Apple, seemingly accidentally, changed what it means to be a gamer. Go ask your dad, your mom, your technophobe uncle who can't stop playing Clash of Clans or Bejeweled if they're gamers. They don't think they are, but many play as much as the most passionate console owner.
The difference, it seems, is that where Call of Duty fans use a gamepad, iPhone gamers use their fingers to swipe their way through hours of play.
And now even that difference seems on the verge of fading away.
Two years ago, Apple expanded its Made For iOS (MFi) licensing program to include game controllers. Earlier this year, Apple finally announced a new Apple TV with access to its own app-packed store replete with plenty of games.
While the new media streaming device isn't meant to be a game console, both developers and gamepad manufacturers are lining up to support the new Apple TV.
The new Apple TV doesn't come with a gamepad. What it comes with instead is a touch-sensitive, motion-control Siri remote. With six buttons and no thumbsticks, it doesn't sound like the sort of controller any traditional gamer would pick up to play with.
But Apple requires all apps and games on the Apple TV to support it.
Pound Sand is a relatively new development studio made up of a clutch of developers from a variety of hardcore games — chief among them first-person shooters.
The studio head is Greg Goodrich, formerly the executive producer and studio head for Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor games. Pound Sand's first game is a shooter designed from the ground up for the Apple TV.
Controls are the most important part of any shooter, the team said. So they spent months perfecting the controls before moving on to any other element of their first mobile game.
Getting Fantastic Plastic Squad to work with a MFi gamepad took a couple of hours, according to design director Greg Farren, who worked on Medal of Honor: Warfighter while at EA.
"The real challenge was translating a MFi controller's worth of sticks and buttons onto the Siri remote," he said. "We knew we were going to use the touch surface as a look stick, and that never changed. For movement, we experimented with the gyroscope but playtesters needed personalized calibration and had trouble operating the touch surface while rotating their hand. The playtesters also had the bad habit of aiming the remote at targets on screen even though they were told that doesn't work, which led us to our 'ah-ha' moment."
They landed on a scheme that had players hold the remote sideways and used the Play and Pause buttons to control movement.
"With this new scheme, the playtesters' bad habits and frustration ceased, and if they could play the game on iOS, they could play it on Apple TV with the Siri remote."
Lead engineer Torin Kampa, who previously worked on the Army of Two, Medal of Honor and Battlefield franchises, said the team spent a lot of time breaking down why most of the developers didn't like iOS shooters.
The answer boiled down to a lot of things most gamers may not notice, like the lack of control acceleration (something that comes with a pressure sensitive thumbsticks), bad framerates, lack of subtle aim assist and the issue of thumb fatigue while playing.
"We find that some iOS shooter developers struggle because they try to directly port input concepts from console games — which usually results in a ton of virtual buttons," Kampa said. "Without the tactile feel of a physical controller, players often have to take their eyes off the action to ensure they hit the correct virtual button, and this can break the feeling of flow. Our strategy was to only use virtual buttons for infrequent actions, and use the player's context in the environment to drive input decision. Another common issue is poorly tuned virtual sticks."
While the game is designed to be fun while using touch controls or the Siri remote, it's also a game that can be played effortlessly with an MFi gamepad.
In designing the gamepad controls for their game, Kampa said they looked to what they consider to be the gold standard of gamepad shooter controls: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2.
"The analog stick tuning provides both subtle precision through the scope and fast turning while navigating," he said. "The buttons are thoughtfully mapped to consider how frequently you use them and what actions you want to do simultaneously."
The team played a lot of Dead Trigger 2 and fell in love first with the SteelSeries Stratus XL controller and then the soon-to-be-released SteelSeries Nimbus.
"It could be an illusion, but the Nimbus feels like it has lower latency and higher precision," Kampa said. "If we could make one request of the MFi controllers, it would be to add the traditional L3/R3 stick buttons, which would give us our preferred mapping for sprint and melee respectively."
While the team stands behind its touch and Siri remote control solutions, they also think that physical controllers are a must to help the Apple TV succeed as a gaming device. Having both options, they say, gives the Apple TV a clear advantage over some consoles.
