apple arcade and unidentified indie games

LeeRoy Lewin
Oct 3 · 12 min read

mise en scene: apple arcade releases. there’s like a hundred fucking games on there. i just signed up for the trial to count them. as of 10/2/2019 there’s 73 games. more on the way. a common point i agree with, common as in one many many people have expressed, is that this kind of content faucet is not sustainable. yet i wanna pose real quick: there is no meaningful difference between the apple arcade and the apple store except as both a gimmick and a funding scheme (that is to say, selling games at a price range of $1–8 dollars also isn’t sustainable). when i go into the arcade the algo tries to “guess” which games i would like and they’re all games i wouldn’t normally play. they’re dripping with some prospective consumer who plays an indie game as some weird penance ritual so they can tell themselves they support indie devs and/or represent publishers who are just deep enough to grease the wheels. just like the apple store proper!

here’s my fantasy of how someone gets on the apple arcade. first a developer, beautiful and fresh faced, enrolls in the united states institute of technology*’s budding gamedev track (*this is meant to be a fake university if there ever is a real one that has this name all i have to say is lol what the fuck). one class that leaves an impression on them is taught by some washed up producer-turned-game-design-professor who continually references daniel remar’s games in all of his lectures for some reason (nice) and teaches them how iji and hero core are good, but could be better. with this newfound knowledge our byronic developer goes on to make a crunchy pixel game called dank slasher that, i dunno, that plays like a combination of dark souls and hyper life drifter. it has this really cute as fuck wolf petting animation for awolf pal that follows the protagonist around which gets posted on the “can you pet the dog?” twitter and becomes an overnight sensation. devolver gets in touch with them to publish the game with all that shit more or less out of the dev’s hands the game eventually ends up on the apple arcade because of some agreement between apple and devolver that i will never be privy to know. and of course the game is really good and is probably the greatest top down version of dark souls on the market so i can’t rightly criticize the situation. or can i…?

the apple arcade is this ugly tourniquet on the fading speculative “creative” value that the apple app store once claimed to have. f2p muscled out quality paid apps by techie spartans like balloon puzzle games and paper plane simulators. apple wants you to feel like it’s still a place for those REAL GAMES you may or may not remember to generate good will and maybe distract from the fact that they make absurd bank on predatory monetization. so yeah, enter apple arcade, a shit load of games that parse as “indie game” that you can take home to your parents, or at least show off to another person and not feel embarrassed. supposedly. i’m projecting a little bit there but there’s a calculated, opportunistic edge to these games. nothing weird; nothing that interrogates or spars with the way that videogames have more and more embraced their priority #1 of being ego stroking commodities. of course i only scrolled through the games but i’m pretty confident my smartassery is more or less accurate. it’s most important that this mass of games represents a kind of boutique quality that apple pretends to associate with all their products. they want to project “quality.” i predict eventually the fad will pass and the funds will dry up as the apple arcade also fills up with indistinguishable hope containers. just like the switch store, just like steam, just like any online distribution that people can’t sort through and ultimately bemoan. most likely the “non-quality” weirdo games that consciously or not poke at the ego-serving contract will start to trickle in and have a hand at ruining the platform’s reputation. quaintly just in time for a new shiny platform to debut, like say a yellow game boy that lets you churn your own gamer piss with a cute little hand crank.

microsoft paid money for exclusive indie games to pad out the speculative value of xbox live arcade; valve paid money for exclusive indie games to pad out the speculative value of steam; apple paid money for exclusive indie games to pad out the speculative value of their app store then and now; epic is in the process of paying money non-indiscriminately to devs at any pay scale for indeterminate speculative value for EGS. it won’t end and it’s not beginning. i understand that people are worried about a spotify corroding the margins so bad that nobody can make a living in games. i feel like it’s more likely (and still yet unlikely because everyone at the top level of games is a buffoon) that we get a new netflix or netflix adjacent. in short terms, lots of contracts that pay less that look like lots of good stuff happening. and a good chunk of the tv industry does feel like good things are happening. pros and cons. i don’t give a shit. it doesn’t feel that different to what’s happening in indie games. platforms are more or less agnostic; indie devs need to land those sweet publisher contracts and they’ll get on the relevant platforms anyway. subscription/streaming services suck ass but i find it hard to believe that money will suddenly stop trading hands at the publisher level.

