Don't let the game fool you

Disney Infinity and Skylanders are the best examples of Apple TV's gaming potential

No joke: I think I can see the future. And you can, too, if you follow me and a couple of games on a journey through multiple generations of video game software and hardware. But you’re going to have to trust me, because this is going to get weird.

If you want to see where video games are headed — where they’ll be, what they’ll look like and what you’ll be playing them on in the next few years — you need to study what Disney Infinity 3.0 and Skylanders SuperChargers did this year.

I know, I know: You don't care about those franchises. They’re for kids. They’re just marketing schemes designed to make parents buy toys and video games at the same time. Well, so were G.I. Joe and He-Man and Transformers, but those action figures didn't come to life on your TV. Well, OK, they sort of did, but you couldn't control them.

Even if that that were true, though, it’s not the point or what's significant. If you’re curious about the future of gaming, you should care about both franchises. They’re being bold in a way that most others aren’t.

Today, Skylanders — the series that created the toys-to-life market — and Disney Infinity — its successful competitor — are leading a migration from consoles to devices that, just a few years ago, would have seemed absurd to think of as gaming machines. They didn’t arrive in denatured form, either. They are the real and credible full games.

In an ecosystem full of sequels, Disney Infinity and Skylanders spent 2015 being more more ambitious than most. And I kid you not, after studying and playing these games across several platforms, including the new Apple TV, iOS, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox 360, and talking to their creators, it’s difficult not to conclude that in their ambition lies some part of video gaming's future, both hardware and software.

We ran Disney Infinity 3.0 and Skylanders SuperChargers through their paces on the new Apple TV, the not-quite-a console released just a few months ago. Then we compared those games to their twins on other systems. Both show the potential — and limitations — of Apple's new set top box and the surprising amount of things we didn't realize we were missing from more powerful machines.

SAME GAME, DIFFERENT PLATFORMS

In early September 2015, Apple revealed a device that many who watch the Cupertino, California-based company had long predicted.

The new Apple TV is an evolution of the set-top boxes it has been producing for the last several years. Bigger and more powerful, its new heft brought an app store like its iPad, iPhone and Mac counterparts. And just like its sister platforms, the new Apple TV would support gaming.

This was possible, in part, because its refreshed hardware is based on Apple's line of tiny, power efficient microprocessors. A8 chip that debuted in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus also powers the new Apple TV.

Onstage on the day of the unveiling, Apple invited a couple developers up to show off a couple of games. The first, a multiplayer version of Crossy Road, was a logical extension of a popular game on its smartphones and tablets. The second, Beat Sports, was a game created specifically for the new Apple TV, with motion controls reminiscent of Nintendo Wii games.

It was an interesting, if somewhat predictable showcase. Gaming was certainly part of the new Apple TV, but it certainly wasn’t Apple’s focus. The games we saw onstage looked intriguing, but they weren’t revolutionary, and they didn’t exactly seem to push the gameplay or graphical envelope. That's because, just like it does with the iPhone, Apple didn't build a video game console. It built multipurpose hardware, tied to its own ecosystem, both of which make playing games possible. Based on that alone, it seemed like the new Apple TV would be a bastion of casual games.

Things got much more interesting later that day, when Activision and Disney made two separate but related announcements: Skylanders SuperChargers and Disney Infinity 3.0 were both headed to the new Apple TV. Not versions of the console games, they said. Not separate, pared down experiences created for Apple’s unreleased hardware, either. The full games would appear on the new Apple TV in the same form they took on Microsoft’s, Nintendo’s and Sony’s consoles.

Those two announcements implied more about the hardware’s gaming capabilities than Apple cared to on stage.

Apple released the new Apple TV at the end of October. In the interim, we learned about a few odd rules, from the perspective of those who make and play games. Apple's rules require all Apple TV games to support the device's bundled Siri remote. Third-party controllers are available, too, but Apple's guidelines are clear. When Guitar Hero Live launched for the new Apple TV, we learned they weren't set in stone. That game doesn't use the Siri remote at all.