"The standard-design controller is important for pulling players away from traditional consoles," Kampa said. "Players who are already comfortable twin-sticking, while managing 15-plus other buttons, expect the same level of control they find in their favorite hardcore games. But for anyone who hasn't learned this skill yet, standard-design controllers are intimidating. That's where Apple TV has an edge — the Siri remote is more approachable. We suspect the Apple TV will succeed as a gaming device in the same way that iOS has — by reaching out to a larger potential gaming audience on a device where the primary purchase motivation may not have been gaming itself."
Founded in 1969, Japanese video game accessory maker Hori has a long history of making beloved controllers. Perhaps best known for its amazing fight sticks, the company has slowly expanded both its reach internationally and its products to include a much broader audience.
Nowadays, Hori makes everything from amiibo cases and portable HD console monitors to steering wheels, console gamepads and even one gamepad designed specifically for iOS devices.
The MFi Horipad Wireless Gaming controller supports devices running iOS 7 and above. It comes with 6-and-a-half foot long USB cable for charging and a stand for holding your device upright while playing. The built-in lithium polymer battery is said to provide 30 hours of gameplay and take about three hours to charge.
The controller uses in-line thumbsticks, like what you would find on a PlayStation 4, and includes four face buttons (labeled A, B, X and Y), a directional pad, right and left bumpers and triggers, an oversized Pause button, a power button and a small Bluetooth button. There are also four numbered LED lights.
The Horipad's body sits closer to the Xbox One than the PlayStation 4 controller designs, though the grips are carved out more near the body, providing extra room for your middle fingers to rest. The finish is a shiny plastic that doesn't provide the same sense of grip found in most first-party console controllers. It can feel a bit slippery if your hands sweat over time.
The twin thumbsticks are arranged side-by-side, like a PlayStation controller's, but are slightly taller than both the PS4 and Xbox One's sticks. The tops of both rubberized sticks feature tiny arrow dimples but no ring of texture like what you find on the Xbox One sticks. They have a satisfying range of motion and feel, though the Horipad's is tighter then either console controller. As with every other controller I tried, the sticks don't include the ability to click in, so no R3 or L3 action here.
An elongated figure eight plastic panel surrounds both sticks and provides a splash of color, but it also slightly decreases the space between the sticks and the directional pad on one side and the X and A buttons on the other. Initially, this bugged me a bit, but I quickly forgot about it once I started playing.
The face buttons are raised slightly higher than the console controllers' but seem to offer as much spring back and are just as responsive.
Despite Apple's MFi rules about the directional pad design, Horipad's D-pad has a surprisingly responsive feel to it. It is, as required, still a single button, but the design — a raised plus sign on a indented flat circle of plastic, lends at least the illusion of a more modern D-pad.
The most disappointing things about the Horipad are its triggers and bumpers. While the PS4 and Xbox One controllers feature different designs for their triggers and bumpers, both offer a satisfying feeling of immediate resistance when you use them. And both deliver a satisfying endpoint to the trigger pull and quick rebound.
The Horipad's triggers are simple, flat rectangles with no trigger-like curve to them, and they feel a little loose when you depress them. The action is so small that there's an imperceptible end point and very little rebound. The bumpers fare no better.
I spent a bit of time playing through shooters with the Horipad and loved the responsiveness of the buttons and the thumbsticks. The directional pad is the best of the controllers I tried, but those lackluster triggers and the shiny coating put me off the controller.
If you're a big fan of Hori or intend to buy a controller strictly for the directional pad, this should be the one you pick up.
Mad Catz got its start in the late '80s making inexpensive controllers, memory cards, cables and other accessories, but over the years the company has slowly increased its quality while extending its reach to include flight sticks and now mobile game controllers.
The CTRL i supports devices running iOS 7 and above and the new Apple TV. It comes with a screw-on clamp for holding attaching your iPhone to the top of the controller and two AAA batteries. Mad Catz says that the controller will get about 30 hours of play out of two AAA batteries.
The controller uses two offset thumbsticks, like what you would find on an Xbox One, and includes four face buttons (labeled A, B, X and Y), a directional pad, right and left bumpers and triggers, a Pause button, a small Bluetooth button and a power switch on its bottom edge. There are also four LED lights.
The CTRL i's two-tone body feels like a lighter, cheaper version of the Xbox 360 controller, but its still solidly built. The top half of the controller is made of a brightly colored (there are five to choose from), glossy plastic, while the bottom half, where your fingers rest, is made of a black matte plastic.
