in Technology

Extending the functionality of the iPad using external hardware has been done for a long time, and the most popular addon is probably a real bluetooth keyboard. By adding this piece of hardware, the iPad is immediately transformed from a simple entertainment device to a real productivity tool1.

The keyboard takes care of the business side of the iPad, but what about its other faces? Gaming has played a major part in the popularity of the device, but how can gaming on a mobile device be heightened to the next level, similar to the effects of adding a keyboard when using productivity apps? As part of iOS 7, Apple introduced support for game controllers within their MFi program. It didn’t take long before both new controllers started to appear, and games started adding support for these devices

It wasn’t until reading an article by Marcus on Pixels and Objects on a new game controller that captured my attention and made me look at iOS gaming, not as some sort of cheap gimmik compared to “real” console or PC gameplay, but as a worthy alternative for serious gaming.

The controller is called the Steelseries Stratus and its form is eyebrow-raisingly similar to a shrunken down Xbox 360 controller. While it is noticeably more nimble than your average console controller, it does feel quite solid when holding it2. The layout is exactly what you would expect from a modern game controller, and nothing bad can be said about the sticks, digital pad and the buttons. They are firm and have great texture and has a great tactile feel when pressed.

There is just one problem with the hardware, and that is the plastic lid which covers the face of the controller to protect it during transport. When playing, the lid is detached from the face of the controller and attached to the back to make it thicker and more easily grippable. The problem lies in the mechanism that holds the lid in place, since it does not grab on to the controller properly and it is sometimes hard to even make it stick. For a controller with a premium price, this should not be an issue.

The setup is as straight-forward as can be. There is a physical power switch on the side of the controller, and switching it on makes it discoverable in the bluetooth settings on the iPad. Once paired successfully, all you need to to is turn it on and fire up the game you want to play. I have on occasion had issues with games not detecting the controller if it wasn’t turned on and successfully paired before launching the game.

What I would have wanted to see is the ability to pair this to my Mac, since there a lot of games with game controller support available. Sadly, that is one feature that does not seem to be supported at the moment. One slight glimmer of hope is that the controller does have an upgradable firmware, which means that while pairing to the Mac currently doesn’t work, it may do so in the future.

A lot of games have added support for game controllers in recent updates. There is however no way of filtering these games within the AppStore. There are free third-party apps which contain lists of all currently available games with controller support, and they work remarkably well as a workaround until Apple adds a proper section.

The first game I tried was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and it is easy to see that controller support has been added after the game was created. While normal gameplay works well, there are problems navigating menus or hitting certain targets without touching the screen. Galaxy on Fire 2 HD is another RPG with good support for controllers and they even work in menus and other places where you would expect them to.

While I haven’t tried Oceanhorn, it is said to be an excellent RPG, similar to Zelda and the likes. The latest incarnation of GTA San Andreas also has support for controllers, but i still haven’t had the opportunity to try it out yet.

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Racing games such as Riptide GP2 and Real Racing 3 work well, and the controller does add that special feeling that was missing, compared to similar games on consoles.

I would personally like to see FPS games such as Splinter Cell and Deus Ex adding support for controllers as well. They would go from being virtually unplayable to being perfectly adapted to mobile gaming.

A natural progression of mobile gaming is having the ability to project the gameplay on a big screen. Using AirPlay to an Apple TV would introduce an unbearable lag3, even though that option would be the best. The only alternative is the HDMI adapter, which lets you connect your iPad to an HDTV. While the old adapter was basically a passthrough and worked great, the new Lightning-to-HDMI adapter has a small embedded computer which converts the video on the fly. While this sounds very scifi, it does add a significant lag, making gaming basically impossible.4

While I currently have an iPad Mini Retina which I love, my mind has started to ponder whether the next iPad should be a full-sized Air instead. Having that larger screen would create a more immersive gaming experience, and the bigger speakers would generate a punchier sound.

There is no question that game controllers take mobile gaming to the next level. Game developers need to take measures and add controller support in all new premium games for it to take off, and the controller makers need to provide high quality hardware for reasonable prices. If or when the HDMI problems will be fixed, this may really become the future of gaming.

  1. The iPad is arguably an excellent productivity tools sans keyboard. It does however heighten the use of the many writing tools currently available. 

  2. If you have really big hands, you will probably have a problem with this controller. While it is certainly possible to use it anyway, you should definitely try before you buy. 

  3. Reports indicate that the lag when playing iOS games over AirPlay are around 130ms if you are on a fast network. While that does not work for realtime games such as FPS and racing, other types of games may work really well. 

  4. Reports state that the Lightning to HDMI adapter introduces a lag of around 80 ms.