Why Apple TV games must all use the Siri remote, but that might not last

The new Apple TV will play games, but don't mistake it for a console.

Every game coming to the upcoming, reworked Apple TV will now need to support the odd little Siri remote as a controller, according to a recent shift in development policy.

While Apple TV games can also support third-party gamepads, they can't require them.

Apple's policy change appears in the current version of the an event last month.

A section in the Apple TV presentation devoted to gaming included a handful of demonstrations, like multiplayer Crossy Road and Beat Sports from Rock Band developer Harmonix. Both of those relatively simple games use the Apple-supplied remote control for interaction.

Apple designed its remote's touchpad to function like an analog stick on modern controllers, allowing for fine-grained control. When gaming, some of its buttons become console-like A and X buttons.

WRITE ALT TEXT HERE The SteelSeries Nimbus

The Apple TV will support traditional game controllers, too — just as its sister platform, iOS, does for iPads and iPhones. The Apple TV's product page even displays the SteelSeries Nimbus as the poster child for third-party controllers.

Multi-sticked and buttoned controllers are an optional add-on, however. When it goes on sale in late October, the Apple TV will ship only with Apple's remote.

Apple also revealed at the even that, just like the Apple Watch, iPad and iPhone, the new Apple TV will support third-party apps, distributed through an App Store. As it does across all of its platforms, Apple will approve all software that appears in the Apple TV's digital storefront. The app review process allows the company "to ensure they are reliable, perform as expected, and are free of offensive material," according to Apple.

The idea is simple and several years old: Follow Apple's rules, and your app will be approved. Break the rules, and Apple will reject your app.


The new hardware opens up new possibilities for developers, who can create apps in a software ecosystem similar to iOS, the operating system for iPad and iPhone. App makers won't be able to directly port their software to the new system, but the Apple TV's hardware and software are based on Apple's phones and tablets.

Shortly after the new Apple TV's debut, Apple released the App Programming Guide for tvOS. Named for the new operating system that powers Apple TV, it's designed to help developers create software for the hardware.

That week, a Tweet with a screenshot of a section called "You Can Require an Extended Game Controller" made its way around social media. It read as follows:

Unlike iOS apps, Apple TV apps can require the user to own a full game controller that supports the extended gamepad profile, but requiring a full game controller is highly discouraged. When you restrict an app, only gamers who already have a full game controller will see your game. However, it is still possible for your game to be launched when the full game controller is not connected to the Apple TV. When your game is launched, it must confirm that a full game controller that meets the restriction is connected to the device. If there is not a full game controller available, your game should display an error message and wait for a full game controller to be connected.

In short, though Apple "highly discouraged" developers from requiring a controller, it seemed willing to permit a developer's decision to do so.

At some point not long after that, however, Apple seems to have gone from grudging support to prohibition. Here’s how a section called "Requirements for Games That Support Game Controllers" now reads:

Your game must support the Apple TV remote. Your game may not require the use of a controller.

tvOS games that support controllers must support the extended control layout. All controllers for tvOS are nonformfitting extended controllers.

Games must be playable using standalone controllers. If you support an extended controller, the game must be playable solely with that controller.

You must support the pause button. All controllers include a pause button. When gameplay is active, pressing the pause button should pause gameplay. When the game is not being played, such as when you are at a menu screen, the pause button moves to a previous screen of content.

In a previous version of the Apple TV Human Interface Guidelines, Apple suggested that developers use the included remote control, in addition to a third-party controller, citing its 100 percent install base:

Support the Siri remote as a game controller too. Game controllers are optional purchases that people may or may not make. But everyone has a remote. For maximum reach, make the remote usable as a game controller too. Consider what kinds of interactions you can enable using the remote. In a driving game, for example, you can let the user rotate and operate the remote in landscape mode.

Now, however, related but prohibitive language lives in a new section.

Important: Game controllers are optional purchases that people may or may not make. But every Apple TV has a remote. If you support game controllers in your app, you must make the remote usable as a game controller too.

From the Programming Guide's publication, Apple described it as a "preliminary document" designed "to help you plan for the adoption of the technologies and programming interfaces." It continues to warn that the "information is subject to change." Thus, the change in attitude from grudging permission to prohibition is entirely within Apple’s right and the expectations it set.

Apple's Document Revision History says that the most recent changes happened Sept. 22, and added a "New document describing how to write applications for Apple TV." It makes no mention of the controller changes.

The new language makes it explicit, though: Game makers can’t require a controller. Instead, they must use the remote control that comes with every Apple TV. The device still supports controllers, and developers may still build in support, but they cannot require a controller to the exclusion of the Siri remote.