well, a new platform has a few things going for it (read that in a silly voice of your choice). like, the fact that it’s new. that’s circular but “newness” is the number one thing traded online. that’s why youtubers have to make shit every day or every week; that’s why gaming outlets “have to” cover a fucking ugly, gaudy, transparent fast food videogame tie-in; that’s why fortnite updates every week; that’s why i’m writing about a contemporary topic in no uncertain terms. nothing makes you feel like you’re “there” like a bunch of artificial signs of being current and contemporary. a by-product of a new platform is its smallish library. i can scroll through and count all the games on the apple arcade. the only reason i would do that on the app store proper is if i was experiencing a mental breakdown (as the person closest to me during my mental breakdowns i would like to emphasize that counting every single game on the app store by hand would be on brand). like going to [store] as a child and looking at all the game boxes, i get the impression that people desperately want to see new games at a “comprehendible” scale. they want a tidy narrative to bolster “being into games.” even though games have basically never been produced at a comprehensible scale since 1977. still, that’s why people even read kotaku et al. they wanna know what 2–5 games are worth playing. 2–5 is the sweet spot of games discourse. in videogames you get 12 people all writing about one game instead of 12 different games. personally i like plunging into the unknown and the nearby. i don’t know what people are afraid of. if you spend any or enough time on twitter, pretty much nothing kotaku et al comes up with is surprising or particular. almost as if their job is to just to translate social media to people who aren’t there or otherwise make others feel affirmed by having their own world regurgitated back to them. people want stuff to be already be known and just far enough away to not feel too responsible for it, or get too invested in it. maybe. on some level.

the “content curator” as a general and increasingly important role of a [game] critic is something tons of pubs are invested into in varying degrees, yet I believe that few people are truly serious about it, and fewer still put effort on the audience side to make it work. and legitimately all of these storefronts’ inability to subdivide and to specialize is a real problem of absurd scale that hasn’t been solved on the sales side. but launching with a soup of close to a hundred games that audits itself down to 25 depending on some hidden user profile is a pretty shitty solution. basically what i’m saying here is that if open discovery and mutual sharing of games doesn’t work — if there’s no organic community that’s invested in games regardless of the hype and what it says to be part of that hype — we’re going to get these fucking algorithms instead. i mean, it’s already happening.

every fucking suit in games wants to create “the videogame netflix.” this is not an idle threat. netflix sucks for a lot of reasons. notable is the way they connive to pay employees less by having shows only run two seasons to circumvent union rules. they also skimp on royalties. netflix will sign for digital exclusive rights for tons of stuff and then later they quietly kill the show cause its views lowered by 10% or whatever. i’m exaggerating to make them look more boring and evil. because they are. thank god for piracy. on the other hand (again silly voice) people claim tv is going through some kind of renaissance and this is backed up by people in the industry. i’m too lazy to link the article i read. i don’t understand what a tv renaissance is or what it looks like but apparently it’s 5 different tv subscriptions all with their own (or multiple) takes on People’s Choice Awarded television series Supernatural. granted tv has never really been about that artistic integrity. i don’t want games to be like tv. seriously though, try convincing any normal person not to use netflix. this could include normal people reading this who also use netflix. impossible. netflix won the culture war. i mean what the fuck are the options anyway. you either subscribe to netflix or you subscribe to a vpn.

anyway i hope by now everyone understands that i think streaming sucks (i have a vpn for the record) and i think these corporations don’t actually care about indie games they just care about how they look if they cared about indie games. but i think the alarmism that has cropped up is either too late or totally misplaced, depending on how charitably you’re reading this. playstation plus, sony’s scheme to get people to finally pay a lot extra for the privilege to get their credit card info stolen every other year, succeeded partially because it was a game subscription service. it launched a full decade ago and i’m pretty certain it had little to no fundamental impact on how games are developed. microsoft followed in 2013 with “games with gold” (genius). more recently you can also subscribe to humble monthly (2015) and twitch.tv’s (amazon’s) “games with prime” (GENIUS) (2016). discord even tried this shit too but quietly cancelled it because nobody played the games (lmao… fuck…).

