move was absolutely essential for Apple Arcade to have even a chance to succeed on the Apple TV. I don’t think this will suddenly ignite sales and turn the device into the alternative home gaming console that it could have been. However, it should at least get people who already own one to take a second look and might bring in a few new buyers.

Apple’s decision to open up to standard controllers is more important for iPhone and iPad. Apple Arcade will be everywhere and if recent studies and statistics are correct, there is more gaming happening on mobile than anywhere else today. Combine that with the popularity of the Nintendo’s mobile and home hybrid Switch console and you have a lot of people who are looking to game on the go. The notable thing about those Switch users is that they chose a device with multiple controller options to do it. Apple needs to finally tap into that, as anyone who is used to using a controller is going to prefer to stick with one when they can. This makes wider controller support essential for Apple Arcade to succeed.

If Apple wants a shot at pulling in hardcore gamers who would usually just shrug their shoulders at anything on mobile into Apple Arcade, not only do the games have to be great. The controls have to be great, as well. This is also vital to setting devs free to make great games without constraints. I guess someone at Apple finally understands all of this.

Just like Apple Arcade itself, it feels like this move to include Microsoft and Sony controllers is part of a last stand on gaming. This may very well be Apple’s last chance to make anything other than fremium viable on their platforms. Are these moves too late to work? We should have a pretty good idea later this year. At least Apple is giving themselves a real shot this time.

James Rogers

I am a Christian husband and father of 3 living in the Southeastern US. I have worked as a programmer and project manager in the Commercial and Industrial Automation industry for over 19 years, so I am hands on with technology almost every day. However, my passion in technology is for mobile devices, specifically Apple's iOS and iPadOS hardware and software. My favorite is still the iPad.

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