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Apple Gaming Hands-On: It Sucks as Much as Expected

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By Nelson Schneider - 01/26/20 at 04:33 PM CT

I have never owned an Apple product, not even an iPod MP3 player back in the day when iPods were all the rage and a new model was released every couple years (like iPhones nowadays). However, I have used plenty of Apple products, and this use exposure is why I never actually bought any: I just don’t enjoy the experience they provide.

However, if one were to dig deep into my own personal past relationships with technology, one would find that there was indeed a time and place where I actually liked Mac computers. That time and place was middle-school, on the cusp of the turnover between the 1980s and 1990s. “IBM Compatible” PCs still ran DOS, that esoteric command line OS that required secret wizard knowledge in order to make it do anything useful. By comparison, the greenscale/grayscale all-in-one Macintosh computers in my school library, with their point-and-click graphical user interfaces and WYSIWYG word processing (my first book reports were written in WordPerfect for DOS, where different fonts and text styles were represented by nonsensical color variations of the generic DOS system font) seemed absolutely glorious.

But by the time I reached high school, Windows had become mainstream, and continuously made obvious Mac OS’ deficiencies in software compatibility and performance (the school computers just got slower and slower with each fancy update the administrator installed off floppy discs). It continually pissed me off that not even something as seemingly universal as a 3.5” floppy diskette could work in a Mac and a Windows PC without being reformatted, as I wanted to bring home files I downloaded from the school’s Internet over lunch break for use on my own PC.

Fast-forward a decade or more, and my first job out of college involved doing tech support and quality control for the Mac OSX version of a geospatial analysis software suite. So people whose knee-jerk reaction is to say I’m “biased” against Apple because I never use their products couldn’t be more wrong. I’ve used them, and it sucked.

Late last year, I briefly mentioned the Apple Arcade subscription as one among the Legion vying for control of hearts and minds in the ever-changing world of gaming. I never intended to give it a try because I would actually rather set a $5 bill on fire and then piss on the ashes than give $5 to Apple. Plus, as mentioned earlier, I don’t have any Apple devices upon which to use it.

However, I do know someone with more Apple devices than the entire continent of Africa, and I was invited to a special hands-on demonstration of Apple’s whole modern gaming ecosystem, complete with AppleTV, Apple Arcade, and in-home streaming through the iOS version of the Steam Link app. It was clearly some sort of trap, but I willingly walked into it with the confidence that, at most, I’d be forced to admit that Apple’s gaming efforts are improving. Instead, I walked out confident that, as a gamer ignoring Apple completely, I wasn’t missing anything, much to the embarrassment of my host.

Apple Arcade
The basic concept behind Apple Arcade is that it is a low-cost subscription system that provides subscribers with unlimited access to a library of over 100 hand-picked, curated games. These titles are guaranteed to include no micro/macro-transactions or other in-app purchases, but must be complete and playable on their own, clearly in recognition of the fact that the App Store and Google Play (and even the Microsoft Store) have become wholly infested with predatory, money-siphoning bullshit, thanks, in large part, to companies like Apple and Google encouraging desperate developers to do such things in order to buoy the App Store’s and Play’s product counts and sales figures.

It’s entirely possible to link multiple i-devices to a single Apple account, even switching some of them to an offline mode which only needs to check in with the DRM servers every month to make sure the subscription is still active. This offline functionality allows for the specific usage scenario of a family with too many young kids and too many iPads to let each and every one of the little varmints play the same games at the same time without fighting over a cartridge/disc or doing things they shouldn’t on an Internet-connected device. But, wow, if that isn’t a specific niche for Apple to find itself in!

In general, the Apple Arcade library proved to be a huge disappointment. Of the plethora of games available, most of them are ports of Indie games that can be purchased and played on any number of other devices. I specifically tried to limit my experience with Apple Arcade to games that weren’t available elsewhere, and found that every last one of them was a typically terrible mobile-style spin-off. “Rayman Mini” – a 2D Platformer – and “Sonic Racing” – a Kart Racer – to list two such examples, seemed like they might be compelling, since neither is available on Steam, PSN, Live, or the Nintendo eShop. However, upon actually playing them, it turned out that “Rayman Mini” is not a true sequel to “Rayman Legends” and “Rayman Origins,” but is a crap-tastic auto-runner, where the player is really only responsible for hitting a button (or tapping a touchscreen) to make Rayman jump. “Sonic Racing” is just as poor in scope, as it features auto-acceleration, leaving the player in charge of steering (poorly) and item usage. Even worse, “Sonic Racing” is solely a single-player experience locally, with no option for even two players in the same room to race against each other, unless each of them has their own i-device and their own Apple account.

Apple Hardware
Did you know that iOS now has native support for Xinput and Dinput controllers?

“Oooooh! Aaaaaah! Apple is so cutting edge!”

The process of linking, via Bluetooth, an Xinput controller to an AppleTV is NOT, however, one of those “just works” experiences Apple fanboys can’t shut up about. It actually required a bit of Googling and futzing around with the hardware itself, but, yeah, it’s nice that as of 2019, Apple’s driver support for gaming peripherals is up to par with where Microsoft’s was in 2006. However, the one place where Apple actually does have Microsoft beaten at its own game is in the fact that it’s possible to control the entire iOS user interface with a controller without having to run a third-party input mapper.

The AppleTV itself, in its guise as a “game console” is highly reminiscent of the dead-and-defunct OUYA Android microconsole (as well as all of the other dead-and-defunct Android microconsoles whose names are lost to the ages). Performance was fine in the games tested, but the small internal storage meant that I was constantly butting heads with a full system. Apple clearly wants people to browse and graze the whole smorgasbord of their subscription library, but the lack of storage space on i-devices means that truly voracious grazers will need to stick close to a wi-fi hotspot.

In-Home Streaming
The use scenario for in-home streaming is something of a head-scratcher. I can understand the appeal of being able to stream games and content from your computer sitting at home to a phone or tablet that you carry with you when you travel. Steam Remote Play does that, and is fairly platform agnostic. You don’t need an Apple-infested hardware ecosystem to get the most out of the feature.

An AppleTV, though, is not the type of device you carry around in your man-purse. It sits in a single room and allows for streaming from a device in another room. I just tried a proof of concept test with it, streaming “Destiny 2” from my gracious host’s gaming PC in the basement to the main TV in the living room, and ultimately found it to be unusably bad. Why? Well, it wasn’t input lag, which was non-existent. It wasn’t poor picture quality, which looked fine. It was the janky system of input mapping that prevented the PC running the streamed game from recognizing Xinput commands delivered by the controller linked to the AppleTV. It would take far more troubleshooting than I had the time or inclination to perform during my hands-on experience, so I don’t know for certain whether this Xinput passthrough problem is the fault of the Apple or Valve, but it’s definitely not a selling point.

So, what is the Apple gaming ecosystem? Part of it seems to be an earnest attempt to pave over the horrible nickel-and-dime mobile game economy Apple short-sightedly helped create a decade ago. Part of it seems to be a slow-and-steady build-up of basic features to encourage “AAA” game developers to at least take another look at Apple platforms when considering new places to flog their multi-platform releases. Ultimately, though, the only compelling argument for it is that the Apple ecosystem is a great way to distract a lot of kids all at once. Perhaps it will become a feature of high-end day-cares and pre-schools, with Apple embracing the idea of indoctrinating the extremely young so they will be more inclined to buy Apple products when they grow up.

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