Will the revolution be TV?
As a new Apple TV arrives, we canvass the game development community for opinions on its potential
The new Apple TV, that is. We canvass developer opinion
Finally revealed in early September, the new Apple TV isn’t all that far away from a screenless iPhone that plugs into your television. That seems damning on paper, but it’s a deliberate and shrewd move. While this model features a faster CPU and more RAM than the older spec, where it truly differentiates itself isn’t the hardware upgrade, but that it has been designed to play games alongside streaming movies and TV. And it’s tapping into the existing iOS ecosystem to do so: developers can make their app universal across your phone and the set-top box, while Handoff capabilities make it possible to start a game on one Apple device and resume it on another.
Apple’s iPhone has had a famously transformative effect on the nature of games, helping to popularise free-to-play and making players of those who would never have bought consoles. Apple TV builds on that foundation. It’s not a console per se, and gaming on it is largely designed to slip innocuously into daily routines and the short gaps between viewing sessions. The question is, where does that leave it for those who take a more active interest in games?
Jeff Wofford, the director of Electric Toy Co, reckons the new Apple TV is “something Apple had to do, but not something gamers have to have”. He argues it’s Apple’s response to rivals (Amazon’s Fire TV, Chromecast) making a play for the living room, offering little that’s new or remarkable. Others are more optimistic. Timo Vihola, creative director at Minigore creator Mountain Sheep, considers the new Apple TV an interesting combination of set-top box, smart TV and microconsole, backed by a company that has a proven track record in capturing a large audience.
No one believes Apple’s gunning for Xbox or PlayStation’s spot under your TV. “This isn’t a device that’s taking on the console market,” says Snowman founder Ryan Cash, adding that many of his game-loving friends spend much of their spare time playing Clash Of Clans anyway, even in their living rooms.
In short, the new Apple TV could be a console for the everyman. This isn’t a new idea, but, as FDG co-founder Philipp Döschl says: “Apple’s strength isn’t in creating new markets, but opening them up to a large audience. I hope Apple will do so again here with TV gaming, much like Nintendo did with Wii.” This line of thinking might set some teeth on edge, but it excites plenty of developers. Trick Shot designer and Ustwo artist Jonathan Topf mulls that there “hasn’t been a really good casual gaming platform for the living room yet”, and reckons something low friction could be a boon. “If more people have access to games, that’s a great thing. As we’ve seen with mobile, plenty of ‘non-gamers’ want to play games. I can see a whole new group of people having the same experience with Apple TV”.
It’s a line of thinking shared by Jon Carter, Harmonix’s creative lead on Beat Sports, a rhythmic minigame collection designed specifically for the new hardware. “I’m excited about Apple TV’s potential to turn an enormous amount of people into living-room gamers,” he says. “Not everyone wants to invest in a console, but if you’re used to games on your iPhone, an Apple TV can introduce you to the wonders of largescreen gaming.” He jokes his parents might “actually play one of my games when I’m not around”, but this hides a serious point: developers should not underestimate this kind of untapped audience.
And with a different kind of userbase comes fresh opportunities. Vihola is excited about the prospect of smaller games, which rarely get a solid foothold on home consoles, in part due to strict submission rules. “Plenty of iOS devs have TV gaming ideas, but nowhere to publish them,” he says. “It will be interesting to see if they find a home on this platform.”
The hardware clearly appeals to developers too. “It’s great and quite powerful,” says Finji director Adam Saltsman, adding that the developer tools will be “very familiar to anyone developing for iOS already”. He ported most of Canabalt in a couple of days, and estimates it will feel “fully native” in another week or so. Rusty Moyher reports a similar experience, quickly getting Astro Party running at 60fps. He says Apple TV is a “fast little device
“Lack of storage is tricky for games using large amounts of persistent data for generated worlds”
[and] at $150, it’ll also be the cheapest device from Apple with an App Store”.