That presents a potential problem for gamers and some game makers.

The new Apple TV, its remote and some TV gaming


Though it includes buttons, a clickable touchpad and a gyroscope for motion controls, the Apple TV remote won’t offer the same capabilities as a dedicated, console-like controller. There are fewer buttons. There are no analog sticks (using the touchpad as a D-pad is similar, but not identical). And the direct input of playing a game on a smartphone or tablet’s touchscreen isn’t the same as using a small touchpad that controls action on a TV.

Even Apple's documentation acknowledges that the "remote has the limited capability to act as a game controller."

"The remote has the limited capability to act as a game controller"

Based on Polygon's conversations with Apple, requiring use of the remote was the intention all along, though that doesn't explain why the previous documentation — which is not cached, and which Apple was unable to verify — allowed for a more liberal use of third-party controllers.

Regardless, it's clear that Apple doesn't see the Apple TV as a gaming console alone. Instead, like the iPad and iPhone, it sees it as a device that can also allow gaming.

Apple, it seems, is solving the gaming equation for the largest number of possible users, wary of a consumer who purchases the Apple TV, installs a game and then learns that it requires the additional investment of a third-party controller. That scenario, however unlikely it may seem, seems so distasteful to Apple that it created rules to prevent it.

A game developer Polygon spoke to who wished to remain anonymous out of concern for damaging its relationship with Apple sees potential and detriment in the fractured nature of Apple's approach.

"It's really interesting to see Apple taking a step into the living room with the Apple TV," the developer said. "But, right now it seems like they are just taking a baby step.

"With the controller shipping as a third-party optional peripheral, it makes things difficult for us to bring our titles (which are pretty dependent on a real controller) over to the device."

Transistor from Supergiant Games


Apple's requirement begs another question: What effect will these changes have on games, announced and planned?

Though the new Apple TV isn’t intended primarily as a gaming device, it does bring native gaming support to the platform for the first time. And some of the earliest games announced are also available on consoles and PC. Porting them to the Apple TV’s hardware alongside controllers seemed like an obvious move. But some games already announced sound like they would be a difficult fit within these new rules.

Supergiant Games' Transistor wasn't played during the Apple TV's debut event, but it did appear on an App Store mock-up that revealed the game and included language that read "game controller optional."

"We always expected to design Transistor for the new Apple TV to work with the Siri remote. From our perspective this was a core part of the appeal of the opportunity to bring our game to the platform."

Transistor debuted on consoles and PC last year, and it arrived on iOS early this year. Its smartphone and tablet versions supported third-party controllers, but Supergiant also revamped the game's controls to fit the platform. Creative director Greg Kasavin told Polygon that the developer has the same plan for Apple TV.

"We always expected to design Transistor for the new Apple TV to work with the Siri remote," Kasavin tells Polygon. "From our perspective this was a core part of the appeal of the opportunity to bring our game to the platform."

Despite the work involved, it's the kind of challenge that the studio has tackled before.

"Bringing Transistor to the new Apple TV means re-approaching the experience of the game with a new input method in mind," he says. "This is something I think we've developed a good amount of design discipline around over the years, as we've made our games work on a variety of platforms and input methods. Our first game, Bastion, feels very different depending on whether you play it with a gamepad, mouse and keyboard, or the iPad's touch screen, yet I think each input method is successful in its own right, and we tuned the game to work with each. Making Transistor work well with the Siri remote is a similar challenge and something we've been excited about from a design perspective."

Instead of being skeptical, Supergiant seems to delight in the challenge.

"Adapting our games to work with new and different input methods is one of the more interesting and involved aspects of our development process, and something we take seriously and invest a lot of time into, in order to get the feel just right. Like our iPhone and iPad versions, Transistor for the new Apple TV will be compatible with MFi controllers for those who want a traditional console-style experience, though we fully expect most players to play it using the Siri remote, and our focus is on ensuring this version of the game plays great with it.

"When Bastion for iPad was launching, I remember reading speculation from folks wondering how we were going to make that work at all, based on their experience with other versions. Then Bastion for iPad went on to become our highest-rated version of that game! Likewise, I hope folks will be pleasantly surprised at what we have in store for this version of Transistor."


Apple's original documentation implicitly admitted that the Apple TV remote was insufficient for some games. That makes sense for a game like Guitar Hero Live, the upcoming revival of Activision's rhythm game franchise that, just as previous entries have, requires a guitar-shaped controller.

