The new Apple TV has been out for a week now, which is just about enough time for you to have pecked out your Netflix password on the remote and gotten around to downloading a few apps from the store. Apps are the future of TV, according to Tim Cook, and while that particular claim may take some time to bear out, apps are certainly the most interesting thing about the new Apple TV.
The thing about apps, though, is that developers need to know what experiences work best in a given environment. That’s why the Apple Watch app ecosystem has had a slow start, and it’s why we haven’t seen too many wild new concepts on the Apple TV’s App Store yet. But there is one type of software that a lot of people are very used to using on a big TV screen, and which developers have wasted no time in pushing out to the Apple TV: games.
Is the Apple TV a “real” game console? That’s not as relevant a question as how good the games on it already are. After using it for a week, I have no doubt that some people will be happy enough with it that they won’t need any other gaming device hooked up to their TV. But for anyone that already owns a console, there are some pretty big drawbacks that might make it worth waiting a little longer.
The Apple TV box itself is close to ideal for a console. Although it’s roughly twice as tall as the older, appless model, it remains tiny, silent, and unobtrusive, and it wakes from sleep almost instantly. Inside, its A8 processor makes it roughly equivalent to an iPhone 6 Plus (considering the 1080p resolution it’ll output), though it has double the RAM at 2GB. That means it isn’t quite on the cutting edge of Apple’s hardware development, but it should be enough to power some pretty impressive games. Remember that almost everything you see on iOS also has to run well on much older devices, too; with newer hardware as a baseline, tvOS developers will be free to create more ambitious titles.
But the box is only one half of any console’s hardware equation — the input device is just as important. And Apple’s Siri Remote isn’t much like anything you’ve ever used to play games before. It has a touchpad like the PS4 controller, and motion sensors like a Wii remote, but its biggest problem is it just doesn’t feel anything like a gaming input device. It’s far too thin and light, the touchpad click is heavy and unresponsive, and the buttons are all labeled with TV-specific functions and situated in awkward places. That’s all fine for a TV remote, of course, and the Siri Remote is great for that. But it’s not a game controller.
Fortunately, you can buy a pretty good one. The $49 Steelseries Nimbus is made by a well-regarded manufacturer of high-end PC gaming equipment, and is a solid, unspectacular controller with Xbox-style buttons and PlayStation-style symmetrical analog sticks. Steelseries’ CEO says the Nimbus was developed "from conception to design" with Apple, and it’s being sold alongside the box in Apple Stores. While it doesn’t look anything like an Apple product, it does integrate seamlessly with the Apple TV, with simple Bluetooth pairing and a Lightning port for charging. There’s no rumble feature and the sticks don’t click in, but otherwise the Nimbus is a comfortable controller without any real flaws — I prefer both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 pads, but would rate the Nimbus over the Xbox 360 and PS3 equivalents.
You don’t have to use the Nimbus, though. Any Bluetooth controller in the Made for iOS program should work fine, and the Apple TV’s launch will no doubt bring out a flood of competitors. But more importantly, Apple is mandating that every game for the Apple TV support Siri Remote control. This could be seen as a consumer-friendly move that means no one will find themselves needing to buy an expensive accessory after dropping money on a game. In reality, though, it’s a decision that once again proves that Apple doesn’t have game developers’ best interests in mind.
As you can read in my roundup, some games do play pretty well with the Siri Remote as their primary control scheme. Others make do as best they can while being better suited to the Nimbus, with mixed results. And other games just won’t make it onto the Apple TV at all while this provision is in place, simply because it won’t be worth the time trying to cram complex controls onto a remote that isn’t designed for gaming. Despite the potent hardware inside the Apple TV, it’s difficult to see developers ever finding a good way to make 3D action games work with the Siri Remote, for example. Competitors like the Nvidia Shield aren’t likely to gain as much developer support, but at least that can play Half-Life.
Apple itself seems conflicted about the decision; all indications were that controller-only games would be allowed onto the store ahead of launch, before the company said that Siri Remote support was in fact required. And if you’ve followed how Apple has operated in the iOS era, it’s not difficult to imagine that we may see a change of heart at some point. For now, though, it doesn’t look like Apple is particularly interested in making the Apple TV into a successful video game console in the traditional sense. There’s no bundle with the controller, unlike Amazon’s Fire TV, and even if millions of customers do somehow decide to spend $49 on something called the "Steelseries Nimbus," the range of games they can use it with will be needlessly limited because of the Siri Remote stipulation.
And even if we do see a flood of great Apple TV games, controller-ready or otherwise, tvOS isn’t yet equipped to help you find them. Apple only added categories and a Top Rated page to the App Store late last week — categories still aren’t showing up here in Japan, for what it’s worth — and there’s otherwise no way to find an app that isn’t featured on the front page beyond "typing" out its name on the remote. Developers can’t provide a web link to Apple TV apps, and you can’t buy or browse them on your iPhone or anywhere else but the TV store itself. And Apple’s current implementation of categories isn’t much use for games right now, because there’s just one giant "Games" bucket (the other is "Entertainment") without any further subdivision. Discovery has long been a problem for games on iOS, but the Apple TV store just feels unfinished.
The issues I have with the Apple TV as a gaming device are mostly because I’m very used to dedicated gaming devices. I think a lot of these issues will be fixed in time, even if Apple has never been too proactive about addressing gaming needs. And even in its current state, a lot of people will be happy with games on the Apple TV — my colleague Thomas Ricker has already written about how it’s made games become a family activity in his house for the first time. But all the pieces are in place, or at least very close to where they should be, for the Apple TV to become a serious gaming contender. It just needs Apple to give it a push.