Should Apple Release A Video Game Controller?
Some console and PC fans refuse to acknowledge iPhone and iPad as true gaming devices, in large part because of touch controls and the natural limitations that come with this technology. After all, how can someone play a first-person shooter or fighting game without pinpoint precision, the sort of feedback made possible with physical analog sticks, d-pads and buttons? It's a valid complaint, one peripheral makers have somewhat addressed with the likes of ThinkGeek's JOYSTICK-IT and Ion's more popular iCade, both of which attempt to transform the smart phone and tablet into something longtime players recognize.
It makes us wonder why Apple, the company that excels at dreaming up all sorts of accessories, stands by while others tinker with its inventions? Why not release a first-party controller designed specifically for the iPad, and to a lesser extent, the iPhone? Simple, wireless, elegant...a solution everyone would benefit from, right?
Well, it depends on whom you ask. We spoke to several iOS developers and they were split right down the middle. Some think the controller would give designers a new level of freedom to create video games while pleasing grumpy old timers that prefer buttons. Others, like Appy Entertainment's Paul O'Connor, think it's the wrong direction for Apple to go.
"The magic of iOS devices is in the malleable interface that can be customized for each game experience," said O'Connor. "We've seen new genres flourish, thanks to this variable interface. iOS has line-drawing games, finger-drawing games and object-manipulation games that are distinct from consoles specifically because the interface does not rely on buttons. Relying on a single mechanical interface standard, such as buttons, can't help but have all games start to control and feel alike."
PlayScreen's William Volk agrees.
"There are several external iPad and iPhone controllers in the marketplace and not a single one has become a big seller. Furthermore, both industry veterans and independent studios are just getting used to Apple's touch UI. We are finally seeing real innovation beyond the 'd-pad' by moving to gesture-based controls. The best and most successful games out there use gestures to create experiences that are superior to controller-based games."
"[A controller]", Volk continued, "would give developers an 'easy out' on user interface design and, in my opinion, stifle creativity."
But what of the iCade? Apple-focused websites have given this nifty device heaps of praise, while some fans insist that it improves the mobile gaming experience.
"If this sort of product was a 'must-have' for gamers," Volk said, "it would have caught on in greater volume. Right now, evidence points in the opposite direction. The touch screen is more than enough for gaming on iOS devices."
There's also the issue of customer confusion. One of iPad's greatest assets is its simplicity, where almost anyone can figure out the interface. This ease of use is something Apple must hold on to.
"The funny thing about the iPhone is that many users don't think about it as a gaming device, though they play games on it," said Brawsome's Andrew Goulding. "It's like a covert gaming device in this way. If Apple starts adding gaming peripherals, some people might get turned off and opt for a more adult/business phone, because they're scared of the technology and games."
But what about the heated competition with Google for smart phone and tablet supremacy? Android users, for example, can already use external controllers to play games. Is Apple playing catch-up?
"Not at all," said Goulding. "Android is a nightmare to support, which is directly due to the number of configurations it supports. Every owner wants their device and control scheme supported, without realizing the significant effort it is for developers, many of them small or micro studios, to support. Then the owner gets grumpy and starts saying bad stuff about your game. It becomes easier not to support it."
O'Connor added, "I think the growth of mobile gaming on all platforms, iOS and Android, has more to do with the unique gaming experience stemming from the great games emerging in the mobile space than it does with external controls used by a very small percentage of players."
In fact, O'Connor thinks physical controllers have accumulated a thick layer of dust from a technology standpoint.
"We should leave physical controllers behind in pursuit of more flexible haptic touch-based controls."
That said, not everyone thinks a first party Apple pad is a bad idea, as we found out from Zipline's CEO, Todd Hooper.
"An iOS game controller would be huge for mobile games. iPhone and iPad are already hugely important game platforms, but some kinds of games require really precise controls with tactile feedback to allow a higher level of player mastery. Indie developers have tried innovative ways of working within the limitations (e.g. dividing the whole touch screen into just two buttons: 'move forward' and 'jump'), but a broadly-used tactile game controller for iOS would open up a new level of innovation on the platform."
"You know you can launch a game for mobile and be available to a huge, paying audience," Hooper continued, "but what if the game you're making is really a game that needs precise controls? Then maybe you release to a smaller PC audience or work with a publisher to get on a console download portal instead. iOS would be even more of a no-brainer as a first platform for more games if it could also handle certain kinds of gaming experiences that are hard to do well on a touch-only device. As long as Apple promotes this to gamers and attracts top developers before launch to add support to popular titles," Hooper finished, "it's hard to imagine this wouldn't succeed."
Yoann Mary, from Bulkypix, also sees great benefits from having a controller, especially when it comes to porting console games.
"More and more publishers are looking at this platform as a real game system. From that point of view, they want to adapt their existing games on Apple devices. Most of the time, these kinds of games are played in three dimensions, meaning players can move the main character and the camera. Touch controls work, but sometimes players miss a button because they cannot feel it under their finger. Creating such a device can be a good opportunity for Apple to attract more hardcore gamers.
Chip Sineni from Phosphor Games, meanwhile, envisions a world dominated by mobile.
"The future of console gaming should be a mobile device connected to your TV with a wireless controller. While many of the 200 million iOS users might never need this, you'd potentially open your market up to the 100 million plus people who have an Xbox 360 and PS3."
"Controllers do not mean touch or gesture games would go away. It just means consumers would have a choice, and there is no reason to believe gamers wouldn't want both. Can you imagine sitting down playing the best version of Call of Duty on your TV with a controller, then later playing Infinity Blade on your bed or at the bus stop with the same device? It really becomes the must-have device for everyone."
"In terms of developers, some game will use it, some won't. The really interesting idea that could evolve are games with different modes. Picture Borderlands. When you hook it up to your TV and controller, it is basically like the console version, but on the go, there is a touch-friendly optimized mode where there are sub quests for you to earn currency or items that help you back in the core game, so in that way, you can always be playing the game anywhere. Also, most games would probably allow for virtual controls to maintain compatibility on the go. They just won't be recommended if the game is optimized for physical controllers."
This seems years from happening, but as we spoke to William Volk, he made it seem like the future is right around the corner.
"It makes much more sense to use the iPhone/iPad as a replacement to confusing remote controls. I expect the next Apple TV (or even Apple's rumored "smart TV," powered by iOS) to do just that."
Ultimately, it comes down to two things: Apple's willingness to take this all-important step, and consumer demand, though as O'Connor suggested, the ones doing all the complaining may in fact represent a very small minority.
"The iPhone and iPad are already legitimate game platforms. As many or more people play games on iOS today as on all three home game consoles combined. iOS and Android combined are already at 450M devices and growing at 750,000 devices per day, and 60 percent of these buyers play games. Legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder, and consoles are limited in terms of their total reach compared to mobile. Eventually, all 4.5 billion cell phones around the world will be replaced with smartphones and a high-percentage of the world's computers will be tablets. Most people who play interactive games will inevitably be on mobile platforms. This is the defining trend disrupting the game industry today."