Apple (AAPL 0.68%) may have just ruined the new Apple TV's chances of taking on the Xbox and PlayStation.
Apple's requirements for developers, as they were initially laid out, permitted game designers to rely on third-party controllers, like the Steelseries Nimbus in the image above. This would've been a major development, and a dramatic change for Apple. Traditional console-style games, such as Call of Duty, FIFA, and Madden -- ones that require dual joysticks and a complex array of buttons -- would've been viable on the Apple TV. Gamers would just need to buy controllers.
Unfortunately, the Cupertino tech giant appears to have changed its position, and will now require developers to support the much more limited Apple TV remote. It may be a win for consumers in the near-term, but it will dramatically limit the sort of games the Apple TV offers.
The problem with MFi controllers
Apple began supporting third-party iOS controllers in 2013 with the release of iOS 7. So-called MFi controllers -- designed for Apple's iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad -- are offered in two different varieties, standard or extended. The later, which includes the Steelseries Nimbus, bear a resemblance to an Xbox or PlayStation controller, with multiple joysticks and shoulder buttons. The standard layout is a bit simpler, with no joysticks and fewer buttons.
The problem with the MFi program is that, while developers can make use of the extra inputs offered by a controller, they cannot require them outright. "Controllers must be optional," Apple declares in its iOS developer guide. "Not every person who purchases your game is going to own one. Therefore, never require the use of game controllers in your game. If a controller is not available, your game must provide alternative controls."
It's a valid point, but it poses a challenge for developers, who must design their games for touchscreen input. Admittedly, some console games have made their way over to Apple's ecosystem -- older Grand Theft Auto titles, Final Fantasy, and BioShock have been released for iOS -- but the overwhelming majority of iOS games are built with the touch screen in mind. While traditional video game consoles are dominated by first-person shooters, sports games, and racing simulators, the most popular iOS titles are puzzle games, strategy games, endless runners, and other sorts of games that don't require a controller.
Apple sides with consumers -- sort of
Initially, Apple had planned to make an exception for the new Apple TV. "You can require an extended game controller," Apple wrote in its tvOS developer guide. "Unlike iOS apps, Apple TV apps can require the user to own a full game controller."
Apple "highly discouraged" the practice, but would permit it. Developers would be free to design tvOS games around a traditional controller.
No longer. Now, just like iOS, Apple TV game controllers are entirely optional. Developers can still support them, but they must allow gamers to use the Apple TV remote instead. "Your game may not require the use of a controller," Apple writes.
The Apple TV remote is not entirely useless as a controller. It does have a touch pad, six physical buttons, and a gyroscope. Still, it's not enough to support more complex games. Apple's decision makes sense in the context of delivering a superior user experience -- it's easy to imagine customers without controllers purchasing Apple TV games inadvertently, only to discover that they can't play them due to a lack of hardware. But in the long run, it could weaken Apple's offering by limiting the sorts of games available for the device. Unless Apple changes its mind once more, Apple TV owners won't be playing competitive Call of Duty matches anytime soon.