by Stuart Urback
On a recent episode of The Vergecast, Apple Arcade was compared derisively to other game subscription services like Google Stadia or Amazon Luna. I initially reacted to this with frustration. Not because Apple deserves any level of protection, but because Apple Arcade represents an interesting niche that’s focused on making premium games for mobile, arguably the largest gaming platform in the world, accessible to a wide swath of people.
Roughly 728 million iPhones have been sold worldwide. Compare this to the best-selling game console of all time, the Playstation 2, clocking in at 155 million. The reach of the iPhone alone means that the types of people who will be exposed to Apple Arcade will be much broader than a service like Microsoft Gamepass. For me to give a recommendation to subscribe to Apple Arcade to the audience of Play This Tonight, it’s not enough that there will be some good options, the service, like a Netflix or a YouTube, should either provide games that are worth a $5 a month subscription or provide a clear avenue for players to find their next game. As much as I love Card of Darkness (a premier game on Apple Arcade that I would have happily paid $10 for it), I would not recommend it for $5 a month.
One year in, even with the incredible catalog of games, Apple Arcade seems fairly listless. Other articles have mentioned similar concerns and even Apple has seemed to reconsider the way it handles new games on the platform. Aside from a couple of nice articles from CNET and Kotaku, or recurring posts on Touch Arcade or 9to5 Mac Apple Arcade isn’t discussed much either on the popular sites or among my work and friend groups. Reflecting further, I realized as much as I love the service, I haven’t recommended it to anyone I know, and I recommend a lot of games to people. I could list 10 amazing games on the service off the top of my head but I never recommend anyone subscribe to it.
So, I wanted to take some time to think about why I don’t recommend Apple Arcade, and what it would take for me to want to. What follows is a (likely too in-depth) interrogation of my up and down relationship with Apple Arcade in the context of 2020, a year of anti-trust, streaming wars, and coronavirus turmoil.
Apple Arcade launched with a stunning array of titles. I specifically remember two jumping out to me. One was Card of Darkness by Zach Gage and Cardpocalypse by Gambrinous games, whose previous title, Guild of Dungeoneering was a personal favorite I often found myself coming back to. I also remember being surprised by the amount of big names, like Konami attached to the launch. The types of game on Apple Arcade, are the types of games that I enjoy in general, on the gaming platform I use the most (my iPhone). These small, pocketable games that I can play in 5-10 minutes because I’m too often distracted (or now stressed) to escape for much longer.
Friends are often surprised that someone who spends so much time thinking about game design would prefer small games. Games like Card of Darkness (a solitaire “roguelike”), or Pinball Wizard (a cute take on a pinball game), Over The Alps (a beautiful choose your own adventure), Assemble With Care (a new game by the makers of Monument Valley) or Dear Reader (a fun word puzzler), to just mention a few. I probably would have paid $5 for each of these, and to get all of them for a monthly subscription felt luxurious. Small games are like poetry to me, the focus on mechanics hides a depth that draws me in. The thought of a game platform dedicated to premium mobile games, with Apple’s backing had the allure of legitimating and expanding the types of games I love to a broader audience.
Up to this point last year, iOS had simultaneously been one of the most profitable platform for premium games, but those same games had seen declining revenue for a fair amount of time. There are plenty of reasons this could be. Potential causes point to Apple’s method of highlighting games, Apple demonetizing affiliate links, discovery of new games on the App Store had been plummeting for some time. Arcade appeared to be an opportunity to reverse some of those trends and hopefully also lead to a newly flourishing indie scene.
It’s impossible to disentangle that context from the walled garden Apple created. For example, a large majority of Apple’s services revenue actually comes from in-app purchases on games like Candy Crush or Clash of Clans. There’s a mismatch between the needs of a giant like Apple and the needs of the apps who happen to live within its walls.
Apple does not make it easy to create a game streaming or game subscription service on its platform. While one does exist, Game Club, it relies on pre-existing iPhone games updated for newer versions of iOS. Furthermore, Apple treats games qualitatively different from other types of content. Apple has gone on record, clarifying that the way that “streaming services” can get on the App Store. It’s possible that anti-trust concerns could in fact prevent Apple from making improvements. It’s important to mention here that there is another game subscription service on the app store, called Game Club. While content like music (Spotify), books (Audible/Kindle), TV (Netflix) might not be purchased through iOS, you can load them all from a single app. Even while Apple Arcade has an incredible number of games, it comes with the recognition that Apple has made it hard for other potential gaming services to exist.