We also learned about Apple technology that's in full force on the new Apple TV, designed to eliminate the need to manage storage. Instead, the new Apple TV will do that for users. It's a technology designed to make things simpler for users, but it also poses challenges for developers, as the system purges and re-downloads assets on demand, as its storage needs fluctuate. Apple's rules also limited the maximum storage space that any app — including games — could use on the console. For small games, that didn't seem like it would be much of a problem. For bigger games whose installation footprint could be multiple times the size of Apple's maximum allowance, that seemed like a genuine engineering problem to solve. Apple anticipated this, and it built technology to make it possible. But there was no way to know if it would work or how the experience would be.

Here in mid-December, Skylanders SuperChargers and Disney Infinity 3.0 are both available for the Apple TV, just like they are on traditional gaming hardware. What was once a promise became a reality.

The question, then, became: Are they any good? After all, the new Apple TV has includes a radical rethinking of the relationship you have with your hardware. Is that acceptable for large games like these?

To find out, we played both games on the new Apple TV, and that gave us answers about whether or not they were any good on this not-console. But that’s when the question morphed. How did they hold up, in terms of graphics and performance, to their doppelgangers on other systems?

Polygon spoke with representatives for Skylanders SuperChargers developer Vicarious Visions as well as those at Disney about Disney Infinity 3.0. Both explained why they felt it was important to bring their consoles games to Apple’s new hardware. They told us about their philosophy about toys to life products generally. They also provided us with versions of their software and hardware to test and compare everywhere we could.

Disney Infinity 3.0

We covered Disney Infinity 3.0’s gameplay in our review, saying that "Disney has finally thrown open its vault of treasured characters and stories and wants you to play." We also said it made us laugh so hard that we nearly puked.

But would it make us throw up on the new Apple TV? And if so, who’d clean it up?

Disney Infinity 3.0 is available through the tvOS App Store, the only official way to get apps on the device. And that’s where the cleverness begins. If you don’t own the game, you can still download a version of it that’s free-to-play and includes a level based on the climax of the original 1977 Star Wars movie, A New Hope. If you buy the $99.95 starter pack for Apple TV, that download transforms into the full game.

As on other systems, the Disney Infinity 3.0 starter pack comes with a base, Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano figures, and access to the Twilight of the Republic playset. In effect, that lets you play within the world of The Clone Wars animated series.

How does it play on the new Apple TV? That depends on how you play it.

Controlling Disney Infinity 3.0 with the Siri remote isn’t great. It feels odd, as if you’re using a remote control instead of a controller — because that's exactly what you're doing. The Siri remote is functional, but neither the game nor the Siri remote were built with moving characters through 3D worlds, and it shows. Characters bumble around with extreme imprecisions, and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re up for a goof. It’s in there, perhaps, because Apple says it has to be in there. It can’t be in there because anyone thinks it’s particularly good.

But hope is not lost. Disney Infinity 3.0 mitigates that problem because the SteelSeries Nimbus, the poster child for Apple TV game controllers, ships with the starter pack. It’s in the box, and it is a fantastic controller. I mean that, too. The more I use it in various games, the more impressed I am with the Nimbus. It doesn’t feel like my memories of third-party controllers. It’s sturdy and reliable to the point that I have to remind myself that I’m not using hardware from a console manufacturer, long the gold standard for controllers.

The right controller makes all the difference in the world. Apple’s Bluetooth-based pairing makes setup drop dead simple. All you need to do is switch the controller on, and the Apple TV detects it within seconds, in our out of a game.

How’s the game perform relative to its console counterparts? Almost exactly the same, with a few caveats.

As we discussed above, the software that runs the new Apple TV, tvOS, places restrictions on the maxim file size of an app. For something so potentially big as Disney Infinity 3.0, developers have to shuffle data onto and off of the system, loading levels into an out of memory. That can happen in the foreground, preventing your from playing, or in the background, transparently. The latter is preferable. The former can range from understandable to perplexing.

When levels and characters get loaded on your system, you’d be hard pressed to find a difference between Disney Infinity 3.0 on Apple TV and Disney Infinity 3.0 on any other platform, aside from the obvious benefit of graphical fidelity on more powerful systems like the PS4 or a Windows PC. It took me staring at video side by side to tell any substantial differences.

