When it was first announced that the new Apple TV would finally support third party development, a considerable amount of buzz started to form surrounding what gaming was going to be like on the Apple TV. Most of that excitement was quickly extinguished by subsequent announcements from Apple saying that all games must be playable using the included remote and that games for the Apple TV can be universal and also playable on the iPhone and iPad (more on that later). Regardless, the idea of mobile games on the TV seems interesting enough for us to explore, and Nvidia was more than happy to send me a Shield Android TV unit to test out, which I feel has provided an excellent sneak peek of what gaming on the new Apple TV is likely going to be like.
Backing things up a bit, the Nvidia Shield Android TV box is a pretty slick piece of kit. It comes packed with a real game controller that charges via micro USB and has what has since become the “standard" controller layout with four face buttons, two analog sticks, two analog triggers, two shoulder buttons, a D-Pad, and a few other central buttons for doing things like pausing or accessing the main dashboard menus. Additionally, it’s got a microphone for using the Google voice search functionality as well as a headphone port for optionally listening to the game audio if you’re playing late at night or otherwise don’t want to disturb other people around you. Turns out this headphone jack is a real cool feature that you don’t realize you’d ever need before you actually try it- Particularly if you enjoy staying up late and watching movies while living with people who do not.
Like the new Apple TV, the Nvidia Shield comes loaded with a repurposed mobile CPU. In this case, it’s the quadcore Tegra X1 processor which according to Nvidia is 3x faster than the new Apple TV. It also has 3GB of RAM instead of the Apple TV’s 2GB along with a bunch of other benefits. Of course, it’s hard to say just how much of a difference those spec differences will make in day to day use, as Apple historically has always managed to do far more with lower specs than comparable Android devices. (For instance, recent benchmarks of the iPhone 6S have shown that the Galaxy Note 5 requires twice as many active processor cores running at a 16% faster clock to get approximately 13% better performance than the comparatively “underpowered" iPhone 6S.) With that being said, without any real basis of comparison, the X1 seems totally capable of handling everything I’ve thrown at it, with every game and app I’ve tried running just fine on my 1080p TV. Apparently the Shield is also capable of outputting to 4K, but, I don’t know anyone with a 4K TV set yet to try that out, and I’m guessing that’s going to be the case with most people.
Gaming on the Nvidia Shield is… Interesting. I guess I’ll start out with what I really like first: Being able to stream PC games from your gaming PC to your TV via the Nvidia Shield feels like black magic. I’ve fiddled with the Steam in-home streaming before, and I’m not sure if Steam and Nvidia are doing something different, or if my MacBook Air just isn’t the best end-point for local streaming when hooked up to my TV, but both the overall video quality and gameplay latency seemed to be improved when using Nvidia’s solution. It’s really, really cool how seamless it all works once you’ve done the minimal setup to get both the Shield and your PC linked together. All your PC games just show up and can be launched straight from the Shield’s dashboard. It seems like it’s more than willing to run any PC game, including ones without controller support like League of Legends, but obviously the ones that work best are those that have full controller support out of the box.
You can pop up an on-screen keyboard whenever you need to do text entry, and similarly can move the mouse pointer around if you ever need to. Newer games seem to be far less clunky than older games, but of all the stuff I typically play on my PC (Skyrim, various Fallout games, The Witcher, stuff like that) everything worked fine. I definitely am looking forward to playing Fallout 4 using the Shield. Oh, and cooler yet, if you prefer to use Steam’s Big Picture Mode as a launcher instead of the Nvidia Shield’s dashboard, you can do that too just by launching Steam from the Shield itself. Both experience seems reasonably similar.
If you don’t have a PC in house, you can stream PC games remotely using the GeForce NOW. It’s an $7.99 a month service which works a lot like OnLive used to in that games are rendered remotely, then streamed down to your Shield. How well it works will largely be determined by how fast your internet connection is and how close you are to one of Nvidia’s datacenters. I’ve got a great internet connection and am in the Chicago area, so it works fine for me. Not quite as good as the in-house streaming, but that’s to be expected when you’re connecting to something locally versus over the internet. Thankfully, there’s a free trial to give you an idea of how it’s going to perform at your house.
Much like OnLive, the game selection is not fantastic. Included with your membership is an odd array of good older games and not so great newer games. These type of streaming services always seem to have an eclectic mix of games which are all fun and worth playing, but are rarely ever the top-tier games you really want to play. Those games are locked away and require you buying them, and even then the value proposition is questionable. Yes, Witcher 3 is an incredible game and assuming your internet connection can handle it and you don’t have a gaming PC, this is a great way to experience it… Buuut, it just feels strange effectively paying the full $59.99 asking price for access to stream it. Functionally, it’s no difference from paying $59.99 to have it in your Steam library and play it that way, but it’s just weird. Like paying extra to be able to stream a specific new movie on Netflix or something. Sure, you’re just buying a movie, but it’d feel off.
Outside of that, the coolest thing the Nvidia Shield does is run all sorts of games and apps that Apple would never allow on any App Store of theirs. Want an emulator? There’s no shortage to choose from, both paid and free. Want a media player that can browse your local network and stream files directly off your computer? Kodi and several other apps that do just that are all over Google Play. I was really excited for a native Twitch app, but that’s not on Google Play for whatever reason, which really opened the door to noticing just how strange a lot of the 3rd party stuff on the Nvidia Shield actually is, and I feel like a lot of these problems are going to be shared by the Apple TV.