Apple launched Apple Arcade right before the start of what is sometimes referred to as the streaming wars, where every imaginable company seemed to try to launch a service to host video content for a monthly subscription (here’s looking at you Quibi). Other gaming streaming services have also launched, like Microsoft xCloud, Google Stadia or Amazon Luna. Most of the value of the game streaming is from being able to offload the processing power for huge titles onto Google’s or Microsoft’s or Amazon’s server, so that you can play on your cheap device. Previous gaming subscriptions Xbox Gamepass or Playstation Plus seemed designed to get you to take advantage of the console you already owned. Apple Arcade felt different in that it was a subscription aimed at games designed for your phone, rather than merely being playable on your phone.
While a plethora of amazing, accessible games is perfect for someone like me, it’s less perfect for people who might not stay up to date on the new and upcoming titles and so would not know what game they want to play next. Sites like this one, Touch Arcade, or Polygon might give recommendations, but that requires subscribes to be looking at those sites, and for those sites to regularly feature games from Apple Arcade. This is the part where the popularity of Netflix/HBO Max/Amazon Prime come into play. Most sites will regularly feature articles reviewing recent releases and also write lists of shows leaving and joining the various services. Without this boost, Apple Arcade has to do more work on its own to make sure that the right subscribers are discovering the content that matches their needs.
This dichotomy between how Apple treats something like Games compared to something like TV becomes apparent when you compare Apple’s TV app to the Arcade section of the App Store. Navigating to the TV app, TV episodes and Movies (TV+ or otherwise) are displayed with large photos, detailed information, and the episode options. There’s bonus content, cast & crew, and a how to watch section. Continue scrolling there’s an about section with further details about the show. Looking at the Arcade section, games are treated more like basic apps. There is update information, reviews, and a description of the game, with maybe some details about a recent update. This is unsurprising though, in that same article by the verge, Apple makes it clear that they view streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, fundamentally different from Apps like Games. It’s my opinion that this perspective is fundamentally misguided and narrow, and has the potential to hold gaming back on the platform, both in how it’s limited as a service, and in how Apple unwittingly downplays games as a form of creative expression.
The Arcade section, as it currently exists is too cluttered, and individual game pages aren’t designed to help me, as a user make better decisions. For example, the fact that Apple still has a review section on their games in Arcade makes little sense. What happens if a game gets rated 2 stars? Would they intend to take it off the platform altogether? How would that help me as a subscriber determine whether I would want to play it? Reviews might be defensible on an App Store (where users are a trying to make a purchase decision), but the presumption should be that the content in a subscription is good, and if it’s not (for you) that probably means that someone else appreciates it in a way you haven’t thought of before.
Compare this to a service like Netflix or YouTube. When I log into that app I have a series of curated channels that I have access to, can search through, and have recommendations for interesting sets of potential shows/movies that match trends or similar viewing patterns. In Netflix’s these aren’t standard “Comedy” or “Drama”. They’re specific, like “Comedies with a Strong Female Lead” or “Witty British Dramas”. They both suggest something qualitative about the shows, and give me nudges for what to watch next. In Youtube’s case (algorithm aside), I can subscribe to channels that I find interesting.
Firstly, I think Apple should treat Arcade like a stand-alone app outside the App Store. I suspect the reason they do not is that allowing purchases from other places beyond the App Store would get it in trouble with anti-trust regulation, but that’s an Apple problem, not a user problem. Having a centralized place to go to when I’m looking for an “Apple Arcade” experience would go a long way towards treating the games and the service like a first class citizen.
Secondly, I think Apple should improve the visual treatment of the section (or this fictional new app I’m making up), to look a lot more like their TV app. They could feature Metacritic reviews, Twitch/YouTube/Facebook streams if they exist, and highlights from recent content updates, or daily puzzles for that particular game. There are so many ways to experience games, and limiting the interaction to “download or not”, from my perspective, destroys a lot of the magic of browsing through the interface.
Finally, and again, this strains at the realm of “things Apple would reasonably do” they could deepen the integration between the Arcade service and the available games. Allowing players to jump into specific parts of games from the Arcade app would reduce the number of screens and swipes subscribers have to take from their service, into their gaming experience. Whether that would be new content like a Telltale experience, or a multiplayer game, being able to access content directly would build a lot of goodwill.
