Apple’s new MFi game controller program offers a lot of promise for gaming on iOS— the top mobile gaming platform around could also soon be a serious platform for hardcore gamers. But the first crop of controllers have been met with much criticism from developers, reviewers and consumers alike. The consensus so far: flimsy buttons and joysticks, lack of support from developers, and a $99 price tag make them far overpriced compared to your standard Bluetooth game controller.
The launch for the first few controllers to hit the market was rushed, developers are disappointed and still trying to catch up, and manufacturers are limited in pricing, features, and quality due to Apple’s MFi program requirements. What does Apple have to do to overcome a rocky start to its game controller program which is supposed to control quality? And how are manufacturers limited by Apple in building better controllers at a fair price? We’ve dug into Apple’s MFi program and talked to developers and companies building the controllers to find out…
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Like it’s Made-for-iPhone/iPad/iPod touch program for docks, audio products, and other accessories, late in 2013 Apple finally introduced specifications for manufacturers interested in building Apple authorized game controllers. Two types: a “form-fitting” design that acts as a case for the device with a built-in Lightning connector, and a standalone Bluetooth-connected version. Alongside the new MFi program, Apple has created standardized game controller frameworks in iOS 7 that are supposed to let app developers update once to support all authorized game controllers.
Why are they so expensive?|
One of the biggest pain points for consumers so far has been the price of MFi controllers: Does the added engineering that goes into having an iPhone dock right into the controller via Lightning connector really justify the roughly $40 -$50 premium over your average game console controller? And what about the non-form-fitting design? That is essentially just a standard Bluetooth controller but also selling for $99. A sample of comments from our reviews of the controllers echo what just about everyone online is saying:
Basically the same comment as everyone else: the Dualshock 4 costs $60. The Xbox One controller costs $60. I am not going to pay $100 for a worse controller than those.
Just allow DualShock 3 to pair with iOS and be done with it. This entire round of new controllers (Logitech, Moga, Stratus, and there is one more from CES) are all a joke. Cheaply made, and Waaaay overpriced.
So why is the price so high? If you ask Logitech and Moga it’s in large part because of the built-in battery and other components like the Lightning connector necessary for device charging. That’s not the whole story, however, as the Bluetooth controllers announced so far that are lacking those features are also selling for $100 (like this one from SteelSeries). One issue is that Apple’s MFi program requires manufacturers to source their pressure sensitive analog switches for buttons and thumbsticks from a single Apple approved supplier. An employee of Logitech that worked on the project expressed disappointment with the buttons compared to the company’s other gamepads and noted its first controller, the PowerShell, was put together in haste.
Accessory maker Signal, which just showed off its new “RP One” Bluetooth MFi controller at CES this year, explained that achieving the $60 shelf price of generic Bluetooth controllers while getting anywhere close to the quality of a first-party controller from Sony or Microsoft just isn’t possible with the MFi program. “The generic BT controllers often cited at low prices simply don’t have the amount of engineering and design development that’s going in to MFi controllers.” While it’s no secret that Sony and Microsoft have been known to lose money on the sale of new hardware, estimates put the bill of materials on the PS4 controller at just $18. After shipping, Sony is still making around $30 off each controller sold, but it of course has the added benefit of bringing costs down by building millions of units at launch. Much of that $30 will also go towards distribution and retail margins when sold through third-party retailers. While Signal’s Mark Prince hinted the company won’t be able to compete with the big guys on price, he did tell me that, unlike the current crop of MFi controllers, Signal’s controller will “feel and perform a lot like a 1st party controller – in terms of latency, feel, calibration – you name it. It’s solid.”
Interestingly, we’ve learned Apple is using Fujikura America Inc located in Santa Clara for the pressure sensitive buttons rather than one of its usual suppliers of MFi related components. Manufacturers we talked to hinted the pressure sensitive switches is one area they could have cut costs if not forced to go through Apple and that they are looking into the possibility of getting Apple to approve other suppliers. Add in other MFi required licensing fees, component costs, R&D for the new form-fitting designs, and extensive testing to comply with MFi specifications, and it’s not difficult to see why the controllers are selling for much more than your average game controller.
The $99 price would be a little bit easier to swallow had the first crop of controllers been well-reviewed and on par with or better than console game controllers. The biggest issue for developers has also been the most notable complaint among reviewers and consumers: the analog buttons, triggers, and joysticks, all of which are required to use the Apple supplied pressure sensitive switches mentioned above. We’ve been told by most of the current MFi controller manufacturers that Apple isn’t setting pricing, but in the long run the MFi requirements mentioned above are resulting in controllers that are twice the price and half the quality of non-Apple approved controllers.
