Last year, tech conglomerate Apple released Apple Arcade, a monthly subscription service that would bring new, quality games by renowned developers such as Sega, Square Enix, and Capcom to an ecosystem known for microtransaction-laden and low-budget titles that act as billboards instead of entertainment. It was a novel concept, and something that seemed implausible in this current generation: fun and engaging mobile games that don’t want me to fork over my wallet every time I want to progress? Nonsense, I say!
While Apple Arcade has offered some great titles with a focus on quality and providing a whole experience without in-app purchases or ads, it hasn’t made the ripple that would’ve been expected from such a huge company like Apple. Sure, some pretty killer titles have been released on the platform, but it seems like the hype train stopped at launch.
Most conversations I’ve seen online about Apple Arcade usually revolve around two perspectives: only subscribing to the service to play one game, or have yet to cancel it. Personally, I’m in the latter boat, as I’ve been subscribed since it initially launched last September yet haven’t canceled, with the cost of a Starbucks latte being whisked away from my bank account every month.
As someone who has been a mobile gamer ever since the App Store’s inception, I feel like Apple Arcade’s problems can be boiled down to three main issues: a lack of variety, segmented releases, and Apple drifting from the service’s original vision.
Arguably, Apple Arcade’s best games are the ones that take full advantage of the unique features of a mobile device. For example, Assemble With Care by ustwo games, where you pick up, rotate, and use tools to fix items all with the touchscreen. Apple Arcade has a great selection of unique titles like this, such as Cricket Through the Ages, Tint, and What the Golf, but issues start to arise when some games have the same gameplay as those that you can find normally on the App Store without paying $5 a month.
Just on the section that lists the most popular titles alone, there are many similar multiplayer “royale” games, endless runners, and level-structured puzzle games that feel like they would’ve been released on the App Store as free titles if they weren’t selected to be released on Apple Arcade. While there are many games that don’t fall under this umbrella, it’s reflective of the service as a whole in that Apple isn’t doing much to make sure that not too many eggs are in one basket.
As I mentioned previously, some people who are subscribed to Apple Arcade only do so to play one game in particular. One of the most popular titles on the platform is Grindstone, which combines time-based action with turn-based puzzles seen in games like Candy Crush and Bejeweled. It’s easy to understand why this game is such a hit after playing, and I kept up for a while after the game’s launch. Capybara Games have also supported the game post-launch by adding new levels and objectives to complete each day.
However, not all games have had the same amount of time and attention put into them after launch as Grindstone. Some, like Steven Universe: Unleash the Light, Sonic Racing, and Pac-Man Party Royale have had infrequent update schedules, going months without bug fixes or new additions with fans begging developers in the reviews for more content. For a service that’s supposed to be about pushing boundaries with mobile games and providing as much as possible for a low price, you’d think that developers would want to keep their games relevant in order to get new players to stay engaged as long as possible, but apparently not.
While Apple has been consistent with making new games available in a timely manner, sometimes the games released aren’t 100% complete. The most recent example of this is with World’s End Club, the latest game from Zero Escape creator Kotaro Uchikoshi and Danganronpa creative director Kazutaka Kodaka. Days before the game’s launch, Uchikoshi tweeted that the Apple Arcade release will be left on a cliffhanger ending, with the complete version of the game being released for the Switch next Spring. This also happened with Shantae and the Seven Sirens, with the first half of the game being available at launch and the second half being available two months before its release on consoles and PC.
Per Apple Arcade’s terms, games that are released on the service aren’t exclusive in the sense that they can be released on other consoles. However, they can’t be released on other mobile operating systems like Android, or be a part of other subscription services like Xbox Game Pass (it’s worth mentioning that many games on Apple Arcade are multi-platform). One of the possible reasons that releases are segmented like this could be the revenue model of the service; whereas Google’s Play Pass pays developers based on engagement, what’s publicly known is that Apple signs contracts and pays for development costs upfront, with more funding being trickled down every time milestones are hit.
From this, it’s entirely possible to assume that developers will try to have as much of their costs covered by Apple as possible, and from there invest more money into finishing a game and releasing it on other consoles in order to turn more of a profit. How revenue share is split isn’t exactly known, although it’s possible that Apple will explore an engagement-based approach like Google.
While it’s understandable that developers don’t want to limit themselves to just a subscription service, and want to get as much reach as possible, only releasing parts of a game and passing them off as complete devalues the platform to a glorified demo service, something that shouldn’t have a monthly charge attached to it. I’m not blaming developers for doing this, as game development is sink-or-swim, but if Apple wants their service to seem as approachable as possible then they’ll need a way to keep developers and players on for the long run. You can’t just throw money at something and expect it to work, which is what we’ve seen with Stadia.
Engagement also might be something that Apple Arcade is struggling with, and it’s possible that developers are feeling the heat as a result. In a Bloomberg article published in June, it was reported that Apple allegedly canceled multiple contracts for games that were in development over concerns that they wouldn’t be engaging enough, shifting their strategy as a result. They’ve also offered a second free trial to those who canceled after the initial first month. To some, this was a sign that Apple Arcade isn’t retaining as many subscribers as they would like, and the concern that a live-service approach would take course over unique indie titles is a valid one.
In a way, this makes sense. Of course you want to keep your subscribers coming back by providing worthwhile games (Grindstone being the noted example here), but not every player is the same. Some of the most successful games on iOS are free-to-start, so it can be a tough pill to swallow for those that aren’t power users and aren’t used to spending money on mobile games. Walking that fine line between providing diverse games and games that’ll prove that Apple Arcade is sustainable is difficult, but I think that if Apple actually collaborated with developers as opposed to throwing money at anything and expecting good results, people would be more likely to stay subscribed.
This isn’t to say that Apple Arcade is doomed or doesn’t have good games in the slightest. Some of my favorite mobile games are on the service. It just requires some trial and error to find what works for you, and there are still promising titles from industry titans like Hironobu Sakaguchi and Will Wright in the works. Legendary creators and companies wouldn’t have worked with Apple if they didn’t see promise in the service, and it’s only been a year, so there’s plenty of room for improvement. We’ll just have to wait and see if anything gets announced at Apple’s press conference on Tuesday.
In the meantime, stop what you’re doing and go play Sayonara Wild Hearts right now.
Featured image and all other images courtesy of Apple.