When levels and characters aren't on your Apple TV, the results can vary dramatically. The Apple TV version’s loading is significantly pronounced compared to systems like the PS4 and Xbox 360. There’s no disc in a tray to stream levels from. There’s only the internet and internal storage that Apple TV manages and the internet’s nebulous cloud, from which the game loads levels.

To be fair, though, I've spent a lot of time with Disney Infinity 3.0 on four pieces of hardware during the last few weeks. Loading screens are par for the course — though, again, they're pronounced on the new Apple TV, almost certainly because of tvOS' app restrictions.

But, again, once you’re in the game, you’re really in the game. As in the real Disney Infinity 3.0, full of dialogue, voice acting, gameplay — all of the things that you’d expect if you were playing it elsewhere.

Skylanders SuperChargers

The latest entry in the series that created the toys-to-live genre is, as we said in our review, a "vehicle-themed sequel that brings with it a seismic shift in the way you play the game's main campaign and a host of additions meant to extend the life of the title well past completion."

Part kart racer, part platformer, Skylanders SuperChargers was already an impressive game before it arrived on the Apple TV. And on the Apple TV, it is … just about the same as it is anywhere else you play it.

Like Disney Infinity 3.0, you can see the seams, if you look closely. But just like the former, I was hard pressed to tell the difference while I was playing. Both games have noticeably lower framerates on the new Apple TV, but not bad frame rates. Though I didn't do any counting, it seemed about the same as what you'd notice playing a 30 fps and a 60 fps game back-to-back.

There’s some initial loading before levels, too. Place a new Skylander or vehicle on the portal connected to the new Apple TV, and there’s more of delay before it loads them into the game than you’d see on a console. But those are relatively minor quibbles. Inside the game, it’s business as usual.

Skylanders SuperChargers also sets itself apart on the Apple TV with a Bluetooth-equipped portal, which eliminates the need for a USB cord strung across your room. Setting it up is a easy as launching the game and pressing a single button.

It also ships with a miniaturized controller that fits on the underside of the portal. It looks like it might be terrible, but its looks are deceiving. I was genuinely surprised to find how well built and easy to use it is. The face buttons are sturdy, not squishy, and its four shoulder buttons are tiered and trigger with a satisfying click. In the abstract, it wouldn’t be my controller of choice if I had a choice, because it’s built for hands smaller than mine. That said, I never once thought about how small it was when it was in my hands. And, for whatever it's worth, I drove my vehicle better with this controller than I did with PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers.

Skylanders SuperChargers also supports the Siri remote as an alternate controller, and it works surprisingly well. It’s still better and more accurate to have analog sticks in your hands, but Vicarious Visions pulled of a perfectly credible alternate way to control the game with a remote shoehorned into gaming. That is, in part, because Skylanders SuperChargers keeps players moving in relatively tight quarters, where there's less call for twitchy maneuverability. It stands in contrast to Disney Infinity 3.0, whose world and sandbox seems generally more open.

Its developers’ explanation for how they thought about the Siri remote makes sense, too. They imagine that it’s the controller you hand to the little kid, the one who’s not going to be quite as dexterous as the more skilled gamer. Everything’s simplified, and that lets people play together.

Perhaps the wildest part of the Skylanders SuperChargers experience on Apple devices, though, is where it exists. In short, it’s everywhere. You can play the full game on your Apple TV, your iPad and your iPhone. Not only that, but because they’re built on a backend controlled partially by Vicarious Visions technology and partly by Apple’s iCloud technology, they interact with each other in real time.

While console manufacturers offer ways to cast a console’s screen to handheld devices under some circumstances, and smartphone apps allow interconnectivity on some current-generation hardware, Skylanders SuperChargers is fully interchangeable across Apple's device ecosystem in a way that simply isn’t available on consoles.

To pick just one example, three players could join an ad hoc online multiplayer kart race, even if one has an Apple TV, one’s on an iPhone and the other’s using an iPad. It is deeply impressive interconnectivity, and a clear win for Apple’s ecosystem and Vicarious Visions’ ingenuity. And when you see it in action, it's hard not to see the future there.

Seeing the future

Just because Apple doesn't think of the Apple TV as a console doesn't mean that that game makers have to agree isn't one — or that it isn't one.