However, other aspects of Apple TV development appear less welcome. While Star Seed Origin and Word
Forward developer Shane McCafferty says it’s been “a huge pleasure to work with only one aspect ratio and screen size for a change,” Wofford is concerned that “the screen’s only as good as your TV. You don’t directly touch content. And while there’s Wii-style gestural control, even Nintendo’s downplayed movement-based gameplay of late. Will this be enough to make the new Apple TV a fresh, interesting gaming experience?”
Giant Spacekat founder Brianna Wu simply sees more work for people in supporting Apple TV: “You can’t just add controller support and call it a day – playtesting requirements will be a huge timesink.” She’s also concerned about Apple limiting tvOS apps to 200MB of local storage, with further data needs being handled via downloadable bundles that can be purged from the system when not in use. While it should make those 32/64GB hard drives go further, it’s a real hurdle for game developers. “This is a huge problem,” says Wu. “It’s fine when using Apple’s native tools to build your games, but serious [game] developers don’t — and the engines we use just can’t work on tvOS currently.” Punch Quest developer Paul
‘Madgarden’ Pridham echoes Wu’s concerns: “Lack of storage is tricky for games using large amounts of persistent data for generated worlds. It could get tiresome for users if cached data is discarded by the system.” Tree Men Games’ Jussi Pullinen wonders if this “will be a bad thing for great games that would otherwise work perfectly on Apple TV, such as AG Drive”. Chaotic Box’s
Frank Condello goes further, suggesting that it could “negatively impact larger
games or console ports, [perhaps] even discouraging developers enough to skip the platform entirely”.
Still, the most controversial aspect of Apple TV development is its reliance on the Siri Remote. Apple ‘discouraged’ games that required thirdparty controllers at first, then banned them entirely. Now the party line is that Siri Remote must be supported for all Apple TV games. The controller has plenty of inputs, but not ones that map easily onto traditional pads – there’s a small touch surface at one end that also accepts a click input; gesture controls, thanks to a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope; and the play/pause key becomes a button for gaming when the remote’s flipped on its side.
“This affords an incredible amount of intuitive interactions,” says Carter, whose Beat Sports has taken obvious cues from Wii Sports. Saltsman is more guarded, however: “The Siri Remote is a really neat piece of hardware, but its feel varies a lot from game to game. Taps feel nice on the surface. Clicks feel good but are super-decisive – more like a mouse double-click from a player psychology standpoint. Swipes feel quite good, but the gesture recogniser is laggier than for light touches.”
By contrast, McCafferty is unhappy with having so few traditional buttons to work with. “The remote limits us,” he says, “because there’s only one usable button to map – the trackpad button often won’t be usable when the player’s using the trackpad for movement”. Moyher questions making Siri Remote mandatory, given that “the living room is well suited to longer, deeper gaming sessions, but the Siri Remote seems best suited for simple swipe- or turn-based games”. Damp Gnat developer Reece Millidge believes Apple’s controller won’t work well for “binary controlled platform games, such as my own Icycle”. He does, however, admit that “there is uncertainty regarding what percentage of owners will buy a thirdparty games controller”.
Millidge concedes that purely gestural games may turn out to be successful, but remains sceptical. Vihola reckons Apple should have bundled a console-style controller with the new unit to enable a bigger launch library.
That would suggest a greater focus on gaming than a set-top box with ‘TV’ in the name perhaps warrants. And while Apple may relent on its mandate or the remote’s design in future, it makes sense to ensure that the day-one buyer isn’t faced with a store full of games that require additional hardware to play. “This [Siri Remote rule] frustrates developers but is good for the ecosystem as a whole,” says Wu. “You just can’t ask normal people to buy a second controller to play a game that costs a dollar. All they’ll understand is the feeling of being ripped off.”
Nitrome MD Mat Annal agrees, although he says it “would have been nice had Apple put more thought into making the Siri Remote more versatile. Would it have hurt so much to have a couple of game-focused buttons on there in all that dead space?”
Despite Apple’s rules, several thirdparty companies are eager to fill any perceived void regarding traditional controllers. Mad Catz global PR director
Alex Verrey says his company has long believed mobile will emerge as the dominant gaming platform. This in part will be through “people connecting devices to TVs and sitting back to play”. He reckons Apple TV will accelerate this process, but still thinks this leaves plenty of space for console-style pads. He also hopes that in time we’ll see Apple “embrace a wide variety of control devices, dictated by the content available”.
