Many a trend has come and passed in the 8 years I’ve been working mobile gaming, some good, others bad. Mostly the latter. Arcade is Apple’s attempt to fix the model that led to the current free-to-play race to the bottom which they, at least indirectly, helped create. And it’s a darn good effort right out of the gate.
I’ve been using Apple Arcade, mostly on my iPhone6s and AppleTV, in the past two weeks now and I’m glad to admit the experience has surpassed any of my initial expectations.
After playing just the first two or three titles in close succession I had a strange feeling that I just couldn’t place. While the so-called core gameplay — meaning the action phase of the game, like matching blocks of the same color, racing cars or attacking an enemy base — was familiar, something felt off in what’s called the metagame part, or the way various elements of the game interact with each other with the goal of 1)giving players a sense of progression through steadily increasing complexity and 2)making them interact with the game as for as much as possible. Over the past several years, as mobile games became predominantly free-to-play, the design of said games evolved with the purpose of serving the business model to the point where the consumer’s subconscious has been trained to expect his progress be slowed or altogether halted by one system or another that’s meant to make her spend money, not unlike in Dr. Pavlov’s research at the turn of the last century.
This psychological exploit is eerily absent from any Apple Arcade games along with aspects like loss aversion, the exploitation of restraint bias, post-purchase rationalizing, undue social pressure, intermediary currencies meant to mask the real-money cost of things or variable ration scheduling timers. Ironically, because the sole purpose of Arcade games is to provide their users with ‘fun’ without any hidden interest, the new products can be confusing for veteran mobile gamers at first. When playing a free-to-play title you’re always on the lookout for that pay wall, —restrictions meant to stop or slow your progression with the goal of forcing a payment from the user— to the point that it’s now become a soft goal for players’ subconscious. After the few hours of playtime my brain needed to rewire itself for the new reality I had an epiphany : ‘I don’t have to go back to the old ways’, shortly followed by another: ’$5/month is great value for what the service offers’.
With the exception of a few games that were ported from their old advertising or in-app purchase versions, most titles found in the Apple Arcade library were either purpose-built or were intended to be premium products that relied on up-front purchases for monetization. This gives the service an quality similar to what Nintendo had back in the days, with games that could be enjoyed equally much by every member of the family, in the days when parental control didn’t mean the same thing as it does today.
While Apple’s service is very good and promising to get better as more games launch in the future, it’s far from perfect.
When the service was initially announced boutique iOS developers reveled at the thought of getting infinitely better discovery for their premium games instead of battling it out in the open with big companies that offer their products for free and rely on microtransactions or in-game Advertising for profits. The reality is that even now, with only 100-odd games included in the service, finding games is not easy as easy as it should be since Apple doesn’t allow you to search inside Arcade itself. Categories, while somewhat helpful, are placed at the end of the page just before the black hole that is the ‘All Games’ library dump and depending on how many titles are in there it still takes a while to scroll through.
The two biggest AppleTV-specific upsets I encountered are related to graphics and controls. You wouldn’t notice any graphics-related issues in 95% of the games because most developers were conscious about their use of the available hardware, but a game like Hot Lava brought my Apple TV 4 to its knees, leaving me with early ’00s-levels of quality. The contrast between this experience and the others made me uninstall the game pretty fast.
A slightly bigger issue I’ve experienced with around 15% of the games was not the complete lack of controller support —I only remember seeing maybe 3 games without any controller support — but the lack of friendliness when using a connected controller. Trying to build anything in Mini Motorways or navigating the dungeon menu in Grindstone is a gruesome task when you’re stuck with moving a pointer on the screen with the analog sticks.
While it would be easy to blame any one game development company for the business model that led us into current current dark age of gaming, I can assure you that criticism is misplaced. Every artist, designer, programmer and sound engineer I’ve ever met would prefer to make games that aim to entertain first and foremost instead of constantly looking into new ways to, let’s say, increase a user’s lifetime value by a percentage point. Mobile gaming companies followed their users when pivoting to the free-to-play model and Apple enabled them by creating support for post-purchase transactions, after that the dynamics of the free market economy took over and made the environment increasingly more competitive. Economics drive the direction of the market ever since, the same way they drive any market in the realm of entertainment whether we like to admit it or not.
