As expected, Apple unveiled a new version of its Apple TV set-top box that included a strong focus on gaming, thanks to its Nintendo Wii-like motion controller built into the remote.
The Apple TV has a lot going for it as a gaming device. Game developers know and love the Apple ecosystem thanks to its thriving App Store, not least because it’s so lucrative.
And when you buy a game on any Apple device, you’ll also have it on the Apple TV, which is very nice.
From our first look, the Apple TV remote is nice, with a touchpad standing in for buttons and built-in motion and tilt sensors.
But Apple is still missing some pieces of the gaming puzzle.
During the event, Apple showed off two games designed explicitly for the new Apple TV, including an upgraded version of the hit Crossy Road, and a rhythm-based sports title called Beat Sports.
Both of those games look cool, and were designed with the new Apple TV’s remote in mind.
Not all games will work that well, though. As game developer Brianna Wu of Revolution 60 put it on Twitter:
The biggest obstacle to gaming on Apple TV looks like controller. Touch-based games won’t translate well, button controls also inadequate.
— Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) September 9, 2015
Now, the new Apple TV will also support select third-party Bluetooth controllers, like the kind you can already buy for your iPhone, iPad, and Android devices.
In fact, developers can make games that only work with Bluetooth controllers, though the Apple TV developer guidelines indicate that those games simply won’t show up in an App Store search or the user’s app library unless they own one and have hooked it up.
“Unlike iOS apps, Apple TV apps can require the user to own a full game controller that supports the extended gamepad profile, but requiring a full game controller is highly discouraged,” says Apple’s developer guideline.
These controllers are designed to look more like the traditional kind of gamepads you use with an Xbox or PlayStation video game console, though they have a reputation amongst gamers for being of lesser quality.
But since the Apple TV doesn’t come with said controllers, developers can’t assume that users have them. Which means that developers will have to either come up with two sets of controls – one for the remote, one for the controller – or else not worry about the controller at all.
And as Wu points out, touch-based games aren’t likely to translate well to the big screen. Which means that you could see a lot of shoddy, hard-to-control games that were just quickly translated from the iPhone to the big screen, especially early on.
Also of note: Those same developer guidelines refer to the Apple TV remote as having “limited capability” of working as a games controller, indicating that the company knows that it’s going to fall short in several cases.
Get in the game
It’s a similar path as the original Nintendo Wii, which had a lot of hype early in its life cycle as consumers and developers flocked to its innovative, simplified motion controller. Of course, that hype famously petered out as the novelty of motion controls wore off and developers started getting frustrated at its limited control options and underpowered hardware.
There’s a bear case here: As proven by the Microsoft Kinect’s failure to set the world on fire, marketing a product directly to hardcore gamers is a losing proposition for most. Microsoft found out the hard way that the core gaming demographic is ambivalent at best about the idea of a full all-in-one computer in the living room.
By not pitching it explicitly as a games device, but rather a smart TV box that can also play games, it circumvents the hype cycle and the handwringing.
Once it has more of an install base, maybe, just maybe, Apple will reposition the Apple TV more explicitly as a gaming device, and start pushing its own controller out to consumers.
Or maybe, despite all the anticipation leading up to today’s event, the Apple TV just doesn’t have any real long-term gaming chops.