now there is a distinction between these services compared to the apple arcade in that they want you to be “there” every month and download the games, & that they’re perks or additions to some other service (which honestly makes me feel like those other services are a bit more scummy ’cause the quiet part about game disposability is coming out loud). the apple arcade is truly a netflix style free-for-all. i see these as pointing at different targets; they’re different retention strategies. ultimately they’re still subscription style shit. apple arcade costs just as much a year as ps+. i don’t even know what’s supposed to be novel about the apple arcade yet people are fawning over it. like, every kind or type of game in the arcade was available outside of the arcade (this is kind of a monkey’s paw comment… but you gotta admit that it’s funny apple’s “prestige value” attempted by all this is inert. it’s just a fucking marketing gimmick). i guess that’s just how it is for any tech giant.

the corollary to “nothing novel about apple arcade” is that i cannot at all see it being a destablizing force. i’m prepared to eat shit if making money off of videogames somehow gets worse because it’s already pretty fucking bad. but okay, it’s time to admit that i’ve written 2k words because of exactly one tweet i read. it’s this one:

the absurdity of twitter meets the absurdity of the “cool indie.” there are only 17 indie games in existence. “are we okay with that?”

granted i acknowledge that this tweet is reacting to google play subscription but either app store ALREADY pays out based on playtime. what the fuck else are all the absurd (i’ve seen months long) timers put into the hell world building/tactics social games, the weekly updates in any and all f2p games, loot box/gacha mechanics, and so much other stuff that hardwired to retain players and to specifically keep them playing one single game. arguably a primary objective of these subscription services is to curate an experience diametrically opposed (on the surface at least) to f2p practices, again, to stave off well-minded criticism of how fucking bad those games can get and how awful it is to attempt to compete with them. (wanna note that google being unable to distinguish their service from their store properly and on top of that isn’t bothering to integrate stadia into the plan at all kinda points to me that they’re just going to fall on their ass). even the most expensive huge-as-fuck cultural event “single player experiences” like red dead redemption 2 also has some surreal-hell cowboy second life online mode that has a real money economy that i’m pretty sure only a dozen people play. but it doesn’t matter how many play the game, it only matters that they play often and long enough to spend a thousand dollars on it. when a suit does an interview that includes some asinine claim along the lines of “single player is dead” what they really mean is that being sad about a player character’s dead wife does not move money around as fast as paying for and collecting as many wives as possible. there is no comprehensible way for a “single player game” to compete with that scale of wealth scalping. so taking the tweet literally, none of those games “should” exist, and yet they already do (possibly soon to be featured on apple arcade). (i have to also point out that a certain developer in that list owes their success to the app store…)

the goose game is hanging out with the rest of the (recent) indie game canon in that i’m-not-sure-how-sincere-it-is-tweet despite it being a week old. discussions about the goose game have a weird bent to them. the most fair way to describe it is “winner-takes-all” as contextualized in this thread. i don’t know any gamedevs that don’t work hard. so like what, as a mirror to a game’s success, i earned my year long mental breakdown because i practically failed at being an indie dev? guess i should’ve made a meme game. like, of fucking course the goose game and many similar games are going to continue to exist. regardless if they sell. i love to see an artist thriving (as long as they’re not a piece of shit). but my love of games never came from the money i could have made. it’s intensely frustrating to see people nodding along with some puerile anti-fact that without big payout profit motives, videogames wouldn’t exist anymore. what the fuck are videogames for again? funding notch’s candy mansion?

house house made a really good game. i’m saying that sincerely. and just like 10 years ago, just like 20 years ago, it seems to me the people who decide what a really good game is, are taking for granted what it means to make a really good game. i mean yes i’m totally going “it’s not what you’re saying it’s how you’re saying it” but we desperately need a collective game history that goes back farther than 5 years. i don’t think really good games are rare or are in low supply, but when i read other people talk about the newest thing people get really close to saying that. every month. about whatever new game is currently trending on social media. as if last month’s zeigeist never really happened. i can’t keep up or comprehend the perpetual present. there’s a clear pattern of whatever latest meme-game getting praised for, and often becoming the sole representative of, stuff that is overflowing in videogames. i don’t want us to clutch pearls over what games have already done. i want us to expand the ground we stand on, to incorporate voices that normally go unheard, and to shed light on things that normally go unseen.

i’m scrolling through the apple arcade and at least half of them have the pastel-emulating low-poly thing going on. and yeah, you even get to play as an animal in some of them. can’t process or identify with any of them. a furtive sea of unidentified indie games. i’m canceling my free trial of apple arcade now. if i can’t pay fucking $5 for a game i have the common decency to just pirate it

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