Here, just several weeks after its release, how does the Apple TV stack up against consoles? In short, rather well.

How do multiplatform games look on the new Apple TV compared to their console counterparts? It depends on the game — and how good you are at noticing details.

We already answered that question when we looked at Guitar Hero Live. Side by side, it's effectively identical on Apple tv and PS4. But, of course, impressive as Guitar Hero Live may be, full motion video and a scrolling note highway aren't graphical powerhouses.

Disney Infinity 3.0 Skylanders SuperChargers offered an opportunity to compare bona fide console games — rich, fully 3D games, of the kind you’d expect to see on on a Nintendo, Microsoft or Sony device.

Do the look the same as the latest generation of consoles? No. They look somewhat diminished. But that’s not surprising, given the hardware. And it's not always apparent, as you're playing the game. I had to look at levels side by side to realize that draw distances aren't and particle effects weren't as jazzy on the Apple TV as they were eve on the Xbox 360.

Again, that's not surprising, given the relative power of the Apple TV's gaming competitors. But it seems reasonable to mark this for follow up later. These are the first, big console games to hit the Apple TV. Anyone who's had a PS4 or Xbox One since launch will know how much better games started looking after game makers became adept with the hardware.

Since its debut in late October, we've been putting the new Apple TV through its paces, with games big and small, mobile and console. No, the new Apple TV still isn’t a video game console, But yes, I can say without hesitation that the new Apple TV is a credible alternative to consoles, at least where it's comparable. And at this point, it isn't generally comparable. Disney Infinity 3.0 and Skylanders SuperChargers are outliers. If you want a device onto which many developers will put their latest and greatest games, Apple TV isn't for you right now. It may be one day, but it isn't in late 2015.

In short, while the new Apple TV isn't identical to consoles, either in terms of looks or function, it is powerful enough to handle modern games without making them look, well, weak and blurry, like the Wii tended to look compared to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Console games on the new Apple TV control like consoles games. They look like console games. They are console games. They just happen to be running on a not-quite-a-console.

More interestingly, they’re console games on a platform with a $150 buy in, backed by Apple’s ecosystem. That’s unlikely to be be persuasive for the adult, hardcore gamer. Then again, Apple didn’t make a video game console, and it didn’t tailor the new Apple TV to that crowd. Instead, the new Apple TV could be a powerful argument for households that don’t want to spend twice as much as Apple's device to get the latest, greatest video game console.

And based on our discussions with the creators of Disney Infinity 3.0 and Skylanders SuperChargers — two legitimate console games that perform admirably on Apple’s new hardware — those companies are betting on on some of those kinds of purchases. They aren’t doing it blindly, either. Both said that these franchises have performed very well on mobile platforms. And the new Apple TV is nothing if not a TV-bound extension of Apple's wildly successful mobile platform.

And that's where the future comes in.

For a certain kind of longtime gamer, myself included, it’s easy and obvious to think of consoles and handhelds and PCs as the place where most gaming happens — even "real" gaming, if you want to draw a bold line between casual and hardcore. Mobile devices are where denuded gaming happens, casual gaming happens, gaming for people who maybe aren’t exactly hardcore happens the argument goes.

It’s easy to think this was because that’s how it’s always been.

But to new generations of gamers, Disney Infinity 3.0 and Skylanders SuperChargers seem positioned as harbingers of gaming’s future. As low power, high performance chips like that in the new Apple TV continue to evolve, it becomes easier to imagine a scenario where dedicated hardware and platforms designed primarily to play video games become less important. Credible, console-like gaming is becoming increasingly mobile. For generations yet to come, full-featured, console-like gaming will not be something they need to associate with a TV or a computer. Those will be but two of many more options.

There may long be a market for gaming-focused hardware plugged into a wall to suck the juice it needs to support the latest hardware and render the most beautiful graphics. But if the new Apple TV is the beginning of a trend that started less than a decade ago with the mobile and tablet revolutions, then it seems likely that consoles could become increasingly niche products.

Generations born to a world of powerful devices that let them game everywhere won’t even need to think about where to go to start gaming. All they’ll need to do is find the most convenient device that lets them play the very same games their parents did on the TV or in front of the PC. Only for that generation, they'll be able to get their game on wherever they want.