The immediate problem, though, according to iOS indie luminary Zach Gage, is that “it will be very difficult for developers to truly take advantage of the full set of buttons on an MFi controller, due to Apple’s restrictions”. This won’t, he feels, stop quality games from arriving, but will “limit the capacity of the Apple TV to compete with console-style titles”.
There are workarounds, however. Condello says some developers are using cutdown control schemes for Siri Remote, with auto-fire and other tricks, and then fleshing out the input variety when an
“You just can’t ask normal people to buy a second controller to play a game that costs a dollar”
MFi controller is detected. As 10tons Ltd producer Jaakko Maaniemi says, “It’ll be interesting to see how many games go for bare-minimum Siri Remote functionality and offer the ‘real’ experience with a gamepad, and ultimately where Apple draws the line regarding the level of acceptable bare minimum. But I’m confident the other end of the spectrum will have brilliant Siri Remote gaming experiences — and those are the games to keep an eye on.”
Some developers nonetheless
remain baffled by Apple’s demands, not least because it impacts existing titles. “IOS has great games with MFi controller support, but Apple ruled them out with its ridiculous decision,” says MR Games’
Gary Riches, before asking why Apple didn’t just use prompts to warn users buying games about specific requirements. Secret Exit CEO Jani
Kahrama believes it handicaps entire genres: “Some will be impossible to implement in a satisfactory manner if the requirement sticks. Apple TV will be a platform held back not by hardware, but by policy. It will be challenging for developers to adapt anything but the most casual of gaming experiences.”
Wu suggests this is likely deliberate: “It’s telling Harmonix’s game that debuted at the Apple event is a simple one, where you push a button in time to music. It has simple mechanics and graphics, and a low memory footprint. These kinds of simple experiences will dominate Apple TV.” She finds this a disappointment, not least because she believes iOS gaming’s biggest shortcoming is in most games being “simple, forgettable experiences that don’t move you emotionally”.
The Coding Monkeys CEO Martin Pittenauer offers a different take: “In the past few years, some titles that moved gaming forward as a medium did not rely on complex, traditional controls, and Siri Remote might be a good fit for them.” He adds that Apple’s rules merely provide a “design constraint that ultimately improves the quality of available games”.
Eighty Eight Games designer Luca Redwood thinks similarly: “The most interesting things often come from constraints. Also, I see the Apple TV being complementary to a traditional console, rather than a replacement. Games that will shine will be quick experiences you can get into while someone pauses the TV to answer the phone. If you want a full-on gaming session, use a console.”
Still, with an untested platform, it’s likely we’ll initially see a flurry of iOS ports, or attempts to rework known properties. Pridham, for example, is working on bringing his simplest, “one-handed” fare, such as Chillaxian, to Apple TV, and is eager to see how the “heavy-duty launch titles adapt to a 1.5-button remote”.
For Gage, the big question is which mobile originals will be better on the TV than on your iPhone. He does, though, note that TV gaming has “a gigantic cultural history of how to solve control and interface issues” that developers can draw on, easing transition problems. This should help developers get over the initial bump Condello describes: “It’s surprisingly easy to get an iOS game running on tvOS — but there’s a bit of work between ‘running’ and ‘playable’.”
Topf wonders how many developers, eager to minimise costs and capitalise on the fresh audience of Apple TV, will port games that “shouldn’t be a safe bet and fight Siri Remote, resulting in a crappy experience”. Annal posits many mobile hits simply won’t be viable: “Candy Crush would be much harder to play. Twin-stick shooters are out!” In time, Condello reckons we’ll see games built specifically for Siri Remote, although Riches echoes Gage, asking, “What will drive someone to turn on the telly, switch to the Apple TV and play a game that will also be on their iPhone?” Gosuen believes a major rethink is the only way forward: “We will have to recreate our base. Mario was the base design for consoles years ago. Canabalt is a kind of base for mobile. For Apple TV, we must reinvent games for the place they were born: the TV.”
