Yesterday Apple unveiled a new version of the Apple TV, and for the first time, it can play video games. But in typical Apple fashion, games were far from the core focus; they’re just one relatively small aspect of what the set-top box can do, a bonus on a device meant for watching TV and movies. Compared to a modern game console, the Apple TV is underpowered with a sparse lineup of games, so it’s unlikely that it will go head to head with the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 anytime soon. But it doesn’t have to: just as the iPhone opened up gaming to a whole new audience, the Apple TV has the potential to do the same for gaming on a television.
Read next: The Apple TV review.
"I think it's fair to have high expectations for what Apple TV can mean for games," says Greg Kasavin, from Transistor developer Supergiant Games.
"It's fair to have high expectations."
The success of gaming on iOS has always felt a bit accidental. Apple has rarely made gaming a big focus of its devices, yet in spite of this, games have become a big part of the iOS ecosystem. They’re regularly the top-grossing apps, and franchises like Angry Birds and Candy Crush have become household names, while Sword & Sworcery and Ridiculous Fishing are beloved cult classics. This happened primarily without much input from Apple, but as of late that’s been changing; as mobile gaming has shifted toward free-to-play, the App Store has become more curated experience, with Apple regularly pushing more premium experiences.
Even before the device has launched, the Apple TV already has a fairly diverse lineup. The games we know about range from expected mobile time-wasters, like Rayman Adventures and Crossy Road, to more console-style experiences, including Transistor and the new Guitar Hero. The latest version of Disney Infinity will be coming to the platform as well, and Disney says that it will be "the full console experience." Some games are ports of mobile games, while others, like the Wii Sports-esque Beat Sports from Harmonix, are built from the ground-up for the device. Other developers who have yet to announce games seem excited at the prospect. "I don’t want to make any ‘official’ promises, but we’re totally excited about the idea of bringing Alto’s Adventure to Apple TV," says Ryan Cash, from developer Snowman.
"It might achieve the holy grail of making a game controller that is accessible to non-gamers."
One of the main reasons developers are interested in the device is its new remote, which is sort of like a Wii remote with a touchpad on it. Just like with the Wii, it’s an easy-to-understand control scheme that has the potential to open up TV gaming to a new audience. "It looks like it might achieve the holy grail of making a game controller that is accessible to non-gamers," says Peter Pashley, technical director at Monument Valley developer Ustwo Games. At the same time, the Apple TV also offers game developers some flexibility. It supports third-party controllers — developers can even limit their games to only controllers, so they don’t have to shoehorn in motion controls — and iPhones and iPads can also be used as control inputs.
It’s far from perfect, though. Since it comes with the device, the Apple TV’s remote is likely what most users will use to play games, and it leaves much to be desired; if you don’t want to make a motion-controlled experience, you only have a few buttons that can be used for gaming. "This button layout forces developers to make games that are more casual in nature," says Matt Rix, the developer behind iPhone games like Trainyard and Disco Zoo.
Likewise, much has been made in the development community about the size restrictions on games and other apps. "Each app stored on Apple TV is limited to a maximum of 200MB," the developer documentation explains. "In order to create an app greater than this amount, you must break up your app into downloadable bundles." However, most of the developers I spoke to found this to not be much of an issue for anything other than particularly huge games. "Most iOS games are already under 100MB because everyone wants to be below the OTA data limit," notes Sage Solitaire designer Zach Gage. He calls the limitation "not the best thing in the world, but not a disaster."
Games like Transistor, which debuted on the PS4, and the 3D space sim Galaxy on Fire: Manticore Rising are evidence that Apple TV games won’t be restricted to only bite-sized experiences. Rix notes, however, that the restrictions will likely lead to some inconvenience when you first boot up a game. "Be prepared to see a lot more games that download additional content on first launch."
"Apple's influence on gaming in recent years cannot be overstated."
Of course, there’s another reason the Apple TV seems to have generated more interest from game developers compared to devices like the Fire TV, and it’s simple: it’s made by Apple. The company has already proven with the iPhone that it can create a whole new market for games without even trying. (It has yet to replicate that success on the Mac or Apple Watch, however.) "I personally feel Apple's influence on gaming in recent years cannot be overstated," says Kasavin. "The iPhone and iPad have been significant factors in whatever success Supergiant has achieved as a studio, and I think they have profoundly changed the way a lot of people — including me — play games."
Apple TV has the potential to do something similar for gaming on a television set; it’s likely that the landscape for gaming on the platform will look much like what already exists on the iPhone, a place where free casual games are dominant, but inventive indie games can still reach a sizable audience, making it perfect for people who wouldn’t buy a console anyways.
The potential ubiquity of the new Apple TV makes it appealing, and the fact that Apple has actually made games a focus of the device, even a small one, is an encouraging sign. The dream of the microconsole has been around since Ouya’s record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, but Apple might be the one to pull it off. It may not be a true game console, but that's just fine.
"Developers will follow Apple to the audience," says Gage, "and so if Apple TV blows up huge, devs will go there in droves."
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