Apple may be good at designing consumer products, but I’m not sold on its gaming chops. Primarily, I’m not feeling that Apple TV remote control design for games. Luckily, hardware manufacturer SteelSeries has been working hand in hand with Apple to develop a professional gaming controller specifically designed for the Apple TV, called the Nimbus.
I talked with Ethisham Rabbani, the CEO of SteelSeries, to discuss the process of designing the Nimbus, and perhaps give his opinion on the bizarre topic of competitive esports play on the Apple TV.
GamesBeat: How long have you been working with the Apple TV and developing the Nimbus?
Ehtisham Rabbani: We’ve been working on this for over a year, and it’s been a highly secret project. I’d say the vast amount of people working at SteelSeries didn’t even know we were working on it. It’s been an effort that’s been done conjointly with Apple’s engineering team.
And, I mean, if you can imagine … in any of these projects … you know, you’re trying to do some big breakthrough things. But confidentiality is absolutely paramount. So, you know, if you can imagine mad scientists working in a dark cave guarded by security … [laughs] that’s the kind of situation it’s been.
GamesBeat: Wow! What were some of the challenges you faced when designing with Apple?
Rabbani: There were no new challenges per say. Whenever you design a new product for a new platform there is a regular development process that happens, because you are developing your hardware capabilities as you’re developing the platform simultaneously.
Rabbani: So you have to be fairly flexible, pretty nimble, and be able to pivot pretty easily.
I think what made it really fun was having a very strong conversation about what sort of gaming experience we want to have through our controller. I think Apple has a very strong, fantastic vision of what they would like Apple TV to bring to gamers and to the living room. So … you see, when two partners have a very strong vision, it makes the whole process easy.
GamesBeat: Did Apple have any significant input on the visual design of the pad? Because I know it can be incredibly strict about how its products look. It definitely has a strong opinion on what an Apple experience should look like.
Rabbani: Yeah, this is the sort of project where it’s hard to say who made what decision and what input because it really was a unified team that came together to make this.
The design was really driven by making the best living room game controller.
GamesBeat: Hmmm. …
Rabbani: You know, there is a science and then there is an art to it. And the art is really around ergonomics.
Let me step back for a second, you see, what SteelSeries brings to the table is that we design products for esports. We design for competitions. Our whole focus when we design is that, “this shouldn’t just be a great experience, but a winning experience.”
Rabbani: So we bring that sort of pro-athlete mindset to everything we do. When we designed Nimbus with Apple that was the same mindset, where not only do we want to make a controller that is very functional … that does the job … but the way we want to treat it is that it will help you win these wonderful battles you’re going to have in your living room.
Rabbani: So [going back] … the ergonomics are absolutely critical. You know, unlike mobile gaming, where you’re playing for ten to fifteen minutes and then moving on, when you’re playing in your living room on your TV you’re going to play for several hours.
So it needs to feel really, really natural in your hands … the way the buttons are placed have to feel very natural. You need to be able to reach all the buttons you need to without ever moving your hand. It should never get sweaty or grimy in your hands.
The amount of pressure on the triggers has to be perfect. If the pressure is too light, you’ll accidentally trigger it. If the pressure is too heavy, it is going to fatigue your fingers.
These are the little, hundreds, of details that we worked through step-by-step throughout the process.
GamesBeat: So with all this attention to detail, what is your take on the wireless aspect? I know a lot of professional players don’t want to touch wireless. They want to go straight wired. That seems like a pretty big hurdle to get over with this controller.
Rabbani: So for us, the question was, “How do you have the most lag-free experience?”
Obviously, the whole reason you don’t want to use a wireless controller is because you don’t want lag.
So the only way for us to do that was to use a solution that used the next generation of Bluetooth 4.0 into the mix. That has greatly improved the [capability] of having a lag free experience.
Rabbani: You know, we were first with that technology … and you know, there are a number of technological advancements in this controller.
GamesBeat: So how did you tackle the Bluetooth setup and getting your controller as lag-free as possible?
Rabbani: Yeah, you know, we’ve had some experience with this … going back to our esports roots. When we did our first wireless gaming mouse — called the Sensei Wireless — when we did that, the hurdle was, “how do we create a wireless gaming mouse that an esports pro would want to use? Where even a millisecond of lag could mean they are going to lose a big tournament.”
And not only is the wireless protocol that you use critical, but you have to have great processing power in the product itself. So that when the product sees a signal [generated by user input], it immediately sees them and doesn’t require the PC or game machine to process the inputs for it.
