Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Apple is disappointed in the performance of Apple Arcade and will be shifting their approach to the service by focusing on games that can retain subscribers and canceling other upcoming releases that don't fit this new vision.
Honestly, the only surprising thing about this news in my mind is the timing. Apple Arcade hasn't even been live for a year, and half of its existence has been admist a global pandemic, mass unemployment, and burgeoning civil unrest. If Apple was confident about its approach to its new games service, I would've thought they'd give it a little more time and leeway before shifting their approach.
I have been enjoying Apple Arcade and have been a loyal subscriber since it launched back in September. I've even given each game on the service a fair shake. But there's no denying that the service hasn't lived up to its promises.
Pitched as a service to provide curated, high-quality, exclusive games, Apple Arcade launched with an overwhelming number of titles of varying levels of quality, many of which you can now play elsewhere without paying a subscription. Since then, there's been an anemic dripfeed of new releases, and only a tiny selection of those have been standout experiences.
Apple hasn't exactly been doing much to prop up their fledgling service, either. There is almost zero promotion in the lead up of new releases, and many new titles feel rushed to market, either because they have a variety of technical problems, launch as the "first chapter" to be continued at a later date, or both. Considering all this, it's no wonder Apple Arcade is struggling to maintain subscribers. Despite its noble vision to provide a space for smaller mobile games to flourish, Apple Arcade can't sustain itself on good intentions alone. It needs to be a better product, and it needs quality support.
To have a successful subscription service in the ever more crowded marketplace of subscription services, you either need to convince people that you have either the very best and most exclusive things on your platform, or everything they could possibly want. Apple said they wanted to do the former with Arcade, but they've never demonstrated any real commitment to that sentiment. Games that were clearly designed with free-to-play monetization in mind were thrown onto the platform at launch, and the big names they attracted to the service have released experiences that are mostly derivative.
The end result is still a walled garden, but one with walls that were built haphazardly and with little regard for the initial blueprint. To be fair, there are some great games that are part of Apple Arcade, but they are in short supply. With little direction or promotion from Apple, it's also extremely easy to overlook these titles and end up trying out games on the service that are suboptimal experiences.
Even if you do find some standouts to play, they hardly feel worth paying for every month, especially when you can find better games on the regular old App Store without much effort. The Editor's Choice and New Games We Love sections are far from perfect, but they offer a higher proportion of quality titles than Apple Arcade on any given day. Considering this, it's no wonder subscribers are dropping off the service. It's almost like Apple Arcade was specifically designed to drive people away from it.
Since launch, Apple Arcade has simply not done what it set out to do. People don't want to pay for a library of hundreds of mobile games to pick through. If they did, the App Store wouldn't be the free-to-play nightmare that prompted the inception of Apple Arcade to begin with. Now, with Arcade's shift toward titles that focus on player "engagement," it seems like they're moving toward recreating the problem they set out to solve, and it's all because they didn't focus on their pitch of making a game service full of special experiences.
In the end, that's really the problem. Subscription services survive by feeling like they offer you something you can't get anywhere else. Whether it's through big-budget programming, highly marketable IP, or sheer breadth and depth of content, there's got to be some hook that makes you feel like you need to keep paying for it. Apple Arcade offers none of these things, and it does so in a game space that most players are unwilling to pay for.
I guess we'll just have to wait and see how Apple's shift in approach pans out. I'd actually be interested in playing more games that update regularly and provide more hooks to keep playing them, provided it's done right. It's just hard to imagine what that looks like, especially since there's little reason to believe Apple can execute on this new vision for Apple Arcade any better than they did on their original one.