Unlock Apple TV Gaming with a Game Controller

Apple makes a games console -- really...

SteelSeries Nimbus for Apple TV
You get to turn an Apple product into a net-playstation.

Apple TV 4 has huge potential as a gaming console, but for one big flaw – it’s really, really hard to play intense games using the Apple Siri Remote. That’s the bad news, but with more games hitting the platform the good news is you can unlock gaming on your Apple TV using a game controller from another manufacturer. So what do you need to know?

Introducing SteelSeries Nimbus

I took a look at the SteelSeries Nimbus. This is the first gamepad to be built specifically for use with the Apple TV (it carries the relatively new ‘Made for Apple TV’ logo on its box), you recharge the controller using a Lightning cable (which you need to supply yourself), and it should give you 40+ hours of use between each charge.

Available in black, the controller is solidly built and provides pressure sensitive buttons along with a menu button that returns you to the Apple TV’s main menu when you need to get there. The critics seem to like it, Macworld noted it offers the “best combination of feel, functionality, and starting price,” of all the controllers you can get for your Apple TV gaming time. 

Set up

Set up is simple. The controller connects using Bluetooth 4.1, so you’ll need to turn the controller on, press and hold its Bluetooth button and (using your Siri Remote on your Apple TV) open Settings>Remotes & Devices>Bluetooth. Wait a short time and your game controller should appear in the list. Click it and after a little while the two devices should pair.

Conceptually, it should be relatively familiar to anyone who has used a gaming controller before: that means buttons at the front; at the top and a couple of joystick/lever controls.

These buttons consist of a D-pad, four colored action buttons, two analog joysticks, a Menu button, four triggers on the handle and a set of four LED lights, along with a power switch and pairing button are what you get. That means it provides plenty of potential interaction opportunities games developers can take advantage of when they build experiences for Apple TV.

What’s it like?

You can use the controller to replace your Siri remote (but not Siri). When you do the D-pad  (or one of the sticks) will handle movement while the A button selects, B goes back, and the Menu button takes you to the Apple TV menu.

There are a few snags, including that despite the controller offering what you’d expect to be clickable analog joysticks the Apple TV API doesn’t support this feature. Not only this, but you also don’t get haptic feedback.

These foibles are partially mitigated by the facts that the controller doesn’t require drivers and you can support multiple controllers from one Apple TV, so you can play one-on-one games.

One hidden weapon for the controller is the free companion app. This app provides you with access to charts that show the top free and paid games you can use with the controller. Sync the controller up with your iPhone and the app will also keep your controller up-to-date and ensure it remains compatible.

The pros: Well-built and affordable (around $50, but shop around) the SteelSeries Nimbus will open up gaming on Apple TV 4.

The cons: A lack of consistency in how games developers enable controller features in their titles means you must spend time figuring out how to use the controller with each game.

Conclusion: Despite the platform’s teething problems it won’t be too long until developers deliver even more exciting console-class games for us all to enjoy.  When they do you’ll find gaming controllers become essential issue, with some gamers choosing to use an Apple TV instead of another console.

I do feel that games developers and Apple need to identify and maintain consistent button behaviors for their titles, and I feel Apple needs to apply some pressure to encourage games developers to ensure their titles support a full range of controls rather than one or two buttons. I expect to see some movement in this direction in future software upgrades, particularly at or around future Apple developer events.

When these challenges are overcome, it seems highly probably the SteelSeries Nimbus controller will become a device gamers will often use. However, right now it’s a promising product that needs developers to unlock its potential.

I invested in my own unit for this article.