Apple hasn’t revealed the biz side of Apple Arcade, apart from saying developers were paid upfront, but we can deduce some revenue share scheme is in place, most likely based on some engagement metric like usage time, session length, the number of sessions or a combination of all. One thing’s for certain, the revenue taken home by developers from Apple Arcade will never come close to the glory days of free-to-play when the best of them made $4+ million on launch day, but it won’t matter. If consumers decide that the subscription model is a product that serves their interest best and are ready to spend their money there, gaming companies that want to survive the shift will have no choice but to follow their users wherever they go, just as they did multiple times before.
The biggest question now is ‘Where will BIG mobile game developers go from here?’ Most of them can’t instantly switch strategies and develop for Apple Arcade considering the talent currently working for most of these companies has strayed too much from making the style of games that Apple Arcade commands leaving them with no task-relevant competence. Will they create quasi-independent units and attack this new business model like a disruption? Or will the profits currently generated by the F2P model make them double down on it and ignore the trend altogether with potential catastrophic effects? My guess is most of them will wait and see in the short term, giving themselves time to assess the opportunity and the financials provided by the new medium. Also, they can afford to wait for now since there isn’t any known bonus or malus for when a company joins the ranks of Arcade but if this wave proves to be a true disruption, history tells us incumbents have only 18 months to launch a new product. That’s also about the minimum amount of time needed to develop such a game given a decent-sized studio, which makes it ever more interesting for us outsiders..
While the aspect of games quality appears to be settled judging from early impressions, things might get complicated later. If/when big developers join the fun and with the bar of developing mobile games lowering with every new version of Unity’s game engine, will Apple Arcade and other services like it in the future, become a huge library of good-not-great titles? Will it be overrun by products pretending to be moody, emotionally touching experiences when in actuality they’re just art house kitsch? I think this depends on how closely Apple mans that entry gateway with curation. I have no doubt that Apple is more than capable of creating a model that would be advantageous for both themselves and consumers but I do hope they continue to sponsor the crazy ones, indie developers who create original and innovative games that often become cult classics, even after the initial launch of the service. Sticking to games currently in the Editor’s Choice category would be a good start.
I really hope Apple Arcade prevails in this uphill battle of attracting users that have become convinced in past years that gaming on mobile is full of pay-to-win products that can’t be played unless they pay real money.
Each game I’ve played on Arcade so far has its own special thing, some are character-driven, others have original storytelling while most of them have compelling mechanics. No stressful timers, no gambling, no ads, no packs, just pure entertainment. Here are some of my favorites thus far:
- Assemble With Care- a game from UsTwo, the company that made Monument Valley, tells the story of a traveling ‘restorer’ that finds joy in ‘bringing beloved possessions back to life’. While the objective of the game is to fix other people’s things, the point is not to make the activity hard, but to make the journey as pleasant and immersive as possible. The hand-drawn look of the graphics, the high-quality sound design and the voiced-over storytelling make the entire adventure more akin to a book than a game, one that you’ll struggle to put down before the half hour mark. The game is best played on and touch device.
- Grindstone is by far the game I’ve played the most by any metric. The action phase is a match-three game but wrapped in a dungeon crawler skin with a few, rarely-used, items that hint towards an RPG experience but don’t quite deliver. It’s more of a strategy game in the sense that once in a level your main mission is to find the most optimal way to get to the end of the dungeon alive. Unexpectedly addictive and rewarding with short gameplay sessions if you need them to be.
- Mini Motorways is a city builder optimistically advertised in Apple’s ‘Strategy’ category. The mission is to build roads that connect various interest points and evolve them as you go further in a city that grows buildings in the most uncomfortable of places. There are global leader boards for players who lasted the most before hitting the dreaded gridlock but competitiveness is obviously a side-thought. A touchscreen device is a must and set aside a minimum of 15 minutes for a session.
- Cricket Through the Ages is Arcade’s 2019 version of QWOP where you tap what feels like mindlessly in order to make the characters on the screen move around and decimate your opponent. The cricket metaphor is meant to be satirical, few things in the game have anything to do with cricket and there’s no real objective. Fun to play in 3-minute sessions.
- At the other end of the spectrum sits Bleak Sword. If you’re the kind of person who expects their games to inflict pain upon them, you’ll like this. In the game you control a tiny character in battles that are Dark Souls-level in terms of skills and death is not looked upon with kind eyes. Very intense rounds despite the fact that most of them take less than 1–2 minutes.