We pick apart Apple’s new gaming service
Apple’s keynote event was packed with surprises – we didn’t expect the company to create its own credit card, put it that way – but the Apple Arcade announcement was less of a shock. Rumours had been circulating for some time that the company was working on a gaming-based subscription service, so when the reveal finally came, it was something of an anti-climax – especially after all of the noise surrounding Google’s potentially groundbreaking Stadia platform, which offers game streaming on virtually any internet-ready device.
Apple’s approach is more subtle, and typically Apple. It will charge a monthly sub to gain access to a range of curated games which will be free from ads and packed with content. The aim is to raise the bar of quality for smartphone gaming, which, in recent years, has been plagued by in-app purchases, low attach rates and shallow gameplay.
On the surface, it’s a great move – and the developers signed up to support the service clearly feel the same way. Turing the reveal trailer, Apple rolled out heavyweights like Charles Cecil, creator of Beneath a Steel Sky, who confirmed that the game’s sequel – Beyond a Steel Sky – would be coming to Apple Arcade. Hironobu Sakaguchi – creator of Final Fantasy and one of the most famous game designers in the world – was also shown in the clip. In addition to this, Apple has confirmed that the likes of Konami, Sega, Lego and Annapurna Interactive are all making games which will be available on Apple Arcade.
There’s lots to like about this service. The way it seamlessly connects all of your iOS devices is a cool feature, allowing you to play a game on your phone and then move over to your iPad, retaining all of your progress. We also like the way it will reward developers for creating deep and meaningful experiences, which should prove to be just the tonic if you’re fed up of the shallow puzzle titles that currently flood the App Store.
Will Apple Arcade change the gaming landscape, as Stadia is threatening to do? Not likely. For starters, it’s perhaps aimed at the wrong market; smartphone gamers are usually casual buyers who don’t mind in-game ads so long as they’re getting their entertainment for free. With such a low barrier to entry already in place, can Apple really hope to tempt these same people over with a monthly subscription? Most will ignore Apple Arcade and keep playing Candy Crush and Angry Birds, games which are totally free to download.
The other issue is that it’s already suspected that many of the games on Apple Arcade won’t be entirely exclusive to the service, so you’ll be able to play them on other platforms. Given that the iPhone and iPad only offer touch-based input, there’s a good chance that other systems – such as Switch, which is likely to share some of the same games – will offer a more pleasurable interface experience. The lack of physical controls on iOS will also limit the kind of games that are possible on Apple Arcade – and that means that ‘hardcore’ gamers (those who often make-or-break a game thanks to their feverish support) are unlikely to take out a subscription.
Taking all of this into account, it’s perhaps unwise to expect Apple Arcade to change the gaming landscape overnight. But that’s not to say it can’t be a positive force; developers could be emboldened to try new things with the platform in the knowledge that they will at least get some financial reward for their efforts (many smartphone games sink without trace when released on the standard App Store and Google Play). That alone means that we could see a higher standard of gaming on iOS, which is a good thing.
Apple Arcade also shows that the company is serious about ‘draining the swamp’ when it comes to the elements which make gaming on your phone and tablet so annoying; constant interruptions for ads, the need to buy in-game currency to get anywhere, that kind of thing. The service will at least offer a more ‘pure’ gaming environment, and if you’re already a big consumer of games on Apple’s platform, then it’s an attractive play. You’ll not only be getting better games, you’ll be avoiding some of the more annoying drawbacks of gaming on the go.
Ultimately, Apple Arcade feels like another sub to add to what we suspect will be a ‘universal’ subscription service from Apple, which rolls together music, TV, movies and games in one single payment each month. With Apple Music and Apple TV+ already out there, it’s easy to see the company offering its customers an all-in-one sub for a moderate discount.
Whatever happens, we’re keen to see Apple Arcade flourish and grow, but we’re not expecting Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft or Google to be scared.
Damien McFerran has been covering phones and mobile technology for well over a decade. An Android specialist, as well as an expert reviewer of phones, Damien is one of the best technology journalists working today. He is also editorial director over at the excellent Nintendo Life.