The problem is money. Redwood believes that until a standout game proves the viability of the platform and justifies all
the extra work, developers will remain cautious. This is a common concern. Condello grumbles about Apple’s push towards ‘universal purchasing’ and a likely backlash should anyone create Apple TV-only games, saying, “It’s iPad all over again.” Bad Crane designer and developer Markus Kaikkonen says he’d be “delighted if Apple TV brought life to the paid indie market, because even buying a $2 mobile game feels like an investment for many”. Vihola, though, looks at the current reality of iOS: “Free-toplay dominates. Worse, most top-grossing free-toplay games are years old. By comparison, top-selling PS4 titles constantly change as new games arrive.”
Despite the concerns surrounding the controller, associated economics, and even the games themselves, one thing’s certain: we’d be foolish to write Apple TV off as a platform for gaming. Gage warns to “not discount how amazing it is to have a TV box that is simple to develop for”, while Condello jokes that “people always vastly underestimate Apple’s ability to sell shiny new things”. While it never reached iPhone’s heights, Apple TV’s previous form was still a success – it was in the top five brands for streaming media devices in the US in 2014. If its successor can even equal that achievement, then it will be an attractive platform for development, regardless of its shortcomings.
From an adoption standpoint, however, Saltsman wonders how Apple will fare with hardware that’s priced significantly higher than the growing pool of HDMI sticks and rival boxes. Kaikkonen sees the value proposition as reasonable: iOS already has titles that feel like full-blown console releases, he says, and so “getting a console for $150 and new premium games for $5 or less seems like a great deal”. But Riches notes that if you factor in MFi controllers for multiple users, the overall cost rises to that of a second-hand Xbox One.
Fundamentally, though, it’s the games that count. Wofford won’t turn down an opportunity, saying he’s supporting Apple TV because “it’s relatively easy to do and expands my market”. But he reckons few people will buy Apple TV for games, and that Apple “probably doesn’t see it as a gaming revolution, or even an evolution. I think Apple sees games on Apple TV as a necessary feature for a necessary platform. It may be a gaming platform, but it’s not a gamer’s platform.”
Cash urges patience: “I don’t think Apple TV will change everything right away, but I believe it will become a big part of living-room gaming.” He notes the new Apple TV from a gaming perspective should really be considered as a firstgeneration device, but as devices increase in power and developers have time to experiment with them, we’ll see games improve steadily. “We’ve already seen this happen with iOS, and so we’ll eventually get console-level gaming on Apple TV,” he predicts. “In the meantime, we’ll get lots of fun casual gaming — and people who usually only play games on their iPhones might finally be drawn to the big screen.”
“Getting a console for $150 and new premium games for $5 or less seems like a great deal”
FROM TOP Mountain Sheep’s creative director, Timo Vihola; Snowman founder Ryan Cash; and FDG co-founder Philipp Döschl
The Apple TV App Store 1 will launch with a few new titles and many ports. The device itself 2 runs on a new A8 chip and has 2GB of RAM. Siri Remote 3 features two mics for handling voice input
FROM TOP Zach Gage, Damp Gnat’s Reece Millidge, and Alex Verrey, Mad Catz’s global PR director
Trick Shot, a puzzle game built around trying to get a bouncy ball into the goal by pinging it around levels, relies on the kind of simple gestural inputs that suit Siri Remote and its glass touchscreen
GalaxyOnFire–ManticoreRising has been announced as an Apple TV exclusive, and will be a prequel to GalaxyOnFire3–Manticore
The Siri Remote has a strap to tether it to your wrist while playing, but it’s an optional extra rather than being supplied as standard
Rayman’s previous games on iOS were fluid autrounners, whereas Rayman Adventures hews a little closer to the platforming of Origins and Legends
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT GuitarHero Live, Metal-Morph, Transistor and
Shadowmatic were all revealed at Apple’s event in September
Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman is cautiously optimistic about Apple TV