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WWDC 2021: Could Apple finally be serious about gaming?

Apple Arcade
(Image credit: Apple)

As WWDC week ends, we’ve been shown the features for 2021 that Apple has been working on for its many platforms.

From redesigned notifications in iOS 15 to a redesigned multitasking interface in iPadOS 15, there’s been plenty of refinements for every user to benefit from.

However, one aspect that wasn’t talked about face first, was gaming. Even though there wasn’t a section of the keynote discussing this in great detail, there was plenty showcased around the topic, and you may not have even realized.

This is where I think Apple is setting the stage for an even bigger focus on gaming and perhaps even Apple Arcade, maybe even as soon as E3.

A Konami code of gaming

Apple and gaming have had a tenuous relationship in recent years. While Steam on the Mac arrived in 2011, the games were few and far between, with the Half Life series and the Steam application being abandoned on Intel Macs, with seemingly no plans for Valve to create a Steam version for Apple Silicon and the M1 Macs.

Since the explosion of the App Store in 2008, games have paradoxically been a huge part of iOS, with the iPod Touch being angled for gaming first, and music second. It’s most likely why you can use iOS apps on M1 Macs, to bring the wide amount of games to macOS as well.

As each iOS release was announced, more features for games were added, with a significant one being support for gaming controllers, such as the Xbox Controller, and Sony’s DualShock 4, and as recent as iOS 14.6, the PlayStation 5 Dual Sense controller. Instead of using your hands to play games on the touchscreen, you could finally use a controller as it was meant to be played, with Sonic, DOOM, and even Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, all on your iPhone or iPad.

But with all the announcements at WWDC this week, it looks as though the big features are also tied into gaming without anyone realizing.

A Double Dash of Opportunity

Take SharePlay - a fantastic feature that Apple showcased in Monday’s keynote, where you and a group of friends could watch something on Disney Plus together over FaceTime for example. But at the end of this section, it was shown that Twitch was adding support for SharePlay soon as well.

Last year, one particular aspect that helped my mental health during lockdown were gaming streams, this one by Richie Morgan especially. A year on, I can imagine using SharePlay with his streams as it was live, having myself and friends joining in on the feature, or even with Richie’s watching audience at the time, all coming together into a SharePlay room, and treating it as if we were watching him play Metal Gear Solid at the nearest stadium.

But that’s just one aspect - having this work in-tandem with Apple Arcade could be why the service was hardly mentioned this week, but just the API features around gaming - ‘for the players’ as it were.

You can now use a PlayStation or Xbox Controller to navigate the home screen on your iPad, so you don’t need to switch between a trackpad or your fingers to select another game. Also, as long as the developer supports this, there’s even a new feature to capture 15 seconds of footage in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS 12 Monterey by pressing the ‘Capture’ button on your controller, and it’s saved into your Camera roll or the Photos app on macOS 12 Monterey.

Yet another feature is the widgets. In-game events from the App Store can now be displayed on one widget, so you can curate which games you’re interested in and the in-game events will show up on this one widget. If you play a lot of Pokemon GO, for example, to have a big widget on your iPad home screen showing the next event for a Hoh-Hoh could be really useful.

iPadOS 15 widgets

iPadOS 15 widgets (Image credit: Apple)

Game Center even looks to be making a comeback since its debut in iOS 4. In the intervening years, it faded into obscurity, with users not sure whether it’s still around after the app disappeared and was thrown into a section in the Settings app.

Here, widgets abound for Game Center, alongside new APIs that allow users to invite friends and catch up with leaderboards when in a game once again.

With Microsoft having announced Xbox Game Pass coming as an application to televisions soon, it’s going to be a challenge for Apple to have gamers in their walled garden, and even more difficult by the fact that their guidelines for the App Store still don’t allow one single app for Game Pass to be available.

An Extra Life for Apple Arcade

Apple talked a great game about their ambitions for gaming across their platforms at WWDC, but it’s time to put these new features to good use. With an M1 chip in the new iPad Pro, and rumors abound as to what an M1X/M2 chip could be capable of for graphics, let's start to see more recent games on the platform, so we can use SharePlay and this new form of Game Center in Among Us, Crash 4, or even Golf with Friends.

This is what’s going to help users subscribe to Apple Arcade - to have a service that works across all Apple platforms, but with most of the latest games, ready to play on your Apple device locally.

Time will tell if an improved version is announced towards the release of iOS 15 and the other platforms, but right now the features announced at WWDC give a lot of hope to gamers and developers who use Apple’s devices.

Daryl Baxter

Daryl is the Software and Downloads Writer at TechRadar, where you will see his posts covering Apple, Google, Microsoft and the software that they all inhabit.