Game change: iOS 7 welcoming game controllers is a big deal

A small allowance for third-party game controllers could be a huge move for iOS gaming in the immediate future.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
5 min read
Two examples of game controllers that could work with iOS 7. Apple via Toucharcade

With one small feature, iOS 7 might introduce the biggest change in iOS gaming since the App Store.

There's something I've wished for on both the iPhone and iPad for years: a true, universal, dedicated game controller. iOS 7 has granted my wish: indeed, one of the small but very significant additions to the next mobile OS announced at WWDC allows for third-party controllers. It's funny this happened to be announced during E3, because it just might be the trigger to change the mobile gaming industry.

Why it's big
Third-party accessory-makers have tried making game controllers for iOS devices for years. The results have been messy, to be kind. The iCade worked by pretending to be a keyboard; other controllers with analog pads, like the Duo Gamer, worked only with a tiny subset of games.

iCade's 8-bitty: never a real universal controller solution. Sarah Tew/CNET

Now that iOS 7 is allowing game controller accessories into the MFi program (the program that's used to create officially-certified accessories for iOS devices), at long last we can hope to see game controllers that will work with a wide variety of games, and not feel disposable.

The game controller spec for MFi partners is a framework, according to those familiar with Apple's plans. It's a template for one of two specific sets of controller types: a "standard" controller with a d-pad, four buttons, and left/right shoulder buttons, and an "extended" game controller with two analog pads and two sets of shoulder buttons. You can see examples of each above. Either spec could be designed as a snap-on case accessory connected via Lightning, a stand-alone wireless AirPlay controller, or whatever other design an accessory-maker saw fit.

Game developers will be able to access APIs for these controllers, inserting support into their games. Apple wants touch to be mandatory, and the "standard" controller to be supported first before the "extended," so that anyone purchasing any accessory could still play the games. So, a first-person shooter that would support analog sticks would have touch, standard, and extended controller settings.

Logitech and PowerA are two hardware makers confirmed to be releasing iOS game controllers, but there will be more. We just don't know what these devices will look like. "We're excited to support Apple's new MFi game controller framework, and look forward to delivering compelling controllers that appeal to all types of iOS gamers," said PowerA president Eric Bensussen via a predictable press statement. He promises controllers by the fall. Logitech provided a similar statement when contacted for a comment: Ehtisham Rabbani, general manager of the Logitech gaming business group, said it's an "important step for iOS-based gaming."

The Nvidia Shield, an Android gaming device coming this month, has its own controller. John Chan/CNET

Nvidia Shield, and the age of physical game controllers in mobile
Android has had game controllers out there for well over a year from companies like Nyko, and the soon-to-be-available Nvidia Shield bonds a control pad right into a Tegra 4 Android gaming device.

Shield wirelessly (or via HDMI) works as a TV-connected game system, too. The physical controller, in a brief play session I had with it recently, made me forget I was playing a mobile game.

Sony's ill-fated Xperia Play phone had the right idea but the wrong execution. With accessory-makers all possibly competing to make universal game controllers with a set template, the landscape for great accessories will open up without a weird flood of differently functioning products.

A unified front for Android and iOS developers?
The two model designs given by Apple have different button layouts, but it's the dual analog-stick stand-alone AirPlay controller that's the real game-changer...so to speak. From the dual shoulder buttons to the button layout, it matches the standard feel of any normal console controller.

This means game makers could more comfortably explore bigger, bolder, less touch-dependent games that control similarly on Android and iOS. Companies like Nyko have been trying to create a unified tablet-gaming accessory landscape since last E3, and now these companies might have their wish.

FIFA 13 for iOS: Desperately needs controller support. EA

Big-scale games are already here...they just need the controllers
What's the limiting factor in iOS/Android games? It isn't graphics, and it isn't developer effort. It's control. Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne, Sonic the Hedgehog, or Knights of the Old Republic are just the tip of the gaming iceberg, and most of these ports use awkward touch-screen virtual controls. Use a real control pad, and suddenly the problems wash away.

FIFA 12 is an excellent iOS sports game, but using the virtual analog pad's still a hindrance. It would be excellent with a controller. "The new Apple game controller provides an interesting opportunity and is something we're committed to exploring," said Bernard Kim, SVP of Mobile Publishing at EA. No doubt: it would enable ports of handheld and console franchises like Need for Speed and reinvigorate games like Madden, which never found its way with touch controls.

The iCade Mobile had the right idea, but imagine it with better design and more buttons. Sarah Tew/CNET

The iPhone and iPod Touch could become unstoppable gaming handhelds
The iCade Mobile was an attempt at creating a snap-on controller for the iPhone, adding buttons and a d-pad and connecting via Bluetooth. Its build quality and game support was spotty. But imagine a hard-connected accessory with its own battery pack and analog sticks, something that would add real physical game controls. Suddenly, the gap between iOS and the Vita and Nintendo 3DS would close. This matters more on iOS than Android because the hardware's more unified, and accessories can be built to a limited set of designs. Also, iOS gaming has been a more lucrative landscape, which means it'll continue being more attractive for big-developer players like EA, Capcom, and others.

Apple might even be working on its own game-control hardware, too.

Apple TV just got its console controller
All Apple TV needs is games and a controller to become a type of console alternative. These upcoming third-party game controllers, the first of which should be arriving in the fall in time for iOS 7's release, should also be capable of supporting AirPlay gaming to the Apple TV.

Remember the Nvidia Shield, and how it can play games on a large-screen TV? The Apple TV and an iPhone or iPad with iOS 7 should be able to do that, too, with controllers. Multiple controllers will be supported as well, via a party play mode.

We'll know more in the fall, but this has become my most-anticipated feature of iOS 7 by a longshot.