Video game systems today can be separated into three different categories. First, we have the home console market, where Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are battling it out. Next, you have the traditional handheld market, where Nintendo and Sony are going head to head. Finally, you have mobile devices — smartphones and tablets — that can do touchscreen gaming and typically stick to low-budget, novelty games. Examples include the Apple iPhone and iPad, as well as Android devices.
Gamers tend to look at the big three — Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo — when discussing the present and future of gaming. As successful as iOS has been as a mobile gaming platform, it doesn’t command the same respect simply because iPhones, iPod touches and iPads were not built with traditional gaming in mind. They don’t have the tactile feedback that buttons and analog joysticks can provide, and because not all games can deliver a great experience using touch-only controls, the number of big titles that make the jump to iOS are limited.
Something as simple as gamepad support could make all the difference. It could help iOS make that leap from novelty gaming platform to legitimate contender. And at WWDC last Monday, that support finally came in a blink-and-you-missed-it moment — Apple briefly showed a slide with a list of new iOS features, and MFi game controller support was on it.
At the end of the keynote, the world tuned out and news outlets scurried off to cover the bigger Apple stories, but we weren’t through hearing about gamepad support inside iOS. At a session titled, “Platform State of the Union,” Apple let out a few more details. The company is specifying which buttons the controllers should have and even provided two reference models — one controller that an iPhone can dock into, and another wireless, external controller. And we even got to see a demo of a Crytek title being played with a game controller, utilizing both the buttons on the pad and the touchscreen of the iPhone.
The docking controller works with iPhones and iPod touches, effectively turning them into portable, touchscreen game systems similar to the PlayStation Vita. The external game controller would turn your iPad into a larger (but still portable) game machine. And then there’s the Apple TV, which hasn’t quite reached its potential yet. Perhaps it’s a $99 Trojan horse for something bigger, and the release of an SDK and support for an external gamepad would finally show us what it’s capable of.
It seems that all of the pieces for Apple’s foray into gaming are finally coming together. The redesigned Game Center in iOS 7 looks an awful lot like Apple’s take on Xbox Live. The fact that iOS runs on iPhones, iPod touches, iPads and the Apple TV means that developers can support all of those systems without a lot of extra hassle. And iCloud can keep your saved games accessible anywhere so that you can pick up where you left off, regardless of which iOS device you’re on.
This could be one of the sneakiest things Apple has ever done. Every iPhone, iPod touch and iPad sold will become a legitimate handheld gaming system this fall, and every Apple TV could become a home gaming console with the flip of a switch. It didn’t get a single mention during this year’s keynote, but in a couple of months, I have a feeling we’ll all be talking about it.