There's an oversized thumbscrew mounted into the body of the controller between the two sets of bumpers and triggers. To attach a phone, you have to remove the screw, pop on the clip and screw it into place. Once mounted, the phone feels very secure.
The controller's offset twin thumbsticks are about the same height as the PS4 and Xbox One's sticks. Both sticks are topped with a hard plastic that doesn't feel as nice as what you may be used to with the PlayStation and Xbox controllers. The tops of the sticks have four tiny dimples on them, but no other sort of texturing. They feel a bit too stiff for my liking, and once you start to move them around, that pressure feels uneven. As with every other controller I tried, the sticks don't include the ability to click in, so no R3 or L3 action here.
The face buttons feel much like what you'd find on a console controller, with a nice click to them and just the right amount of drop.
The directional pad is usable, but not the sort of controller I'd want to use for anything beyond menu selection.
Fortunately, the CTRL i's triggers and bumpers are amazing. Where the Horipad's triggers feel loose, sloppy and don't deliver the same satisfying range as a console counter-part, the CTRL i's triggers are solidly built. The triggers look like tiny little isosceles triangles jutting out of the back of the controller, but they still manage to deliver a fairly decent range of motion. They do feel a little squishy as they sink home, but not enough to be distracting. The CTRL i's bumpers are rectangles with shaped corners and a sharp clicky feel to them.
Overall, the CTRL i is a solidly built mobile controller, that ended up being one of my favorite among the bunch. As an added bonus, use of batteries means that you don't have to worry about recharging or the cord for recharging while on the go and this controller comes with an app that can test the buttons and such, provide a list of compatible games and, if necessary, deliver a firmware update.Mad Catz Micro CTRL i
Mad Catz has a second, more portable, much smaller controller for mobile devices as well. The Micro CTRL i is about 20 percent smaller than the original CTRL i, but mostly features the same bits and pieces. That said, there are some design differences.
The Micro CTRL i supports devices running iOS 7 and above and the new Apple TV. It comes with a slide-on clamp for attaching your iPhone to the top of the controller and two AAA batteries. Mad Catz says that the controller will get about 30 hours of play out of two AAA batteries.
As with its big brother, the Micro uses two offset thumbsticks, like what you would find on an Xbox One, and includes four face buttons (labeled A, B, X and Y), a directional pad, right and left bumpers and triggers, a Pause button, a small Bluetooth button and a power switch on its bottom edge. There are also four LED lights.
The Micro's two-tone body has almost no weight to it, despite still feeling like a well-constructed controller. As with the larger version, the top half of the controller is made of a brightly colored (there are five to choose from), glossy plastic, while the bottom half, where your fingers rest, is made of a black matte plastic.
There's rectangular wedge of plastic jutting out of the back of the controller used for mounting an iPhone. To attach a phone, you just slide the included holder into the rectangle and then attach your phone in the grip. Once mounted, the phone feels very secure, though my iPhone 6S Plus seemed to strain the grip's maximum holding size.
While much smaller, the controller's offset twin thumbsticks are still about the same height as the PS4 and Xbox One's sticks. Both sticks are topped with a hard plastic disc about the size of a dime that doesn't feel as nice as what you may be used to with the PlayStation and Xbox controllers. The tops of the sticks have four tiny dimples on them, but no other sort of texturing. The Micro's sticks feel a bit looser than the larger controller's and because of that, a bit more even in their full range of motion as well. As with ever other controller I tried, the sticks don't include the ability to click in, so no R3 or L3 action here.
The face buttons feel much like what you'd find on a console controller, with a nice click to them and just the right amount of drop. Though in the case of the Micro, the buttons are much smaller — almost distractingly so.
The directional pad, even in its smaller form, remains usable, but not the sort of controller I'd want to use for anything beyond menu selection.
Fortunately, the Micro's triggers and bumpers are amazing. Where the Horipad's triggers feel loose, sloppy and don't deliver the same satisfying range as a console counter-part, the Micro's triggers are solidly built. The triggers look like tiny little isosceles triangles jutting out of the back of the controller, but they still manage to deliver a fairly decent range of motion. The bumpers are rectangles with shaped corners and a sharp clicky feel to them.
