Return of the joystick: Apple's decision to build controller support into iOS 7 could benefit indie game makers and consumers
Many of the most popular games on iOS, from "Angry Birds" to "Dots" and "Candy Crush," are little nothings meant to occupy a few moments while you're standing in line at the grocery store, waiting at the bus stop, or sitting atop your porcelain throne. Console games, on the other hand, are complex and take advantage of a variety of buttons, motion-sensing capabilities, and even balance boards, while iOS games, and mobile games in general, are typically played with a lone fingertip. But that all might be about to change.
Apple has built support for officially licensed controllers into iOS 7 (and OS X Mavericks), which will allow accessory makers and game developers to move beyond the touchscreen. Other companies have tried to build controllers for iOS devices, but incorporating them into a game required that game makers build support for the device on their own. It was possible but hardly ideal for small studios that would have to develop support for a product -- or variety of products -- that you might not even use. It was, essentially, a hack that might or might not be worth the effort and failed to gain any significant traction with consumers, with few notable exceptions.
Some games, such as "Shadowgun" and the "Modern Combat" series (a "Call of Duty" homage-slash-knock-off) have tried to bring console-like gaming to mobile platforms before, with mixed results. Trying to control a character, explore a world, and perform the complex functions associated with console games is maddeningly frustrating on a touchscreen. I've had to delete these games and games similar to them after wanting to throw my iPhone out of a moving car after a particularly bad experience; you might have experienced something similar, or known someone who has. The virtual buttons meant to simulate a real controller fail to respond to a touch, or your sweaty palm slides against the screen and forces an action you hadn't intended, or a game simply has too many on-screen controls to reliably find and touch with 100 percent accuracy. Some games, or entire game genres, just weren't made for touchscreens.
This effectively limits what game makers are able to do with the iPhone or iPad. Some of the most popular games available on the platform barely rely on the player to function, requiring little more than a single tap or swipe at the right time in order to keep what might as well be a barely-interactive movie going. It's no wonder that children, cats, and other animals -- not that your kids are animals, I swear -- are able to play these games. They're immensely enjoyable but not nearly as sophisticated as their more mature console counterparts.
Better to make a simple game that works well with a touchscreen than to develop something that might be at home on a dedicated gaming device and have someone delete the game because they couldn't make it work properly. Supporting physical controllers with iOS, and possibly selling those devices within the Apple Store, could allow Apple to expand what game makers are able to do with iOS -- and attract more of them to the platform in the process.
Independent game developers are, according to the Game Developers Conference, already wildly interested in tablets and smartphones. Some 58 percent of developers polled by the GDC considered tablets to be the most interesting new market; 56 percent said the same for smartphones. That's more than are interested in the Xbox One and Playstation 4 (though the report was released before either console was announced), PC gaming, browsers, or any other category. Only 12.18 percent of respondents were interested in the PlayStation Vita or Nintendo 3DS, the leading handheld gaming consoles. Smartphones and tablets win by a mile. And they should: Flurry reports that games are the most-used applications on the iPhone and iPad throughout the entire day.
Adding controller support could allow all of those fascinated game makers to develop something more than another "Temple Run" or "Canabalt" knock-off. Genres requiring quick-twitch controls, like platformers, action games, or first-person shooters could finally become viable on Apple's platforms. In the same way that games improved as controllers expanded beyond the "A" and "B" buttons of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, introducing controllers to the iPhone and iPad could allow mobile games to evolve and improve.
[Image courtesy philipjbond]