This article was published on April 11, 2022

Apple patenting game controllers shows it’s taking the sector seriously

Or, more accurately, it sees it can make some fast cash


Apple patenting game controllers shows it’s taking the sector seriously
Callum Booth
Story by

Callum Booth

Editor of Plugged by TNW

Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He w Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He writes about gear, gadgets, and apps — with a particular focus on Apple — and also makes the occasional odd video. Basically, he's halfway between an abrasive gadget nerd and thinky art boy.

Apple has long had a strange relationship with gaming. In many respects, the company has happily let competitors like Sony and Microsoft gobble up the lion’s share of the market.

Yet, over the past few years, Apple has started to address this gap in its offering. The biggest move Apple made in this space was, of course, Apple Arcade, its mobile gaming subscription.

But there are growing signs that the company is looking to build on this, especially with recent revelations it has filed a range of patents for game controllers.

The first of these was discovered at the end of March. Published by the US Patent & Trademark Office, it showed a series of game controllers that could be connected to Apple devices via magnetic attachments. Similar, in a sense, to the Magic Keyboard or MagSafe accessories.

Apple game controller US patent magnetic
Much of this patent document goes into depth about how the magnetic field is used to attach the controller to the device, without causing issues for other equipment or items, such as credit cards.

There were an array of other potential designs in the US patent too.

apple game controller patent dual screen
This suggested design appears to take inspiration from the Nintendo DS, as it tests out the idea of attaching another screen to your iPhone.

Much of this news was covered recently, but fresh information has come to light, pouring a hefty amount of fuel on Apple’s gaming fire.

Specifically, Patently Apple discovered that the company filed a set of designs in Europe that are both substantially different from the US document and help clarify what its potential plans are for the accessories.

In the European filing, there are three main designs shown that give us greater access to Apple’s thought process around gaming controllers.

The first shows a Switch-style (or Backbone One) attachment that fits either side of the iPhone or the tablet:

removable controls apple game controller patent
Obviously this looks fantastic, but can you imagine how easy it’d be losing one of these? Even though, hopefully Apple would put them in a case, like the AirPods.

The second major design finds a controller being attached underneath the tablet or phone. This can either be simply buttons, or can be a whole display — making it reminiscent of the Nintendo Advance SP or, as mentioned earlier, the DS.

apple game controller european patent split screen
This one isn’t too dissimilar to the US patent above, but there are some substantial differences. Still, with the sideview of this case, you can see where the magnetic attachments would come in.

Thirdly — and finally — we have the most standard-looking controller in the lot. There is one little detail that separates it from other accessories on the market.

If you look at the controller, you can see a little switch in the middle bottom. The idea behind this is users can select whether they connect the controller to their iPhone or Apple TV, effectively altering its operation.

For example, this means you can flick the switch, and jump between playing a game and sending a text message.

standalone apple controller patent image
This is probably the easiest to understand, as this looks most like the regular person’s mental image of a games controller.

The thing I’m most surprised about regarding this collection of news is we haven’t seen some hardware already. There were rumors that Apple was working on a games controller two years ago — and it’s surprising the company hasn’t got it over the line.

It’s surprising for a couple of reasons. The first is that Apple has enough in-house technical experience to create a fantastic controller. When you think of the complexity involved in, say, making a laptop, a functional game controller should be a breeze.

Yes, Apple may have to hire some individuals with more direct experience in this space, but that’s hardly an issue. It’s not like it’s hard up for cash.

The second reason I’m surprised we’re not closer to an Apple Controller (or Apple Pad, maybe?) being released? Releasing it would be a license to print cash.

If Apple launches something, people buy it. The device becomes successful merely by being an Apple product. A physical game controller would also be a fantastic way of promoting and growing Apple Arcade, which — considering the company’s focus on services — will become a key part of its strategy.

Although, saying this, I do realize things aren’t quite as simple for Apple as they seem. For example, we’ve seen an array of potential controller designs above — but which one should it run with?

Effectively, it needs to decide between making a mobile add-on (such as the Switch-style attachments) or a more traditional standalone controller. It doesn’t really make sense for the company to launch several accessories at once, as this just gets confusing for customers — although this is probably the cleanest solution to the problem.

Of course, simply because Apple has filed a range of patents doesn’t actually mean it will release a gaming controller, but there’s burgeoning evidence that the company is at least seriously exploring this space.

It’s been a long time since Apple seemed to give a damn about gaming, but it seems this attitude is slowly changing at the company. Not because it particularly likes the format, more because it knows there’s money to be made.

And we know how Apple feels about money.

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