Why the iPhone Will Never Be the Best Games Console

Two words: No Zelda

Key Takeaways

  • The iPhone’s hardware is incredible for games.
  • The lack of big-name, AAA titles is Apple’s most significant handicap.
  • Mobile gaming was more than half the gaming market last year.
Someone playing a game on an iPhone without a controller.

SCREEN POST / Unsplash

The only things stopping the iPhone from being as good as the Nintendo Switch for games are the lack of Nintendo games and a proper controller.

On paper, the iPhone is way ahead of the Switch. The screen is nicer, the processor is better, and the battery lasts longer. So what’s keeping it from being the ultimate pocket game machine?

There are a few reasons. One is that it can’t play the same kinds of games, because it doesn’t have any buttons. Another is that you can’t get games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the iPhone. But the main reason may be that Apple just doesn’t care. 

"It’s not the lack of controller support, which is actually getting really good," technology writer and games expert Killian Bell told Lifewire via email. "It’s that most of the big console games aren’t available on mobile. The ones that are, are filled with in-app purchases. Price is another big thing—even the new PS5 is half the price of an iPhone 12 Pro."

Control

On iOS, the controller is the touch screen. This works well for some kinds of games and is terrible for others. Dragging a chess piece is perfect for touch, and games like the now-classic Fruit Ninja wouldn’t be possible without it.

Games that need a lot of fine, fast, and simultaneous action require buttons and joysticks. Compare Mario Kart on the iPhone with any version on a Nintendo console, and you’ll see the difference instantly. 

A Nintendo Switch with the JoyCons detached and placed in a holder.

 Sara Kurfeß / Unsplash

You can connect game controllers to the iPhone and iPad via Bluetooth, and recent iOS updates have added support for the latest PlayStation and Xbox controllers. But these are optional, in the same way a keyboard, and mouse, or trackpad are optional on the iPad.

The fact that they are optional means that game developers cannot be sure the player will have them. 

For a game to reach the largest audience, it has to be touch-first. Any game controller support has to be optional, not required. Not all developers want to reach the widest audience, though. Finding a large niche might be enough.

For folks who do want a controller, the new BackBone One controller is certainly tempting. It connects via Lightning and even adds a headphone jack.

The Verge’s Cameron Faulkner Praises the companion app (not required), which gives a console-like overview of all the games on your iPhone, as well as listing new games in the App Store that support controllers.

The controller, itself, is apparently excellent, easily as good as the Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Con controllers. If you love gaming on your iPhone, then this turns it into a handheld console.

"Fortnite was the closest we got to a full console experience—it was exactly the same on mobile as on console and PC. And now it’s dead."

The Nintendo Factor

The other significant factor stopping the iPhone from becoming a Switch "killer" is Nintendo, itself. While there are a few Nintendo games on iOS, they’re nowhere near as deep as the games it makes for its own consoles.

Nintendo makes its own hardware, creates amazing games to run on it, and keeps tight control over third-party games that run on its consoles. Sound familiar?

For Nintendo to give up that control—and the profits that come with it—would be like Apple dropping the App Store’s 30% cut or letting you install apps from anywhere. 

Apple Doesn’t Care

This brings us to the real reason that the iPhone isn’t a huge rival to existing games consoles: Apple doesn’t want it to be. Mobile gaming accounts for more than half of all gaming revenue, and the iPhone is a big part of that.

Why even bother chasing PC and console gamers? After all, hobbyist gamers own phones too, and may be just as likely to play games on them as anyone else.

"A lot of gamers on those platforms pick up games as a secondary benefit of owning a device, so it might seem like it's a less important gaming platform, but when you look at sales and numbers of players, it's right up there," game developer Andrew Crawshaw told Lifewire via direct message.

Closeup of someone using a Backbone iPhone game controller.

Backbone

"Even when those [big name games] are available on iPhone, like Call of Duty, they’re free-to-play and filled with in-app purchases and nowhere near as good," says Bell. 

This arrangement suits Apple. It doesn’t have to cultivate long-term relationships with the developers of AAA game titles, which is essential when games can take years and tens of millions of dollars to create.

In short, the iPhone will never rival the big consoles because Apple doesn’t need it to.

"Fortnite was the closest we got to a full console experience—it was exactly the same on mobile as on console and PC," says Bell. "And now it’s dead."

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