Of all the services Apple has been rolling out this year, the most unique, and arguably the most exciting, is Apple Arcade. This year has marked Apple’s foray into a service-based strategy, that seeks to shift Apple as a lifestyle brand, than a mere tech company. Ventures into industries like health, financial services, and now gaming, reinforce that. Gaming, most particularly, is the odd duck of these services, as it has never seemed to be a priority for them.
A view that the app store has always been a necessary evil when it comes to owning Apple products has been shared by many over the years (myself included). While it provides a storefront that is competent, it lacks any sort of careful curation or easy navigation, so finding the app you want means trudging through the ravine of “shovel-ware.” This is doubly so for mobile games. Add to that the criticism from the “hardcore” gaming community, many of whom see mobile gaming as an inherently inferior experience, and you’ve got an app store that’s just never been a great fit for mobile gaming. Admittedly I’ve felt that way in the past, but Apple Arcade really is a huge step in the right direction for creating a showcase of mobile’s most talented developers.
Mobile games have been fighting an uphill battle for legitimacy as a mainstay phone feature from their beginning, with many people discrediting them from the offset. And to be fair, who could blame them? We’ve all heard horror stories of in-app purchases, and many view mobile games as vapid “time wasters.” Apple Arcade looks to address these concerns,in a bold new way and prove that perhaps we’ve all been wrong; that the best console we own is the one inside our pockets.
What is Apple Arcade?
Announced during Apple’s March 2019 event, Apple Arcade was one of many new services, like Apple TV+ and Apple Card, that the company would debut this year. It was billed as a service that delivers a curated mix of mobile games to users at a monthly premium, a model many have compared to Netflix. In that press event, App Store Project Marketing Manager Anne Thai laid out a key distinction between two classes of games in the app store: ones that are free but ad supported, and fully paid games without ads. Apple Arcade is built to focus on the latter.
This focus on more premium games is clear by even the most cursory look at the current library, which features 70+ games, with more coming later this fall. Each one of these games play into a tacit assumption Apple has made with this service: these games are of a higher caliber and quality than something like “Angry Birds.” This ethos is even a part of how Apple markets Arcade, with one of the requirements and advertised features being “No ads. No additional purchases.”
Apple Arcade Makes Mobile Games Grow Up
Removing in-app purchases has huge implications for the mobile gaming market. For many years, developers have relied on releasing games that require (to varying degrees) some amount of piecemeal buy-in of content and game features. These types of revenue models have drawn a lot of ire from angry parents, and angry consumers. It has been a common criticism that this model encourages inordinate amounts of spending for features that should be in a “full game.” For example, in 2017 there was an instance where a child spent about $7,500 dollars on in-app purchases. This kind of controversy (one of many) is likely a reason Apple wants Arcade to only have the monthly subscription cost, and no added purchases for end-users.
Moving away from an unpopular revenue model, usually associated with games of a lower quality, shows Apple Arcade is different in terms of scale, quality, and content. With a few days of Apple Arcade under my belt, it’s clear they are doubling down on the best of what mobile games have to offer. The current library is filled with games that are complete, thoughtful, poignant, and most of all, fun. This should in no way alienate casual users; this is a service built for all audiences, especially those who have shied away from mobile games for whatever reason. This is a service built on the philosophy of quality curation, delivering you a share of games that in many regards shows the potential your iPhone can have as a gaming platform.
First Impressions: There is Almost Too Much to Love
During my first couple days with Apple Arcade I found myself, like many others, a bit overwhelmed at first. The amount of games on Apple Arcade arguably makes it the largest launch library of any platform, making one wonder “where exactly do I start?” I went with a mix of games touted in Apple’s advertising (“Sayonara Wild Hearts” and “Shinsekai” for example) and games that I either liked the aesthetic of or appeal to interests I have, like “The Pinball Wizard.” There’s no wrong way to find your initial batch of games, but it definitely takes some digging. In the end I’ve played a fraction of what the service has to offer, and that alone has sold me on the service. The quality of the games I have played rivals that of a traditional gaming console. For Apple’s part, careful consideration to the infrastructure of the service, and the shrewd courting of established developers, like Capcom and others, has made me more than happy to participate in such a grand experiment in a long-benign sector of the video game industry.
The games I’ve played are of a very high quality formerly only seen once in a blue moon on mobile, and clearly Apple is prioritizing this kind of mobile game. A few examples illustrate this point, including games like “Sayonara Wild Hearts,” which provides players a heart-pounding, neon-laced, pop musical journey that is expertly executed. A game like “Assemble With Care,” where you repair the most prized possessions of a small town, giving the player very touching stories that are so unlike what I’m used to when I hear the term “mobile game.” Once again, Apple leans into its trademark style, emphasizing the inviting, simple pleasures a game can evoke, while always keeping the player mindful of the craft and quality of these games.
A Healthy Dose of Skepticism
My feelings for Apple Arcade are mostly positive. In many ways it is a solid platform for delivering an excellent selection of games. However, I do have some questions regarding the service that give me pause. Apple Arcade eschewing the traditional mobile market revenue scheme means it is operating on its own playing field. This is concerning for some key reasons.
For one, there is no way to tell how exactly this service cashes out for developers. Certain games exclusive to Apple Arcade do get funding from Apple for their development, but this begs the question if those developers technically “own” their game. This information has obviously not been made public, with Apple following Microsoft’s equally tight-lipped strategy of not disclosing the pay split or revenue model for developers on Xbox Game. For all we know, Apple could have just paid lump sums for these games, while taking in subscription revenue for itself. Historically this concern holds some water, as the Verge reported in May when the Supreme Court upheld a lawsuit against Apple’s management of its app store, ruling against Apple in violation of antitrust laws. The murkiness around the development and distribution of these games is a bit troubling. If Apple proves to be a bad steward for developers, and that working relationship erodes, it could lead to a situation where Apple doesn’t have the talent needed to continue creating top-notch titles for Arcade.
Another concern is this model has some potential uncertainty in terms of the catalog of games, and the service infrastructure. Will games on Apple Arcade stay on the service forever, or are they subject to frequent changes much like Netflix’s monthly updates to its carousel of content? Alternatively, can Apple keep the quality control as strong as it seemingly is out of the gate? Who’s to say Apple doesn’t open the floodgates and release a torrent of bad games that are of markedly lower quality than the initial offerings. It’s too early to give any concrete answers, but for now Apple has my goodwill toward a service that has come as a total, though welcome, surprise.
All things considered, Apple Arcade is a bafflingly good service. It is not an understatement to say this has delivered much more than was promised, and was something I didn’t even know I wanted this bad. The low price and vast quantity of high-quality titles makes it one of the standout efforts from Apple this year. Barring any major controversy regarding pay-outs and distribution, or a clear lowering of the current standard of titles, it looks like Apple Arcade will change the way mobile games are consumed and understood in the public conscious. If Apple can keep delivering this caliber of games, it will make my $5 dollar subscription feel like a price worth paying for a service worth buying into.