On a personal level, though, how would I feel if Apple introduced these changes without making other changes in the broader App Store? To be honest, it would feel pretty slimy, and be a clear indicator that Apple was using its leverage over the App Store to further provide services that competitors could not keep up with. The solution? Open the App Store up to other game streaming services. Even if they won’t let other App Stores in their walled garden, letting other streaming services would create real competition without blatantly challenging their profit.
Another important part of subscription services is the value they add to people’s relationships with their close friends or their community. Events like Game of Thrones felt like a cultural moment, where you wanted to be a part of understanding what was going on. For one-off content, like most of the games we recommend here, this is absolutely not an expectation. But as a game subscription service, I have expectations for a broader range of potential offerings. Arcade has definitely added options that speak to this: LEGO Brawls, Crossy Road Castle, and Butter Royale are all playable multiplayer games.
But for a service like Apple Arcade, especially one that I’m playing on my phone a lot, not offering asynchronous multiplayer games surprises me. Even a service like the New York Times Crossword puzzle (a $20 a year subscription) feels like it is designed more for collaborative play. The nature of the puzzles lend themselves more towards sharing or bragging when I find a word or a solution that was particularly difficult. Arcade has few games like this that are easier to share with other people, and even fewer that I would ask friends to play with me.
For example, Apple has a “Share with family” section that gives step-by-step instructions on how to set up family sharing so other members of my family have access to Apple Arcade. It even lists a few great games to share. But what it doesn’t do is tell me why I would want to share those specific games with my family or friends.
Simply put, multiplayer games like this on Arcade would make recommendations easier to give. Multiplayer games are experiences that bring people closer together, and provide a clear reason to stay signed up because you can play them over and over. The “regular” iOS App Store already has a rapidly expanding set of games dedicated to board game ports. Steam is throwing a “Tabletop festival” next week to celebrate this growing segment of gaming. Board games have a bunch of great qualities that would appear to make them a good fit for a platform like Apple Arcade. The metaphor of a touchscreen maps on to a lot of the actions that players make, they’re easy to pick up and put down (turns are often fairly short), and you play with multiple people, potentially even family (with the family share feature!).
The other component piece that other subscription services (especially Netflix) have invested in is making their content easily meme-able. This is a bit more “company centric” as a strategy to increase the “reach” of its “content”. But I also think it speaks to both a human need, and the cultural moment to at least make some content on the platform shareable. Other game specific streaming services, like Stadia have sharing with Youtube built in, Luna will have a Twitch integration, and xCloud will at the very least have the benefit that it will have a lot of big games that people will likely want to stream.
I think Google Stadia’s concept of share links could be extrapolated by Apple to create some neat opportunities. It would be neat in a game like What the Golf to be able to get a share code for a specific puzzle I’ve solved to try to challenge my friends with it. This is an implementation that Zach Gage’s Good Sudoku handles exceptionally well, and creating a consistent UX pattern and developer API could help something like this take off.
The final frustration I have, is at the heart of a lot of my frustrations with how people tend to talk about games in general. This is not a problem that’s unique to Apple. People who make games are under-appreciated relative to other forms of art. There are podcasts like Humans Who Make Games do a great job peeling back behind the curtain, and Apple Arcade’s initial launch had quite a number of developer interviews. But, for a company like Apple that seems to love espousing all the amazing things you can do on its platform, Apple Arcade spends next to no time talking up a large majority of its absolutely incredible designers and design studio list.
When Apple Arcade was announced I remember being absolutely floored by the list of design studios who were joining the platform. Apple did a great job during the announcement video highlighting the people behind the games. But it mostly stopped after that. By contrast, Netflix has an entire Youtube channel dedicated to highlighting stand-up comedians, often people I’ve never heard of. Apple itself even creates editorial content for featured games and apps that it’s trying to sell you on the App store. The most I’ve been able to find for Apple Arcade is the Twitter account which will occasionally tweet out an upcoming or newly released title. This isn’t just a problem for the industry or the service, it’s also a problem for the subscribers. People are naturally less interested in things they don’t understand or can’t connect to. It’s frustrating to hear about how Apple is disappointed with the lack of engagement in the games without seeing much investment from Apple selling the value of these games to potential subscribers.