The Micro CTRL i is likely the sort of controller you're either going to love or hate, and it will entirely depend on the size of your hands (and whether you're into tiny controllers). This is a slick little device. It's easy to carry around with you. That size constraint sacrifices a little, and it definitely lacks the heft and balance of a console controller. That might bother some gamers.
Because this tiny little controller uses batteries, includes a phone holder and even an app, it's absolutely my controller of choice for travel.
Founded in 2001 as mouse mat manufacturer Soft Trading, SteelSeries has more recently expanded to include a wide variety of controllers and gaming devices. Among the list of products is what many consider to be one of the better mobile game controllers.
The SteelSeries Stratus XL supports devices running iOS 7 and above and the new Apple TV. It comes with two AA batteries and a stand for your iPhone or iPad. SteelSeries says the controller will get about 40 hours of play per a pair of batteries.
Living up to its name, the Stratus XL is a big, chunky controller with enough heft to make it feel like something designed for a console.
The controller uses two side-by-side thumbsticks, like what you'd find on a Playstation 4, and includes four face buttons (labeled A, B, X and Y), a directional pad, right and left bumpers and triggers, a Pause button, a bluetooth button and battery level button. There's a power switch on the back and a panel of four LED lights used both for bluetooth pairing and to show remaining charge.
The XL's contoured body is nicely balanced and reminiscent of an Xbox 360 controller with a slightly black matte finish.
The controller's thumbsticks, which stand about the same height as standard console sticks, have just the right amount of give to them and each feature a rubberized, slightly textured disc on top. As with every other controller I tried, the sticks don't include the ability to click in, so no R3 or L3 action here.
While the body and sticks of the controller feel like something found in a console controller, the buttons leave a lot to be desired. The face buttons are slightly squishy and move around a bit as you push them down. The directional pad, which looks nice, feels like one of the worst of the bunch and is overly stiff.
While the Stratus XL's triggers are shaped more like what you'd find on an Xbox One, angling out at their tips, they're a little mushy for my tastes. The bumpers on the other hand, are neatly designed and seem to have a nice amount of give.
Overall, the Stratus XL, with its heft and solidly-designed body shape, delivers a better experience than the other controllers I tried, and that's despite the lackluster triggers and not-so-great directional pad and face buttons.
SteelSeries' Nimbus is the first controller designed specifically as an Apple TV gamepad. While it works with other iOS devices, this controller has television gaming in mind. That said, there isn't a tremendous difference between the design of the Nimbus and its predecessor, the already fairly good Stratus XL. Both support the same iOS devices, including the Apple TV, both have the same basic parallel-thumbstick design with four facebuttons and a thumbpad. And both are console controller-sized gamepads.
There are some minor differences between the two visually.
The Nimbus has a more angular design, that surprisingly feels better in the hand. The directional pad looks like what you would find on n Xbox One controller: a single piece of plastic shaped like a plus sign. The pause/menu button is much larger on the Nimbus, and the four LEDs used to show a connect and battery level have a bit more design work put into them. The biggest outward difference is that the Nimbus uses a built-in rechargeable battery (which charges with a lightning cable), where the Stratus XL uses two AA batteries.
The chief reason you'd want to pick up the Nimbus over the Stratus XL isn't on the outside, it's the feel of the buttons and sticks.
The Nimbus' thumbsticks are still about the same height as a standard controller, but have feel slightly more responsive and less stiff than the XL's. The discs on the top of the Nimbus' thumbsticks have also been slightly redesigned. They're still concave, but now the texturing is only applied to the outer edge with the top of the thumbstick smooth.( Again, like the Xbox One's.)
The directional pad and face buttons all feel a but more clickier and faster to respond to a button push. That's great news, because my chief issue with the XL was how squishy the buttons and D-pad felt when you used them.
SteelSeries also reworked the controller's triggers. The XL's felt and sometimes sounded cheap, but the Nimbus has a nice solid pull to it and smooth action. Finally, those bumpers have been made bigger and slightly clickier. I thought the XL's were fine, but I do appreciate the new design found in the Nimbus.
With the release of the Nimbus, it's easy to point to a clear winner among the Apple TV controllers. SteelSeries Nimbus has the perfect mix of solid design, decent components and just the right amount of features.