I’m in the middle of playing Gears 5, on PC, via Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for $2 USD. This has to be the pinnacle of gaming value, right?
As of today? Probably. However, Apple Arcade is fascinating. I think it was the most interesting part of the September 2019 Apple Event.
Pocket God of War
When my friend’s dad had the first iPhone among a sea of Blackberry’s, you could tell this thing was going to be something special. A few years later passed and the iPhone 4 launch (2010) cemented the iPhone’s place in everyday life.
Between those two launches, the App Store was released, and with more than a few games alongside it. One of those massively popular titles was Pocket God, released over 10 years ago.
Full of little easter eggs and showcasing the impressive touch screen of the iPhone, this game was helped lead the charge of the mobile games industry.
Then came the heavy hitters… Plants vs. Zombies, Temple Run, Flappy Bird, Tiny Tower, Fallout Shelter, and more. However, each release and blockbuster brought increasingly aggressive monetization practices with them.
The reality: nearly every other app was free, so why would the everyday user make an exception for games? Introduce time-wasting as a service (TWaaS).
Developers pour their passion, time and effort into crafting excellent games, but are ultimately held back by the before-mentioned reality.
Do they go the Square Enix route and create great remasters for $10 USD? Do they go the Epic Games route and create cross platform games with AAA style microtransactions? Or, do they follow time-gated formulas that define freemium game design?
These are difficult questions surrounded by a seemingly, impenetrable reality… except Apple might be able to break it. In fact, they’ve already been hinting at this.
Hints For The Future
The 2018 iPad Pro reveal event included a significant gaming segment. Whilst talking about the new processor (A12X Bionic), Apple claimed that the iPad Pro’s GPU matched Xbox One S performance, with a 94% smaller footprint (…and 267% higher cost, but it’s portable, has a screen, etc., so we will let that one slide).
A month prior, Apple invited Todd Howard of Bethesda Game Studios on stage, to showcase The Elder Scrolls: Blades, which was presented much like a game would be at E3. It included impressive graphics for mobile, but also hinted at what AAA-style mobile development was capable of.
This summer, Apple announced Xbox One and PS4 controller compatability at WWDC 2019. iOS 13, and the newly branched iPadOS, began to show signs of encroaching on macOS territory. Mouse support, cross application support, and powerful processors indicate that the iPad and iOS devices are ready to game.
Since I apparently dislike chronological ordering, Apple Arcade was announced at the Apple TV event in March, but the true reveal was slated for Fall 2019.
Well, here we are. The reveal is over and there’s quite (the American quite) a few things to look at.
Going To The Arcade
Let’s start with what matters to most people. Apple Arcade will cost $5 USD per month, with the ability to have up to five people on a family subscription.
Didn’t expect that, did you? Truthfully, neither did I.
You get 100+ games, with 50+ already announced, as well as some exclusives.
Hate it or love it, but exclusives can help differentiate platforms and are often fueled with substantial first party support. Should pre-existing franchises have direct sequels become exclusives? Probably not, but I would not be too worried about this becoming a trend.
Touch devices require vastly different inputs and capture usually different audiences than your favorite PC and console franchise titles. I would not hold your breath on losing Diablo 4 to mobile (that’s why Immortal was so well-received).
Though, there is one massive feature that all gamers will appreciate.
Apple Arcade has one absolutely killer feature that no other gaming service has: no microtransactions or in-app purchases.
We Should Really Come Up With A Different Industry Term Than “Killer Feature”
In my opinion, this is THE killer feature. The mobile market has been dominated by freemium games and Apple stomped their foot directly on top of them.
For those who are unaware or would like a refresher: microtransactions are purchases, with real world money, in order to gain access to more content in the game.
On paper, this business model can be perfect. If all in-app purchases are purely cosmetic (i.e. your character having different clothing options), but the game is entirely free, then this is can be a good comprise between players and publishers.
However, freemium mobile games often time-gate and pay-wall content. This means that the player must pay or wait a certain period of time before they can access more levels in the game. Thus, the illusion of being free can be easily broken, and mobile franchises are not taken as seriously as their console/PC peers as a result.
The premise of Apple Arcade dismantles such transactions.