While I might sign onto Apple TV+ and immediately recognize Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso. I would have no clue that Card of Darkness is made by a prolific App Developer Zach Gage who has made a plethora of iOS games like Flip Flop Solitaire, Good Sudoku, and Pocket Run Pool that are easy to learn like Flip Flop Solitaire. It would be pretty hard to figure out that something like Assemble With Care was designed by the same studio who made Monument Valley (who Apple has even featured!).
This one seems like the biggest no-brainer to me. Reduce the clutter on the Arcade section of the store, make it look more like the TV app, and highlight the work of the creatives who make the games. Feature photos of the designers, tell stories about how they came up with the games, and instead of highlighting reviews or bug updates, display in-depth walkthroughs or verified reviews from sites like Metacritic, or interviews. Specifically feature the daily run (a clickable link to get into it from the App’s page would be sweet). Apple already does some of this on their “Featured” page in the App Store, but doubling down further on Apple Arcade would literally show people the value of the service by talking up their designers, artists, programmers, etc.
While a feature list is a bit of a tall ask, and mostly comes from my perspective, the types of information that is currently displayed on the Arcade section of the App store does not do enough to make the games human and relatable. Apple has a real opportunity here, not because women or people older than 30 don’t play console games, but because there are a lot more people who own iPhones, and a lot more people who might be interested in that service, if they knew more about the games and the people within it.
I’ve outlined what I would like to see to start recommending Apple Arcade to people, but there are some other questions I’m curious about moving forward. Here are some of them, in no special order.
How will Arcade manage differentiating kid’s games? Given the games that were demoed at the initial launch, one of the main value propositions would appear to be parents being able to hand over their phone or iPad and have a stable of cheap (subscription) games that don’t open their kids up to accidentally making massive freemium purchases. Managing both children’s content in addition to content aimed at others is a challenge that it would be nice to see fully addressed. It’s easy to envision them living in a different section, like Arcade for Kids, though that’s clearly not the approach at the moment. This is something that services like Netflix and Youtube have had to deal with.
How will Arcade handle cross-play? Apple’s cross-system saves are impressive, with the asterisk that because Apple only allows you to play on their devices. A number of the Arcade games have felt trapped by this dichotomy. Games like Card of Darkness are available on Mac but were clearly designed for iPhone, whereas something like Exit the Gungeon is basically unplayable on a phone (unless you have a controller), while it’s a good match for Mac gaming. The big question I have there is will iCloud saves continue to be a focus for the service, or will they lean more heavily into mobile gaming?
Will Apple look to develop or purchase studios like Google and Microsoft have done or will it continue working with indies? Since Apple Arcade launched there have been a number of titles that felt like they might be great fits for the program. One of my greatest disappointments about iOS is the sheer volume of games that make it to Nintendo Switch and Steam, but that very reasonably do not end up on iOS simply because they don’t make any money on the platform. Apple Arcade seemed like a great opportunity to bring games like The Solitaire Conspiracy or Carto that from my perspective would seem to be good fits for the platform but would otherwise not likely make it over. The idealist in me would like to believe, Apple could find a happy medium between partnering with these studios to bring their games to iOS, without gobbling them up like Microsoft and Google.
Scrolling down to the “Coming Soon” section and seeing unexpected titles like South of the Circle and Reigns Beyond sets me alight with wonder and possibility of the experiences that might await. It seems like the trend towards subscription services as the primary way we access works of art (especially for games and movies/tv) is only going to accelerate moving forward. Their eclectic catalog is a great place to start, but if Apple is sincere about investing $500 billion into the platform, it should also invest some of that into the infrastructure to make Apple Arcade a service rather than just a collection of great games.
The concept of Apple Arcade speaks to me directly, and I am hopeful that in the future we’ll be able to talk about the new games and episodes coming this month to Apple Arcade (or another mobile first streaming platform). I’m hopeful that with the right amount of effort it can become a premium service like GamePass that expands the world of premium and artistic games to a broader audience. Until improvements are made, I won’t be the one recommending it, but I will be sitting down and enjoying A Monster’s Expedition or The Last Campfire.
The opinions in this post are expressly the views of the author and do not reflect the views of their employer(s) or any entities that they might otherwise be affiliated.