So when we launched the Sensei Wireless mouse, we actually launched it with the first ever mouse to have its own com processor in it.
GamesBeat: So, the Nimbus controller is actually processing the inputs there? It isn’t relying on the game software to process those inputs?
Rabbani: Right. With this and the combination of the Bluetooth technology, it gives us a great lag free experience.
GamesBeat: So when you guys first started up the Nimbus project, what sort of gamepads … or what sort of previous projects did you look at and say, “This is where we want to start building the Nimbus idea. These are the features we need to look at.”
Rabbani: Nimbus is actually our third controller in the iOS ecosystem. So this isn’t our first go at it, which is part of the reason why I think it came out as such a great controller.
We launched three Stratus products … a Stratus mini, a Stratus regular size, and a Stratus XL … which are all within the iOS ecosystem. So we’ve learned every step of the way and I think all of that learning has built up to this.
And then we also designed the Nimbus for ourselves. We wanted a controller that felt good, if not better, than any of the other console controllers out there. And that was a test we set out to prove to ourselves. This wasn’t for bragging rights. You’ll never see us go out and say that, “We’ve proven that this controller is better than the Xbox One controller!”
But really, that was our benchmark.
GamesBeat: All this talk of professional gaming, what do you think of Apple TV as a potential esports platform?
Rabbani: Yeah! I think Apple TV is a natural platform for esports. Some of the MOBA games, some of the fighting games, some of the arena games — are absolutely natural for the TV and the living room. Their rules of engagement are very well laid out … the scoring systems are really intuitive … it’s also really fun to watch them
I mean, I think everyone has had the experience of walking into someone’s home and watching them play a game on TV and just sit down and start watching them. I mean, it’s natural.
So, I definitely see Apple TV becoming an esports platform.
GamesBeat: Is the Nimbus a joint product? Is this going to be packed in with the Apple TV?
Rabbani: It is its own product, so it is a third-party controller … but it wasn’t developed like your typical third-party product.
Because the way a typical third-party product is developed is that a company will go off, they develop a product, then they bring it to Apple for approval. And then go off and sell the product.
Rabbani: The way that this was designed was … from conception to design to validation … it’s been done jointly. There is technology in there that has been 100 percent designed by Apple, there’s technology that is 100 percent designed by SteelSeries.
So it really is a melding of the two companies coming together in a very nice way.
GamesBeat: Who approached whom first? Did you go to Apple or did Apple come to you?
Rabbani: You know, I think it happened very organically. Like I said, this isn’t our first controller in the iOS ecosystem. So the Stratus controllers happened to be the best-selling iOS controllers, so … you know … we’ve had this relationship with Apple. And there were already discussions going on.
We had actually created a separate group within StealSeries that was 100% focused on iOS gaming. And that’s because many years back … two to three years back which in the gaming world is a lifetime. …
GamesBeat: [Laughs] Right!
Rabbani: … We had already identified that iOS gaming was going to be big, and we wanted to be on the forefront of it. So we started working on these things years ago.
So in the natural flow of conversation [with Apple], even before Apple knew what they wanted to do with the TV, these discussions were going on and everything flowed into this project.
GamesBeat: I know we’re primarily discussing the Nimbus here, but I’m just curious if you see anything else in your pipeline that you can talk about? Maybe you see something that the Apple TV could benefit from that you could work towards?
Rabbani: With the launch of Apple TV as a serious gaming platform, it opens it up to all kinds of other devices and capabilities that you see in the PC gaming realm.
So you think about PC gaming, which is obviously where our roots are, and you think about the ecosystem … you know, that ecosystem obviously has amazing controllers in the form of mice. It has amazing input devices in the form of mechanical keyboards. It has amazing audio. It has resources that are specifically meant to help the gaming experience.
You know, we launched eye tracking with a product we call Sentry that helps you get better at playing a game by tracking your eye movements.
So imagine all of these resources coming together from this one platform.
GamesBeat: What existing SteelSeries products do you feel are a good fit for the Apple TV?
Rabbani: Yeah! I think we have one of the best wireless headsets, called the H Wireless. We only have one problem with it, in that we can’t seem to make enough of them. That is definitely compatible.
But as you can imagine, our objective moving forward is to design especially for the Apple TV. And Nimbus was designed especially for Apple TV … which by the way it works on the entire iOS ecosystem including Mac.
But our objective moving forward is to create products with that platform in mind.