RP One iOS Game Controller Is Full-Size — And Full Price — For A Reason


Credit: Mark Prince
Credit: Mark Prince

A key feature in iOS 7 dangles the prospect of console-style action in front of hard-core gamers hooked on action-platformers and first-person shooters. But while developers can now add controller support to games, hardware makers face a new challenge: getting gamers to shell out $100 to morph their iPhones or iPads into console killers.

Hardware maker Signal is unapologetic about the hefty price tag for its new RP One controller, one of several new gaming devices certified under Apple’s Made for iPhone (MFi) program.

“Quality is not free,” Signal’s director Mark Prince told Cult of Mac, “and it makes no sense to compare an MFi controller to a ‘bag and tag’ generic [Bluetooth] controller.”

Core gamers want to sit down with a precision controller when they immerse themselves in a console game. iOS developers compete with the big boys of console gaming like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, for their audience’s gaming dollars.

It’s a clear trend, and even Apple, which has long played the “we don’t care much about gaming” card with iOS, has finally introduced built-in code to support game controllers.

Peripheral makers Logitech, SteelSeries, and Moga have all put their efforts into iOS 7-compatible controllers, each a little different. They all run $100, though, leaving gamers wondering if Apple has set the pricing.

“$100 is probably the lowest viable price point for most if not all of us to cover development, material and manufacturing costs, plus packaging, distribution and retail margins,” said Prince. “We’d like to go on record as saying that Apple does not set these prices.”

For Signal, which unveiled its first iOS 7-compatible controller at CES this year, mimicking the tried-and-true form of a traditional gamepad proved paramount. Signal’s RP One looks and feels like a high-end controller that would normally connect to an Xbox or PlayStation.

Price Matters

Signal is making a controller to match the high-end console controller market, not a budget off-the-shelf Bluetooth device, said Prince. While some of the specs are required by Apple, most of the design is a decision driven by the design team at Signal.

“The RP One has positive ergonomics for extended comfort and feel, and device-specific, pressure-sensitive triggers and buttons. These are not off-the-shelf parts -– they are designed and tooled specifically for the RP One.”

The team has tested the switches in the RP One, for example, 1 million cycles for each one. That costs money, and is only one of the many aspects of development of a device like this.

Think of a regular console controller, which typically retails at around $60. To use it, gamers need a console and they need games, which tend to run another $60 for new titles.

iOS gamers already have the iOS device, most likely, and the premium games that might make the most sense for a controller like the current crop of MFi add-ons run anywhere from free to $20. There are already 115 iOS titles with controller support out there, with tons more on the way.

“Apple has set the stage for ‘AAA’ titles to come to iOS,” said Prince, “and we’ve already seen major titles like GTA: San Andreas adopt controller support and innovative new titles like Limbo arrive with controller support right out of the gate.”

So, gamers can spend their money on a few PlayStation titles, or they can spend their money on a console-quality controller and grab quite a few more games to play on the go, or mirror their iOS screen to their HDTV via AirPlay or an HDMI cable.

“The argument to spend $100 to turn your iPhone or iPad into a mobile console also makes a lot of sense,” said Prince, “particularly when the controller meets expectations.”

Gamers are a curious lot, for sure, and most core gamers think nothing of dropping hundreds of dollars on a gaming mouse or headphones, to say nothing of the price of a high-end gaming computer or console.

Design Decisions

Prince told Cult of Mac that his team was interested in making an MFi (made for iPhone) controller the moment Apple revealed the possibility during WWDC last year. Prince and his other team members have been making MFi devices since 2006, so they knew they wanted to make something that would both work with iOS 7 as well as meet the high expectations of core gamers.

“For our launch product,” said Prince, “working within the guidelines, we kept coming back to the idea of a console-style controller.”

The size of the thing — it’s a similar size, weight and shape to a console-style controller — was a deliberate choice.

“Obviously,” he said, “it’s familiar to gamers. Action games are the most popular category for consoles –- and action games benefit directly from ergonomic controllers in terms of performance and comfort. We can’t imagine playing through 20 or 30 hours of a major action title on a gamepad with an offbeat trigger configuration.”

This design decision is different than, say, the SteelSeries Stratus controller, which aims for a compact shape, making it easy to toss into a bag along with other small accessories.

Signal also thought this through, and Prince responded to the potential criticism of the RP One’s size.

“We trust gamers to decide what’s important to carry in a bag,” he said. “If we go by sales stats, plenty of people are happy to carry Beats and other DJ-style headphones, which are not known for portability, so we trust that gamers will decide that the smallest solution is not necessarily the best solution when it comes to gaming.”

The RP One itself is lighter than a PlayStation Dual Shock controller, too, since there’s no rumble pack to add weight, Prince told us, which is another mark in its favor.

The RP one will ship with a stand to hold an iOS device for gaming, and a high-end USB cable to keep the controller charged for gaming sessions.

Will the RP One turn an iPhone into a full-on console? Of course not. But it will allow core gamers who want a console-like experience on the go to play better and for longer than touchscreens typically can support.

“Gamers have shown time and time again that they want performance and quality,” Prince said. “Ultimately, we’re placing a bet that the RP One delivers what gamers want. It will be worth the wait.”