I unboxed my Apple TV a little over an hour ago, and my initial impressions of the device are incredibly mixed. I’m happy that I got a lot of my predictions right when I posted about the Nvidia Shield, but at the same time, that isn’t a great thing. The Apple TV is going to have a long way to go before it’s a serious contender in the gaming space, as crazy controls and a baffling lack of discoverability are holding it back. Of course, there’s loads of potential here, but, will Apple realize that potential?
First off, let’s start with the things that are really awesome about the Apple TV. As expected, the Siri search stuff is incredible. Once I downloaded the requisite streaming video apps I use, just being able to search for a movie across all of them feels like magic. If you’re a cord cutter who relies on Netflix and the others for your video content, you could make a strong argument that the new Apple TV is worth picking up just for this feature. If that’s how you feel, then the rest of all this is just kind of a value add, which might be the best way to look at Apple TV gaming right now.
Another thing that’s super sweet with the new Apple TV is how well the universal purchase history stuff works. Logged in to my iTunes account, I already owned 54 games and 30 apps for the device. It’s a cool feeling to not need to start from scratch, kind of like if you bought a Wii U and all your old Wii games still work on it. At this stage in the Apple TV, my purchase history felt like a “greatest hits" version of the App Store, populated with games like Canabalt, Oceanhorn, 2048, and other ultra recognizable stuff. This made the “OK, now what" moment I mentioned in my Nvidia Shield article significantly less severe, as while I had a blank slate of no apps installed, I’ve got 84 ready to go that I already know.
As far as installing apps is concerned, the 200MB limit of initial downloads really makes the whole process feel speedy. I’ve got a 100mbit internet connection at my house, so even games that take up the full 200MB take mere seconds to download. It makes going HAM and installing a ton of stuff super easy, compared to the potentially massive size of iOS apps. How well games load from there seems to largely depend on how clever the developers were with packaging their game assets to stream from iCloud. Oceanhorn, for instance, on first load just needed a few seconds to grab extra stuff. Asphalt required nearly three minutes of watching a progress bar. With simpler games on my internet connection, there’s no noticeable load times at all.
If screenshots on Apple pages are any indication, categories for the Apple TV App Store are coming (maybe?) but as of this writing, there’s a distinct division between the haves and the have-nots in the Apple TV app world. Currently, the Apple TV App Store only shows what’s featured. If your game isn’t featured, it effectively doesn’t exist. There’s no way to browse genres, top lists don’t exist (this arguably might be a good thing), and finding something that isn’t featured requires typing its name in the search field. Siri search doesn’t work on apps (yet?) so the amount of friction to download a game like Highway Rider which didn’t make the feature cut is not only incredible but also has resulted in three sales. (Well, make that four, as I bought it.)
This seems like a dreadful precedent to set, and I’m really hoping that this is just a launch day hiccup on Apple’s part and they’ve got plans which just aren’t implemented yet. In its current implementation, the only way I’ve found to discover anything that isn’t featured is by searching (again, by typing, not using Siri) for vague keywords like “puzzle" or “racing" or whatever. It’s simply not realistic to expect people to sit around and just play search term whack a mole to find new stuff, and honestly, that’s reflected perfectly in the sales that games like Highway Rider have seen so far. Set up like this, you’re effectively gambling your entire development budget on the hopes that you make the cut when it comes to featuring. Maybe this will result in a resurgence in importance of editorial coverage, or ad sales, who knows. iTunes links don’t even really work on the new Apple TV in any meaningful way, so reviews and ads for Apple TV stuff right now are going to literally have to say “Search for ‘[Game Title]’ on your Apple TV."
Another thing that’s really odd with all this is you can’t use Siri to skip typing in search fields. Unless I’m missing something obvious (which is possible), there doesn’t seem to be any way to do iOS style dictation, which really is just another way the Nvidia Shield pulls ahead. You can use the voice stuff on the Shield in any search bar, which is really nice. I’m not sure if this is an oversight or what, but it’s yet another thing in the list of strange design choices in the new Apple TV. One thing they did well with the Apple TV app store is provide clear indicators for which games feature controller support. Why this hasn’t been added to the iOS App Store is still a complete mystery to me.
As far as how games control with the Apple TV remote, it largely depends on how simple the game is. Games like Canabalt, Jetpack Joyride or Crossy Road all play quite well with the remote… But, consider the only input that’s required for those games are the simplest of swipes and taps. Once you get outside of that, things get really weird, to the point of it being downright puzzling that Apple insisted developers have all games work with the remote as the experience ranges from mediocre to terrible depending on the control layout.