This may be a stretch, but I do not think this model is coincidental in the Tim-Cook-privacy era. Side note: I believe that this will go down as one of Tim Cook’s most important contributions as CEO.
Creating temporary email addresses with sign-in with Apple ID, endorsing DuckDuckGo as a search engine, choosing to share data with Apple Arcade developers, and… just not being a company whose business model is selling user data, all focus on a notorious privacy gap in the tech industry. Frankly, only Apple, Mozilla and Linux (or GNU+Linux, if you prefer) have been truly successful in this regard.
Apple’s Game of Thrones
That’s great and all, but what does this “killer feature” allow for?
The mobile games market has a significant advantage over every other gaming market: the users already own the hardware. This advantage is shared with the music, podcast, and video streaming industries.
Unlike those industries, mobile gaming has been artistically weighed down by its before-mentioned reality. With Apple Arcade, mobile games are able to assume the roles that their HBO and Netflix Originals brethren fill. By being taken off the freemium leash, developers can focus on making the mobile market thrive with art and purpose, not TWaaS (see definition above).
The streaming era has not only brought great convenience, but I’d argue that it’s brought great art. A bit of a confession here… I do not watch much TV or many movies. However, I can personally attest to the sheer fan numbers generated by great franchises and originals spawned by the streaming era.
This type of content liberation directly benefits the end consumer as well as the passionate artist.
Since the dawn of iOS games, I’ve heard time and time again, “I will not play it, unless it is FREE!” Okay, that is totally reasonable, but this mentality is what enables the mobile industry to remain in freemium deadlock.
This new type of market enables cinematic storytelling without having to worry about freemium tropes.
Perhaps, it could spawn a great game from the developers of Celeste. You favorite mobile games could have every feature and item earn-able in-game, rather than with purchases and time-gates. Nintendo could release a Super Mario game without the pitfalls of Super Mario Run. Sony or Microsoft could release spin-offs of huge AAA franchises without the freemium tax.
The possibilities are numerous for collaboration and birthing iOS as a “serious” gaming market.
Other Contributing Factors
With up to five people on a family plan, one subscription would keep children away from enticing in-app purchases while fully supporting screen time and parental controls. I am not a parent, so I will refrain from speaking on the subject at length, but these features are always nice-to-haves for my parenting coworkers.
What if your friends exclusively play free-to-play games like Fortnite? Why would they get Apple Arcade? Well, I think there’s actually a HUGE opportunity here to discount the battle pass and/or include exclusive skin(s) for a game like Fortnite.
I will also reiterate that this service does not require new hardware. Even Google Stadia requires you pay to rent the hardware AND buy the games.
Apple Arcade also supports cross-save across tvOS, iOS, iPadOS, and macOS, which I think is an indication that Apple TV could become a competitor in the home console market.
That’s not to say that it would compete with the upcoming PS5, Xbox Scarlett, or a gaming PC. Rather, Apple TV with Apple Arcade could persuade some casual players out of buying Google Stadia or the Nintendo Switch (now I see why the $200 USD Switch Lite was released).
With artistic bounds unlocked, there are already hints of what no-strings-attached mobile game developers can do. Beyond a Steel Sky looks like a full-fledged console game. There are many other example like this on Apple Arcade, but this blog post does not need to be much longer than it already is.
Finally, this move may prompt Google to re-imagine its presence in the mobile games market. For instance, Stadia has already birthed a first party development studio. With so many relationships and projects through Stadia, it would be difficult to not at least consider a similar model.
Like the title states, Apple Arcade could be the best deal in gaming.
I would say that the award should go to Xbox Game Pass, but for $5 USD per month, the everyday player, including some hardcore gamers, can all enjoy Apple Arcade.
I should also mention that Xbox Game Pass and Apple Arcade can co-exist. These services, at least at the moment, capture two mostly-to-vastly different audiences. I think Apple Arcade’s competitors include pre-existing freemium apps, Google Stadia, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft’s XCloud, and a potential Android Arcade.
It’ll be interesting to see how Apple Arcade fares when it launches on September 19th.
For the future of the service, here’s my guess: it might not happen right away, but it will be a massive success. Let’s see what happens.