The Sad State of iPhone Gaming

Apple only has itself to blame

  • Sony's new controller works with the iPhone, despite the lack of Sony iOS games. 
  • It's not hardware holding back iOS gaming. It's Apple. 
  • Relationships with game developers are key.
A MacBook with the Sony hardware controller for gaming.


iPhone hardware is super powerful, has a great screen, and is bristling with sensors. And yet games-wise, it's out in the cold. 

Despite its phenomenal computing power, gaming on the iPhone is mostly about quick-fix games and gambling apps that trick children into spending their parents' money via in-app purchases. That's partly down to Apple's relationships with gaming companies and partly because the touch screen is a pretty bad way to control sophisticated games. But Sony seems to think otherwise. It has just released a hardware controller for the iPhone.

"Apple has shown basically no interest in games, despite its focus on entertainment and games being one of the few growing areas of the entertainment industry," iOS app developer and Apple-watching journalist Graham Bower told Lifewire via email. 

Sony's Backbone

The new controller is a rebranded Backbone One, which is probably the best mobile games controller around. For Sony, it’s a bit of a weird hybrid. While the A, B, X, and Y buttons have been turned into on-brand cross, circle, square, and triangle buttons, the unit keeps its more Xbox-like asymmetric analog joysticks. The rebadging of the buttons means that it won’t match most in-game instructions for existing controller-aware games, but as the layout is exactly the same, it doesn’t really matter. 

The iPhone supports hardware controllers like this, or Bluetooth controllers, as a way to play games. The problem is that most people don’t use them, so games are overwhelmingly built around the touch screen. But the difference is huge for those games that work with controllers. And not only for new games. Many classic console games like Grand Theft Auto, which were created without touchscreens in mind, benefit hugely from buttons and sticks. 

The Sony Backbone gaming controller for iPhones.


What’s the Point, Sony?

Right now, Sony's gaming presence in the App Store is nonexistent, so the need for a branded iPhone controller is a little confusing. But the plan is surely to use this with Sony's Remote Play feature, which lets you stream games from your PS4 or PS5 console to your iOS device over your home network or cellular connection. That is, the game runs on your Playstation, and you remote-control via a (hopefully) low-latency video connection to your iPhone. 

Eventually, Sony plans to bring many more games to mobile. In May, Sony Interactive Entertainment president Jim Ryan said that by 2025, half of Sony's game releases would be for mobile and PC. But that doesn't mean the iPhone will be getting many triple-A titles. 

Apple Attitude

Sony and Microsoft are at the top of high-end console gaming. The Xbox and PlayStation are powerful machines, and the best developers release incredible games on them. But aren't Mac, iPads, and iPhones also incredibly powerful? Don't they have Metal, an amazing graphics engine perfect for games?

The problem isn't the hardware. The problem is Apple. While Microsoft and Sony court developers and sometimes invest in third-party games for their platforms, Apple does nothing. The attitude seems to be take-it-or-leave-it. Just like with regular apps, Apple seems to believe that the App Store is an aspirational destination for software developers. App and game makers are lucky to have it and should be grateful. 

Imagine you're a top-end game studio and want to make a game for the iPhone and iPad. It's tempting. That's a huge market, and the machines are, as we said, very powerful. So you spend several years and millions of dollars creating the game. Then, when you submit it to the App Store, Apple doesn't like it, maybe for breaking some rule or for some political or market-advantage reason. Whatever, you're screwed. 

A PlayStation game displayed on a monitor and on an Apple device connected to the Sony Backbone controller.


Take Epic, for example. It baited Apple and clearly asked for a fight about in-app purchases, but the result is that it cannot put Fortnight back in the App Store. 

If a game developer faces Apple's way, or the supportive, years-long relationships between Sony and Microsoft, which way will it go? And even if Apple changes its mind and courts game devs, trust will take a long time to build 

"Games tend not to have very big platform tie-ins. Games do their own UI, they have their own back end. There's nothing about them, in most cases, that reveals anything about the platform that they're on. Apple wants you to use the games center or to sign in with your Apple ID. If your goal is to sell a game on more than just Apple's platforms, doing stuff the Apple way is a big money and time sink," gamer and Apple-watching tech podcaster John Siracusa said on his ATP podcast

Don't expect to see any triple-A launches on iOS or Mac any time soon. But if you want to play old games as they were intended, a controller like the Backbone is a great idea.

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