TVOS should give the gaming industry a run for its money, but probably won’t.

Lauren Liss
Apr 28, 2016 · 7 min read
screenshot —, April 2016

But maybe it’s the future of gaming, too?

When our six year old Roku box finally died, we decided to replace it with another Apple TV unit. We have a 3rd gen Apple TV currently, and the experience of using it always made the Roku in our bedroom feel like a dinosaur in comparison.

My understanding of the new Apple TV was this — it’s like the old Apple TV, but with a remote that is less likely to get lost in your couch cushions, and Siri lived in it, and it cost twice as much. That was the message that came through to me from their campaign, and it was still a tough sell for me to justify buying the 4th gen model when I still had the option to buy the older, 3rd gen model for half as much.

The trigger point? Realizing how cool it would be for my five year old to say “Watch Popples on Netflix” and have it just happen.

So I presented the proposal to my household purchasing partner, who gave me a big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and went back to looking at mopeds on Tumblr. The order was placed.

I’ve spent the better part of two decades wishing for a different television experience. We were early adopters to cutting cable, and never regretted it. There wasn’t much that we actually watched; the TV was mostly the static background noise to life.

After the birth of our daughter, and the big scary dangers of SCREENTIME RUINING EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING AND THE WORLD, we just ditched it. Sometimes we watched Netflix. We rented Yo Gabba Gabba DVDs from the library. Life moved on. We had more quiet time, took up hobbies, took naps.

Our watching patterns changed, broadband speed increased, the entire culture of the United States changed it’s media consumption pattern. We got a Roku. We got an Apple TV. It was fine, great even. But even with Apple TV, I felt like something was missing. I mean, there were all these apps that were just there. You know, it was fine. It satisficed.

But this new Apple TV. It’s something else.

And, fair, I’m an outlier. I care deeply about interaction design. I coordinate an entire Bachelor of Arts program about it. I freak out about delightful experiences, running my mouth to anyone about it and evangelizing completely mundane things (any of my students can swear to this, particularly my unrelenting enthusiasm I have about my can opener.)

But really, the experience of using it was something different. I wasn’t just presented with a screen full of icons that Apple thought I needed. It was almost a blank slate, waiting for me to customize the interface to my preferences. It mimicked that same feeling of getting an iPhone for the first time — APPS FOR DAYS! SO MANY CHOICES! And using voice! That was fun and novel. Imagine it; my daughter saying “Watch Popples on Netflix” and then seeing her clenched fists up in the air saying “SUCCESS! FINALLY, SOMEONE LISTENS TO ME!” It was all happening. I was giddy. And then I realized you could play games on it, and my mind melted when I opened Alto’s Adventure for the first time on TVOS.

Alto’s Adventure is great on mobile; beautiful, stunning game art with simple but engaging gameplay dynamics. But playing on Apple TV elevates it to a completely different level. The graphics, wall mounted on a flat screen TV, are impressive and immersive. The sound design envelops you. The touch remote, with one button gameplay, is responsive and soothing. In short, it is maximum chill. And I can’t tear away from it. It has become my go-to source for decompressing after the kids are asleep, the house is quiet and (relatively) tidy, and I have space to just myself.

I’m not a “gamer,” which is a weird statement for me to say, as I play games daily — usually multiple times a day. If I have two minutes while waiting in line, I knock out a life on Two Dots (currently on level 615, thanks free time!). Or play 1010. Or Threes or 2048. And a whole litany of other games that I have played, grown bored of, and deleted. But the game industry typically defines gamers as really specific subset; serious game players that engage through console or PC games. This is a weird and flawed definition. But let’s assume that these things are true, for the sake of argument:

  • Casual gamers typically spend less time overall, and shorter sessions, playing games. Casual gamers usually pay free, or close to free games, and rarely spend money on games.
  • Hardcore gamers invest significant amounts of resources — time, money, equipment — in playing games.

So it makes sense that the game industry caters to the audience that spends the money. But what happens next for consoles as mobile creeps closer and closer as a legitimate resource competitor? And why are these labels even necessary, except to create elitism and divisiveness?

Casual gamers are a huge market, with a growing interest in gaming. Between 2012 and 2014, time spent on mobile gaming increased 57%. On top of that, session time (the time spent playing a mobile game in one sitting) is also on the rise, up from 1 minute 27 seconds in 2011 to 3 minutes 37 seconds in 2013 and 7 minutes 55 seconds at the end of 2015. And that is on a mobile device, which carries a set of assumptions; the player is using a small, constrained interface, within a context of competing stimuli, with a narrow window of opportunity to play.

So there is an opportunity here for games on Apple TV to fill a need — casual gamers that want to play for a longer span of time in a session (say 15–30 minutes) and commit to that activity in the absence of other distractions, from the comfort of their couch. This was a need I didn’t even know that I had, until I discovered that Apple TV supported this interaction. And now I love it. Several weeks in, and I still find myself dedicating 15 or so minutes of daily “decompression” aided by Alto’s Adventure. Even my husband, a complete Luddite (in the most charming, and not insulting way — he just doesn’t care much for technology, and cares even less for games), has bought into this activity. So has my five year old daughter. We will take turns, passing the remote back and forth until someone falls into a chasm, or trips on a rock, or crashes trying to nail the elusive triple backflip.

So I wanted more. I wanted to be able to mix up our gameplay, so that we weren’t just playing the same game every night — not because we couldn’t, we are all still super into it — but I wanted some other options. Maybe games we could play together, at the same time. One of the nice features of TVOS as a gaming system is that any iOS device can also be used as a remote, so we could use our iPhones as controllers.

Unfortunately, the offerings in the TVOS app store are slim — particularly when it comes to multiplayer games. On top of that, the interface is frustrating. TVOS uses a different app store than The App Store, and doesn’t allow users to drill down far into categories. It’s hard to tell if there are just few offerings, or if the offerings presented are just a curated selection of a more vast inventory of games and apps. The games that are available frankly aren’t that great — Alto is definitely an outlier in the offerings. Where is Monument Valley? Or any of the amazing Toca Boca games? Toca Builders would be AMAZE, like Minecraft for the 4–7 year old set. Or Toca Life: City! Downer alert — it’s not even on their agenda.

There are a few multiplayer offerings — Crossy Road, Tap Tap Party, Beat Sports. But it would be great to see more social, multiplayer offerings as that is really the context that TVOS is best suited for; delivering an experience to an audience of one or more people in view of a large screen. Party games, but mediated by a screen. Imagine Cards Against Humanity for TVOS. Celebrity for TVOS. Quiplash or Fibbage — which is maybe a thing? It looks like it is available for TVOS from their site, but it never came up in my browsing because that experience is horrible, and now I am on a computer in my office where my TV is not, so I can’t check. Evan Jacover, can you confirm or deny? Because if you say yes, I am scheduling a Mom’s Night In like RIGHT NOW to get in on that game play.

Maybe this is all intentional. Maybe Apple is holding off on really pushing the gaming functionality of TVOS until there is a tipping point of high quality games that have been designed with TVOS in mind. Or maybe the fact that you can play games on TVOS was just a value add — something that was easy to include as it followed along with the experience that has defined iOS. But I’ve had the taste, and I want some more.