MFi Quality Control |
While Apple was presumably working on its new controller frameworks long before it introduced it to developers and manufacturers at WWDC last June, developers and manufacturers didn’t have long to get ready and try to beat one another to launch during the December holiday season last month.
Logitech first started talking to Apple in May and quickly put together rough dev kit controllers for the company that Apple provided to select developers in June, but the company didn’t have real beta units of the finished controller for developers until November, a month before the controller launched. That meant Logitech’s controller launched with an image of Terraria on the box before the developers had even updated with controller support, and it also means your experience with games that are supported might vary until developers fine tune the experience, according to the company.
The cost trade-offs associated with the MFi program means we might not see form-fitting controllers that also include Bluetooth, or Bluetooth versions that include integrated battery packs for device charging. SteelSeries’ Bluetooth-only controller is already $100 and the addition of a battery for device charging or other features would significantly add to the $100 retail price that consumers are already rebelling against.
There are other limitations of the program as well. For instance, the d-pads must be one circular button, opposed to just a raised cross shape or separate buttons for up, down, right, and left that you find on PlayStation and Xbox controllers and that many gamers prefer. The requirements also extend to the color, labeling and layout of the face buttons, thumbsticks, triggers, etc. It’s all meant to control quality and make it easy for developers to update apps to support all controllers, but in some areas Apple’s controller specification might not be strict enough.
The range of motion Apple allows manufacturers to use for joysticks, for example, means your experience with some games will vary depending on which controller you’re using, and many developers we’ve talked to aren’t satisfied with the controllers. Logitech said that issues related to the sensitivity of buttons that some have experienced will require developers to fine tune their apps specifically for its controller.
Why aren’t more developers updating their apps with controller support? Implementing Apple’s APIs in iOS 7 for game controller support is relatively painless, but some app developers we’ve talked to aren’t happy with the experience after testing the hardware. Some are even holding out on updates until higher-quality controllers are available.
Aspyr, publisher of Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic for iOS, confirmed it’s working on an update, but it’s spending a lot more time than anticipated on optimizing the experience for both controller layouts. The standard layout lacks joysticks and a second set of shoulder buttons and will force some developers to use a less than ideal combination of the touchscreen and controller to accommodate all game functions. Aspyr would have had controller support ready for its last major update before the holidays, but it didn’t have access to beta kits for any controllers.
For other developers, especially those that developed games specifically for the touchscreen, controller support just doesn’t make sense. App developer Massive Damage compared the controllers to Kinect: “An optional piece of equipment with relatively low market penetration that a developer has to program and design for explicitly.” It won’t introduce controller support in any of its games “until iPhones come with controllers out of the box.”
Not a bad idea. I too would like to see Apple build its own MFi game controller, something that could be a true reference design for developers and manufacturers. It’s not that much of a stretch given Apple’s renewed interest in making its own MFi iPhone 5s docks.
Even with many developers slow to adopt the new controller frameworks, Moga, one of the first companies to release a MFi controller, tells us it’s “seeing a much faster rate of adoption by developers” compared to on Android. It’s also working with Apple to continue reaching out to developers interested in supporting the controller.
There’s still hope |
There are a few opportunities for the MFi controllers to improve down the road. There is a possibility that Apple could let manufacturers get their own suppliers approved for pressure sensitive buttons. For software related issues, Apple requires all controllers to be capable of receiving field-deployable firmware updates. There are also other types of controllers allowed under the MFi program that we’ve yet to see, like form-fitting controller designs built for the iPad.
For non-gamers, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of Apple’s new Made-for-iPhone (MFi) program for game controllers, but with Apple TV, MFi controllers, and mobile devices becoming increasingly powerful every year, iOS devices could quickly become a serious competitor to traditional console gaming in the living room. Before that happens, however, Apple and manufacturers will have to go back to the drawing board to come up with something developers and gamers will embrace.
Update: After publishing this story, SteelSeries sent out a press release on Jan. 23, 2014 announcing it will drop the launch price of its Stratus MFi controller from $99 to $79 and honor all preorders at the lower price. The controller is also now available with the new price in the Apple store and on Apple.com. We’ve reached out to the company about their decision and we’ll update with comments if we hear back. Until then, here’s the boilerplate text from the press release:
“The media and consumer reaction to the announcement of the Stratus Controller at CES really demonstrated the power behind this product, and the new category of gaming we can enable by working together with Apple,” said Bruce Hawver, SteelSeries CEO. “More than ever, we see the power of this platform and we want to make every effort to make it accessible to as many consumers as possible. We have therefore worked closely with our retail partners and suppliers with the objective of lowering the retail price target without changing any of the terrific features of this product.”
Update 2, Jan. 27: Logitech too has realized it priced its controller too high and is now offering it for $70.