Guitar Hero Live's controller

Apple's new rules don't remove controller support, but they do add the additional requirement that the Apple TV remote must also be able to control every game. And that could mean trouble for some games.

In the wake of Apple’s reveal last month, Activision announced that Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions Evolved, Guitar Hero Live and Skylanders SuperChargers are all headed to the device.

Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions Evolved launched last year on consoles, PC and mobile devices. Guitar Hero Live, which was already announced for mobile devices, is designed to work with a new six-button guitar controller. With Skylanders SuperChargers, Activision is making a "a Bluetooth-enabled portal, an embedded Bluetooth controller, and even a built-in stand," communications manager Scott Lowe wrote in the three-game announcement.

It's unclear how these games will work with Apple TV if Activision cannot require controllers, though it's certainly possible that Activision could find creative ways to make a game like Geometry Wars 3 work with the Siri remote. Guitar Hero Live, though, seems like a bigger challenge. Will Activision create a neutered version of the game to satisfy Apple's requirements? Would Apple even approve a Guitar Hero Live app in the App Store if it required a plastic guitar?

We've contacted Activision multiple times for more information on its Apple TV plans. Though we didn't hear from the company as of this article's publication, we will provide more information as we receive it.

The new Apple TV


Given the information available, it seems that Apple is applying a preexisting philosophy about controllers to the new Apple TV.

Apple's "About Game Controllers" section in the Game Controller Programming Guide — which predates tvOS, but which but tvOS documentation links to — advises developers on the company's reasoning:

Even though controllers are intended to enhance gameplay, 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.

That makes some sense on platforms like iOS, where touch controls are an alternative, and OS X, where gamers will always have a mouse or trackpad and a keyboard. But on the Apple TV, the only fallback is the supplied remote, and it's difficult to imagine playing a console game ported to Apple TV with a remote serving as a controller that even Apple admits has "limited capability."

Some developers have expressed their skepticism, too. That includes Tommasi Checchi, of the Minecraft Pocket Edition team at developer Mojang, who took to Reddit to express his concerns which focused on the controllers.

"If not having an axis to look around isn't a problem to you, sure!," Checchi wrote in a thread called "Im guessing this means no MCPE for Apple TV?"

"We could use a touchpad to move around, and ok... but then how do you aim? Just the idea of aiming with the gyroscope fills me of dread :P

"And there are also other problems that make a port take way too much time/not good for the users that aren't revealed.

"But that's at a quick glance, when we get the devkits I'll know better :)"

Checchi's "quick glance" reaction mirrors that of several developers Polygon spoke with, though, like him, none were willing to discount the platform entirely.

This does not seem to concern Apple.

At first, it appeared that the Apple TV was designed to change Apple's rules. Now, it seems that old rules from related but different ecosystems subsumed some of the gaming focus for the new Apple TV. The opinionated Cupertino-based company is asserting its belief, at least for now, that the new Apple TV is good for gaming, but not necessarily in the same ways that traditional consoles are. From Apple's perspective, it's better to require that all games be developed with the platform in mind than to confuse Apple TV owners or display a warning message saying that a game requires a controller.

This is only the beginning, though. Apple's rules and opinions are subject to change. The tvOS documentation remains explicit about this, and the company has a history of revisiting its decisions.

PCalc on iOS

After Apple unveiled app extensions available in the Notification Center view on iOS 8 (which users access by swiping down from the top of the screen), developers used it in ways that the company didn't intend.

PCalc, a third-party calculator app, provides what could prove to be a prologue. Apple initially approved and promoted the app, that allowed users to perform calculations from Notification Center. Apple later threatened to pull the app, telling the developer that he had to resubmit it without that functionality. It was now doing more than what Apple felt was appropriate for Notification Center. Not long after, Apple revised its thinking about widgets, and PCalc's original Notification Center functionality was given a pass.

Based on our conversations with Apple about the new Apple TV, preventing games from appearing in the App Store is not the intent of its policy, and it seems open to changing its policy if the demand from developers or players arises. Rather, Apple seems concerned about three things.

First, it wants every Apple TV gamer to be able to play every game, immediately, with the hardware it ships.

Second, it felt that it was best to make this clear before the new Apple TV shipped later this month to give developers time to adapt as they create games for the set-top box.

Third, Apple believes that, without a codified focus on the Siri remote, unimaginative straight ports could dominate the ecosystem. It seems that Apple would much rather incentivize developers to tailor games to the revamped Apple TV's native capabilities than invite straight — and from its perspective, unimaginative — ports.