Google Play for the Android TV has a lot of the usual suspects you’d expect on any App Store filled with different mobile developers. Gameloft has a strong representation there, as does nearly every other popular developer. Hipster Whale is (currently) getting some prime featuring with both Pac-Man 256 (Free) and Crossy Road (Free). Basically, if a game is moderately popular on iOS and it can work with a controller, there’s a good chance it’s on the Android TV Google Play. Unfortunately, it seems like the effort that has gone in to porting these games to be a TV experience has been minimal, to say the least, which really makes me concerned for the future Apple TV.
Backing up a bit, I totally get it. I imagine the install base of Android TV when compared to mobile is minuscule, and (initially, anyway) the new Apple TV is probably going to be even worse. If I were a developer, I wouldn’t dump that much effort into these specific platforms either- Particularly when you consider that whether you’re going free to play or premium (with “acceptable" sub-$5 price points), you need a ton of downloads to turn into anything substantial. The result of this is every game seems to be the existing mobile game, running on your TV, with barebones controller support implemented. This often results in gameplay experiences that feel… Very odd.
I’ve been playing games on TV’s since the Coleco Vision, and I’m guessing a vast majority of our audience has similar console gaming histories. When I sit down at my TV to play a game, I usually grab a drink, maybe a snack (Mountain Dew and Doritos am I right, guys?) and settle in for a long play session. On the Shield, most stuff is free to play, and not only are they free to play, but they’re mobile style free to play. When I play a game with timers on mobile, it usually fits perfectly with how I typically play mobile games. For instance, if I’ve got 10-15 minutes of time to kill and I open up Candy Crush (Free), I typically have something else to do before I run out of lives. The next time I go back to the game, enough time has usually passed that I’ve got tons of lives again and I’m ready to roll.
Hitting these similar stop and wait points while playing a game on your TV seems super strange. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, it’s just so different from how I typically play games on my TV it sort of breaks my brain. Similarly, watching an in-game ad to get something or keep playing in mobile is totally normal. Doing the same on my TV feels super weird. Again, I’m not entirely sure if it’s a bad thing, but it’s just so different from settling in to play something like Fallout that it seems totally foreign.
There’s not much reason to think that games on the Apple TV will be any different. Every developer I’ve talked to has been very cautious and hesitant about dumping too much effort into the platform, so it’s likely we’re going to see the exact same thing. It sets a concerning precedence, as both the Shield Android TV and the new Apple TV seem like hard sells when the majority of the games you’re going to be playing on both are the same mobile games you’re already playing. I feel like this problem is going to be even worse on the Apple TV because of the universal app potential, as that’s only going to further encourage developers to just make sure it sort of runs on the Apple TV and consider that good enough. Thankfully, not all games are like this. Just like iOS, there’s a hefty amount of ports from consoles on Android TV. Square Enix has a strong lineup, and unsurprisingly, games that were originally designed to be played with a controller on a TV are similarly really great played on a TV via Android TV with a controller.
Another thing that’s strange with the Nvidia Shield is the out of box experience is not great, and it really makes me curious to see what Apple is going to do with the new Apple TV. On the old Apple TV, you unbox it, plug it in to the wall, plug it in to the TV, and then on the home screen it’s immediately apparent everything you can do with the device from watching Hulu to the WWE Network. On the Shield, you unbox it, similarly hook it up, then you’re basically greeted with a blank slate. Everything you’d ever want to do on it you need to download through Google Play, and it feels needlessly awkward to need to go search for things like Hulu, HBO Go, and similar streaming services that honestly should probably just come pre-installed. It’s a lot of hoops to jump through, leading my initial out of box experience being sort of annoying. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine for a tech-minded person who is likely Nvidia’s target customer, but it’s hard to imagine someone like my Grandparents figuring this all out versus being able to set up an Apple TV totally themselves.
Without having tried the new Apple TV yet, it’s hard to say which platform is going to “win" or which is the one to buy. Considering it seems very likely that the game offerings are going to be real similar to Android TV, it almost makes the Apple TV a less compelling purchase compared to the Shield, if for no reason other than Google is A-OK with you doing all sorts of stuff that Apple would never allow on the App Store. MAME is already running on the Apple TV, but is there a snowball’s chance in hell that Apple will approve it? Meanwhile, you have your choice of which MAME emulator you want on Google Play right now. The PC streaming stuff is super rad, and while the library of the GeForce NOW stuff is sort of lackluster, that can always improve over time. Additionally, considering the “best" games on Android TV are ports that were originally built to use a controller, will the Apple TV see similar things when games instead need to be built to support their silly remote?
It’s definitely a fascinating time for mobile, with both Android and iOS jockeying for positions in your living room. Realistically, many of the problems the Shield has are going to be shared by the Apple TV and I’m super excited to see how this all shakes out in a couple years. Meanwhile, if you want to jump the gun and pick up an Nvidia Shield Android TV right now, the best place to grab one is on Amazon.