Oceanhorn, for instance, is just weird. It’s controlled one handed, and you use the touchpad portion of the Apple TV remote the move your dude around while tapping that same area causes you to swing your sword. It works, but it’s super strange as it doesn’t seem like you can both attack and move at the same time. Also, since I typically control movement in games like this with my left thumb, but use TV remotes with my right hand, I can’t come up with a way to make the game feel right. Playing left handed is weird, but right handed doesn’t feel much better. A lot of games use a similar single-handed control method.
Others, like Lumino City use the touch area like a trackpad on your laptop to control a cursor on screen. It works, but feels really odd, as TVs and mouse pointers just don’t really go together. The weirdest, however, are games that have you turn the remote to the side like Asphalt. The problem here is the remote is very light, and very thin, and there’s just no great way to hold it that is comfortable for any extended period of time. This is only made worse by games that use the buttons, which are centered on the remote. It works, it just feels shockingly half assed, like games that have you control them in this way should just have a pop up saying, “For the love of all things true and decent in this world, go buy an MFi controller, but you can play like this if you really want to, just keep in mind it’s going to be really bad."
Unsurprisingly, pairing a MFi controller totally fixes all this. Once you do that, games like Oceanhorn and Asphalt feel like actual video games you want to play instead of invoking horrible flashbacks of trying to play games on the Philips CD-i. You don’t need the new Steelseries Nimbus, either. Both my Steelseries Stratus and Stratus XL work fine, as do my MadCatz MFi controllers. If you’re at all interested in Apple TV gaming, please buy a MFi controller.
As far as other random stuff is concerned, the way the remote controls the volume on your TV is pretty cool. I didn’t have to do anything to set that up, it just worked automatically. The new screensavers are neat too. Games that use the microphone in any way require you downloading a companion app instead of using the Siri remote, which again, seems weird. Sing! by Smule is a pretty neat karoke app, but the whole “OK now grab your iPhone and download this app" feels like unnecessary friction when you’re holding a remote in your hand with a microphone in it. Presumably, the Siri remote microphone isn’t something the developers can use, which again, seems dumb.
The way accounts are managed on the Apple TV is a step beyond what I was expecting, but I wish Apple would’ve gone one tiny step further. You can have three separate Apple accounts logged in at once, one for iCloud, one for both iTunes and the App Store, and one for Game Center. I really wish that they broke out the App Store and iTunes accounts, as I have a weird twisted web of Apple ID’s with app purchases on one account and movies on another. Like the old Apple TV, switching between two once you’ve logged them both in is trivial, but I wish I could be logged in with both at once. Speaking of iCloud, it’s pretty magical how it all works. Asphalt seamlessly grabbed my progress from the cloud, which I wasn’t really expecting. It makes the platforms feel way more unified.
It’d also be nice if there were ways to tweak Siri’s searching like there is on iOS. As I mentioned before, it’s super cool to be able to search across all video providers, but the problem is iTunes has everything, and I know that. If I’m just looking for something dumb to put on in the background, I want to watch something free from my existing streaming providers. It’d be rad to be able to disable iTunes stuff from the Siri searches to only search across Netflix, HBO Go, etc, as while the experience is way better than digging through each individual streaming service, you’re playing a totally different game of “Which of these search results can I watch without paying" with no clear way to tell from the search results without digging deeper into every title returned.
As I mentioned when I went over the Nvidia Shield, free to play stuff on your TV feels strange. I’m sure it’s something we’ll adjust to, but where all the weird in-game currencies and consumable power-ups in a game like Asphalt feel normal on mobile, it’s weird seeing those same things on your TV which typically are free of all that junk. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, it’s just… different. Oh, and portrait mode games are kind of odd too. Phoenix HD, for instance, is on the Apple TV, but they just blur out huge chunks of the left and right side of the screen to keep the portrait mode aspect ratio of the iPad. I can’t really blame them for not totally reworking the game for the Apple TV, but much like free to play stuff, these kind of games feel like mobile games you’re just playing on your TV instead of the kind of experiences you’d expect to play on your TV.
While this is a whole lot of complaining, I definitely feel like there’s serious potential here. The new Apple TV is a really awesome all-in-one TV entertainment solution that can access nearly all of the big streaming services and play a bunch of great games. I badly wish Apple had gone just one small step further with a lot of this stuff, like maybe even having an Apple TV gamer bundle that includes a MFi controller, but this is launch day of an entirely new software platform for Apple, so growing pains are going to be inevitable. The good news is, all the major flaws can be fixed with software updates and Apple policy changes… It’s just a matter of waiting around to see if either of those things happen.