Why the Apple TV won't revolutionise gaming

Games are just a small, but potentially very meaningful part of the new set-top box's overall appeal.

By the time Apple began its event on Wednesday, we already knew most of the basics: leaks had soured the surprise of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, the iPad Pro, and certainly the long-awaited Apple TV refresh. However, one pre-show rumor didn’t come true, which left some people disappointed: The new set-top box isn’t a gaming powerhouse.

It plays games, certainly. The addition of the App Store means that the new Apple TV is designed to run big-screen games, with Apple demoing a multiplayer version of Crossy Road, a new Rayman, and a rhythmic, family-oriented sports game from Rock Band maker Harmonix. And with the touchpad remote, iOS devices, gamepads, and other peripherals all supported, there’s some versatility to what developers can do with it.

But the idea that the Apple TV could challenge the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 in any serious way seemed off-base, and Apple’s brief presentation didn’t inspire belief that gaming will be a tentpole focus for the device. Does that make it a “major bust,” as gaming site Kotaku said? Well, no: there’s still plenty of upside to the Apple TV’s gaming capabilities, even if rumors undercut the impact.

apple tv app store Apple

One purchase or download can get you the same game across devices, plus cloud saves let you carry over progress between versions.

What it is (and isn’t)

The Apple TV is not a $350–$400 console packed with high-end gaming guts; it’s a tiny, $150 box with an iPhone 6 processor in it. And it’s not designed to run the kinds of $60 games that are built by hundreds of people and showcase the latest in graphics technology. In fact, many of the games you’ll play probably started life on the iPhone, and most will be free-to-play offerings.

In truth, the new Apple TV is quite similar in capabilities to a few other boxes on the market. Amazon’s Fire TV, for example, is all about media and games, while Android TV-powered boxes (like the Nexus Player) can likewise run apps, games, and more. Ouya is perhaps the most high-profile failure of the bunch, as it Kickstarted millions of dollars, built up a lot of hype, and then botched the landing.

We probably needn’t worry about a messy launch with the Apple TV. There’s an incredible selection of iPhone and iPad games on the App Store that can be tweaked and revised for tvOS, and both the company and platform are a known quantity by now. Also, Apple sold more than 25 million of the boxes when it was just a “hobby” for the company—imagine what might happen now that Apple thinks it’s important.

That said, the gaming capabilities of the Apple TV aren’t strong or central enough to be a big selling point. Apple realizes that, which is why games got a few minutes in the middle of the TV demo. It’s part of the overall appeal of the new box, but not the hook. But that’s the same deal with the iPhone and iPad—you buy these devices for apps, communication, media, and more, and you also happen to gain access to a vast array of great games along the way.

In that sense, the Apple TV is the perfect complementary gaming device for an avid iPhone or iPad owner. The ability to buy or download a game on your touch device and also have it available on your TV (assuming the developer has made it Apple TV-compatible) is a wonderful perk, particularly with the ability to pick up a saved game on any device. And with iPhones and iPads used as secondary controllers for Apple TV, it makes the box that much more compelling.

apple tv siri remote Apple

The top part of the Siri Remote is the touchpad, plus it has motion control capabilities built in, as well.

Stumbling blocks

Granted, control is a possible point of contention with the Apple TV. The bundled Siri Remote is interesting—it’s like the halfway point between a laptop trackpad and a Wii Remote, letting you tap and swipe for basic interactions, as well as tilt and move with the built-in motion controls. That means easily steering your sports car in Asphalt 8: Airborne, or maybe swinging the remote like a bat or golf club—and whichever other examples seemed new and interesting when the Wii hit in 2006. (Apple even has a Wii-like protective wristband available; it’s a $13 add-on.)

But between the small touchpad and the lack of gaming-specific buttons, the Siri Remote isn’t going to work well for all types of games. In some cases, your iPhone or iPad might be an able substitute, although developers will have to contend with the fact that a (likely small) number of Apple TV owners won’t also have an iOS device.

steelseries nimbus

The SteelSeries Nimbus should launch alongside the Apple TV next month; with no Apple-made gamepad, it may be the only early option.

Because there’s no traditional gamepad included with the box, advanced gaming will be limited to those who seek out additional peripherals. Apple isn’t even making its own controller for the TV; that’ll be left up to third-party makers through the MFi program. SteelSeries is first up with the Nimbus, which looks like a cheaper version of its Stratus XL iOS controller and also works with iPhones and iPads.

There’s another limitation in play: It appears that apps and games are limited to 200MB of storage apiece. That may not be a problem for many casual games, but high-performance titles may need to turn to the cloud to house their data—or grab chunks as needed for progression. But it also means developers may need to condense or compress assets, which isn’t going to make games look any better on your 50-inch flat screen.

And still…

Despite those potential complications, I see a lot of value to gaming on the Apple TV. It’s ideal for existing iOS device owners, and playing games on a box directly connected to your TV is a lot easier than using AirPlay streaming or one of those awkward HDMI connectors from years back.

The Apple TV could be a great living room console for family and party multiplayer experiences, such as a trivia game like You Don’t Know Jack. Get a few friends with iOS devices, crowd them around the TV, and you’ve got easy, instant fun. The Siri Remote has a built-in microphone, so why not bust out some karaoke party games, for that matter?

It’s also encouraging to see developers embracing the option to bring grander console experiences to Apple TV. You’ll be able to play this fall’s Guitar Hero Live on the device with the same plastic guitar peripheral—but no need for a dedicated gaming console. And popular toys-to-life games Skylanders Supercharged and Disney Infinity 3.0: Star Wars will both launch starter kits for Apple TV, as well.

guitar hero live

This photo shows AirPlay support from the iPad, but Guitar Hero Live will also be directly on Apple TV and use the same guitar controller.

As far as smaller games go, I’m not sure that every game will thrive in the living room setting. I’d rather play Crossy Road on my phone and be right there in the tense tapping action, rather than several feet away from a TV. It reminds me of buying mobile gem Threes! on Xbox One last year—I’d played hours and hours on iPhone, so I plopped down $5 to grab the console version and only played for a few minutes total. It just didn’t click with me the same way.

But bigger, deeper games will make a lot of sense on Apple TV. Apple featured Transistor prominently during the demo, and it’s one of the games that will really benefit from the grander experience of playing on a TV. Same with Bastion, XCOM: Enemy Within, The Walking Dead, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

While all work well on an iPad, those are the kinds of games I want to play on a big screen while slumped on the couch at the end of the day. And since Apple TV games can require a full gamepad (unlike iOS games with MFi controllers), the console experience can be re-created without compromise. And what about retro games that started on a controller before moving to touch? Sonic the Hedgehog will be a lot sweeter on your TV when you don’t have to dig out a dusty old Sega Genesis.

No, the Apple TV probably won’t stop anyone from shelling out for an Xbox, nor will the option of television play likely kill your iPhone gaming habits. But the option for living room play within Apple’s mobile ecosystem is a huge perk of the new set-top box, and another reason why it seems like a seriously entertaining upgrade.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags gamingApple TVSiri

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Andrew Hayward

Macworld.com
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?