In what seems to be an announcement lost within the buzz of iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks (amongst other WWDC news), Apple will finally open up the iOS SDK to fully support hardware game controllers, enabling handheld-esque gaming experiences akin to the Nintendo 3DS and Playstation Vita on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.

As with background apps downloads and new Directions APIs, Apple announced hardware controller support during Monday’s keynote address in one of those ‘things we added but didn’t have time to talk about’ slides (pictured above). The slide indicates that the iOS 7 SDK will support ‘MFi game controllers,’ which is a reference to Apple’s licensing program for third-party hardware accessories. Additionally, Touch Arcade points us to images from Apple’s iOS 7 Developer Guide showing a graphic of two controllers, strikingly similar to the Nintendo 3DS and Wii Classic Controller (from left to right), showing new methods of interacting with iOS via hardware buttons and joysticks. Moreover, we can’t help but notice that this announcement comes right off the heals of Tim Cook’s pledge at D11 to be ‘more open’ than before.

There are also a few other enhancements for gamers coming in iOS 7….Here’s how Apple explains the new Game Controller framework:

The new Game Controller framework, added in iOS 7 and OS X v10.9, makes it easy to find controllers connected to a Mac or iOS device. Once discovered, your game reads control inputs as part of its normal gameplay. There are three kinds of controllers available:

-A standard form-fitting controller: An iOS device sits inside the controller and the player can access both the iOS device’s screen and the controller elements.
-An extended form-fitting controller: An iOS device sits inside the controller and the player can access both the iOS device’s screen and the controller elements.
-An extended wireless controller: A controller that wirelessly connects to an iOS device or Mac.

-Controllers Must Be Optional
-Controllers Are Automatically Connected Once Discovered
-Profiles Map Hardware Controls to Software Needs
-Snapshots Record Controller Data

Game ControllerA few other things Apple announced is coming in iOS 7 but didn’t show off in detail: Secure game scores, Authenticated Game Center players, new turn-based game modes, and ranking-style leaderboards. 

While existing hardware and software controller solutions currently exist, such as Joypad and the iCade respectively, none have yet been able to seamlessly integrate themselves directly into the operating system in order to facilitate smooth, reliable gameplay. Up until this point, third party developers have had to custom code software to specifically enable support for add-on hardware in specific apps. With each yearly iOS release, changes to the operating system’s SDK often broke existing parts of developers’ configurations, forcing some to rewrite their code each year and others to abandon the concept and integration entirely.

Fortunately, with iOS 7, Apple will be able to provide a consistent graphical interface and under-the-hood standard for developers to match and configure per their use-case. Such integration directly into the OS will allow for controllers to take advantage of some of the first party perks bluetooth keyboards now feature today, such as button/key mapping and volume controls. Perhaps with new additions to the iOS 7 SDK like inter-app audio and new Multitasking APIs, new game controllers will allow users to trigger multitasking and perhaps even iTunes Radio right from the controller without having to jump into different apps. These new additions will certainly make users of existing controller solutions extremely happy and may even foster a new wave of popularity for these accessories.

It’s even possible that Apple has a bigger plan for controller support than just handheld gaming. While we’re only speculating, one could easily assume that Apple may have plans to integrate controller support with Apple TV via AirPlay and bluetooth, to enable console-like gaming on the big screen. Could this just be the beginning of Apple’s foray into the home gaming console market? With new product categories on the horizon, anything’s possible.