Mobile gaming is on the rise, with Backbone and GamePass leading the way

Gaming on a mobile device has increased massively since games on our iPhones have become more complex than just “here’s a copy of Tetris with on-screen controls”. Now you can play near-console quality games natively on your device using controllers that plug in to give you more solid input.

As cloud gaming becomes an increasingly accepted way of gaming, mobile gaming is one of the largest sectors within the gaming landscape. At the top is this backbone, a one-two-punch iPhone app and iPhone controller combo. It was created not only with mobile gaming but also cloud gaming at its core, with the connected app connected to Xbox’s GamePass Ultimate service. We spoke to Maneet Khaira, Backbone Founder and CEO, to cover all things Backbone and mobile gaming.

Backbone was developed for cloud gaming

(Credit: Tammy Rogers/iMore)

The Backbone One Controller is an impressive piece of kit. The buttons are small and clicky, the triggers are smooth and satisfying, and the analog sticks are comfortable. The controller took a lot of work to get right. Maneet tells me, “In total, we probably spent about two and a half years on the overall design and user experience, starting with the basic shapes, just to see what overall shape would make sense not only from an ergonomic point of view, but also from an industrial design perspective.”

(Credit: Tammy Rogers/iMore)

And it worked. The backbone is not only functional, it is also an attractive controller. It’s solid and feels very well made. It feels good in the hand and the analog sticks in the Xbox layout, while not to everyone’s taste, fit my use case almost perfectly. Maneet told me the design was a collaboration with Astro Studios, the designers of the Xbox 360. Backbone doesn’t want to be just another third-party controller, it wants to be what all other mobile controllers are measured against.

One of the main things that helps with this is the attention to detail from the Backbone team. “We wanted to create a trigger in a very small form factor that still feels very good,” recalls Maneet. “It’s extremely compact, but still has a full five millimeters of travel, so you can play a racing game like Gear Club or Asphalt, for example. Another is the L1 R1 bumpers, which are about a foot wide at the top, which is important because a lot of kids have small hands.”

We took into account the feedback from many pro players and content creators.

It was also developed with input from professional gamers. Maneet says, “We took feedback from a lot of pro gamers and content creators that I knew from YouTube.” He continued, “I would send the product to them for advice and they would send me back a lot of very critical feedback.” Maneet knows that his product is so good because this feedback was so critical. “I think if you criticize something enough, you’ll eventually get something good,” he noted.

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The controller is the first part of the Backbone brand that users and customers see, so getting it right was important. But Backbone’s unique selling point is one that not many other controllers have, and it’s one that essentially acts as the backbone of Backbone – the excellent app.

backbone of the backbone

(Credit: Tammy Rogers/iMore)

The Backbone app assembles controller-aware games from a range of services. You can download games from the Apple App Store and Apple Arcade directly from the app, and it will tell you if there’s anything you need to know about the game before you start. Action RPG Punishing: Gray Raven, for example, won’t let you use a controller until you’ve completed the introductory tutorial, and the app will let you know before you play so you don’t get confused.

(Credit: Tammy Rogers/iMore)

But it’s the app’s UI that’s very important, and it’s deliberately designed to make it feel like you’re not playing on a phone. “On top of the incredible device input the team is working on, we could make it feel like you’re not playing on a smartphone anymore.” Maneet continues, “That was the ultimate goal with the software. How do we abstract the fact that you’re playing on a smartphone so it feels like you’re on a dedicated host device? We realized that we had to design the user interface from scratch for this.”

The interface pulls you out of the iPhone section. It feels, as Maneet puts it, “like a TV streaming interface,” not only to make it work better with a controller, but to reinforce the sense that your smartphone is now a dedicated gaming device.

So the sum total of the experience was the product of many ideas: while we were doing one thing, we had an idea for another.

A lot of thought had to be given to how the app would run on other, less powerful devices. After all, we don’t all have access to an iPhone 14 Pro Max. “The application runs smoothly even on the lowest phones supported by iOS 16, such as the iPhone 7,” Maneet says of device compatibility. “And so the sum total of the experience was the product of many ideas: while we were doing one thing, we had an idea for another.”

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One of the main focuses of the app is cloud gaming. You can connect your Xbox Live GamePass Unlimited account so you can play games from the Xbox GamePass library on your device wherever you are in the world, depending on your internet connection of course. When that connection is good and stable, then it’s a fantastic way to play games – and not only is Maneet fully embraced by cloud gaming, he was lucky enough to see it early.

Cloud Gaming on iPhone with Backbone

(Credit: Tammy Rogers/iMore)

Before founding Backbone in his sophomore year of college, Maneet worked at Google on the Youtube team. There he saw his first look at cloud gaming and what it could mean for the future of gaming. “I was very fortunate in 2017/2018 to be part of a small group of people who knew about the technology that was being developed at the data center level,” he says, “not only at Google, where I worked, but also at Microsoft and Amazon. With it, you can stream games to any device in your life.”

Seeing an Android phone running console games while working at Youtube really sealed the deal for Maneet – it really felt like the future. At its core, Backbone feels like it was made for that. The controls are amazing for native games, but they are console-quality inputs for console-quality games. Games that you can’t run on the device itself, but can be run from another mega console and sent to you wirelessly.

The original impetus for the idea and the motivation and vision of the company is to reach the three billion people who play games on mobile devices.

It’s a remarkable feeling playing something like Forza Horizon Five on your phone, especially when you have a good controller connected to your phone.

It’s a growing industry that Maneet wants to make more accessible to a larger number of players. “The original impetus for the idea and the motivation and vision of the company is to reach the three billion people who play games on mobile devices.”

For traditional gamers, Maneet sees backbone and cloud gaming as a sort of extra, another way to play your games when you’re away from your consoles. “[For players with a] PlayStation 5 and Series X would be more of an expansion.” But it’s in these newer audiences that the growth lies, and making cloud gaming as accessible as possible is key to getting more people excited about the technology. “For some users, it could be their first gaming device where they may not have access to a console yet,” he tells me.

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(Credit: Tammy Rogers/iMore)

That’s why you get a free month of GamePass in the box when you open your new Backbone controller, and that’s why the app shows you games from all the different systems. I feel like Maneet is not only passionate about the games but also getting them into people’s hands. Consoles and PCs are expensive devices. However, we all have phones, and if you can get the app working, you can spend $100 and get some of the console experience on your phone. It’s about access, so people can play games without spending tons. It’s brilliant.

It’s also a very, very smart business move.

Cloud gaming on the rise

(Credit: Tammy Rogers/iMore)

Maneet sees cloud gaming as the future, especially on mobile. Given that GamePass Ultimate has been the most opened part of the Backbone app over the last year, it’s obvious that its focus seems to be in the right place. Those three billion people playing mobile games is a rich space to expand into, especially if you give them something awesome to put their phones in.

Cloud gaming might be on the rise, but it’s also seen its fair share of critics. Apple isn’t too happy about having streaming platforms like Nvidia GeForce Now and GamePass Ultimate in the App Store. So if you are on iPhone, you can get these cloud games working. In both cases, the games must run through the browser. Maneet isn’t worried. “People access a lot of products through the browser, so it’s not a huge barrier to having to deal with that,” he says. “I think if the user’s purchase intent or interest is high enough, they will ultimately overcome a lot of friction. And gamers are used to friction and can handle it quite well.”

GamePass Ultimate has been the most accessed part of the Backbone app over the past year.

It doesn’t seem to ruin the experience either. If you’re unlucky like me and your internet seems to be running on 80’s technology, then you’re going to have problems. However, when it works, you won’t notice that the game is running in a browser.

You won’t even notice the game is running on your phone.