Apple made a lot of waves from its special event this week. The announcement of Apple Arcade in particular, a subscription service that will deliver access to over 100 premium games starting this fall, sounds like a potential new step forward for gaming on mobile.
As great as this might sound though, there are lots of things Apple didn’t talk about as it relates to this new service. A lot of what Apple said yesterday may sound exciting, but I have my doubts about the service given what wasn’t covered in their presentation. There’s just too many unknowns, and—given Apple’s track record on games—I’m not sure Apple Arcade will seem all that great when we get the answers.
See below for some of the biggest mysteries looming over the announcement and my thoughts on why their absence has me worried about this service.
How much does this cost?
For the end consumer, this is definitely the biggest unknown coming out of the Apple event. How much is access to 100+ premium mobile games worth, and how much does Apple want us to pay for it?
It definitely seems like Apple is swinging for the fences in terms of game quality, as evidenced by their hand-picking of heavy hitting mobile devs like Snowman (Alto’s Odyssey) and ustwo (Monument Valley), not to mention some of the biggest names in all of video game history like Will Wright (Sim City) and Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy).
On top of game quality, Apple is promising offline access to all their titles, no in-app purchases or ads, and—perhaps most interestingly—full controller support for many of the titles offered. Given all of this (plus Apple’s penchant for billing and selling everything it does at an ultra-premium price point) I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple Arcade costs more than existing game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass.
These games are all exclusive, after all, and Apple wants to make money (more on that later), plus it needs to be worth the effort for developers to come to the service (also, more on that later). With all of these factors at play, I'd be surprised if Apple Arcade didn't cost a pretty penny.
How are developers being paid?
Another big question around Apple Arcade is how, exactly, developers can expect to make money using the platform? Given how many other digital storefronts like the Epic Launcher have been going out of their way to publicly court developers with a competitive revenue-sharing split, Apple’s silence on this matter is worrisome.
I have a feeling that the first wave of developers on the platform are being well-compensated for taking on the risk of being locked into a brand new subscription service. I can’t necessarily think of another good reason why Apple was able to get so many top tier developers on board. It’s certainly not because those developers believe in the App Store or mobile gaming as it currently stands, because otherwise a thing like Apple Arcade wouldn’t need to exist.
There’s been some speculation that the answer to this question will involve Apple paying developers based on the amount of time players spend playing their games, but I can’t see that being a good business model in the long-run. First, this would be a similar model to music streaming services like Spotify, and I can’t imagine a developer looking at how artists in the music industry are compensated today and saying “give me some of that.” Secondly, this model would reward Apple Arcade developers to create games that actively demand and compete for your attention for as long as possible, which is exactly the same kind of competitive structure that has led to the current state of mobile gaming on the App Store. In other words, this would not fix the problem that Apple claims they're trying fix with Arcade.
Unless Apple can come up with a solid way for developers to be paid to sign on and stay on with Apple Arcade, I’m not sure the service has a bright future.
How is access handled?
The lineup that Apple has pulled together for the launch of Apple Arcade is certainly impressive, but how will Apple continue to bring on developers and their games to the platform? Will Apple continue to approach and onboard developers with a lot of name recognition, and will there be space in this process to support smaller, lesser known creators on platform if they wish to take part?
Apple Arcade is essentially a new crack at the “walled garden” approach they took in the early stages of the App Store. This ensures that there will be a high baseline of quality (and attention paid) across Apple Arcade’s offerings, but it also gives Apple an incredible amount of control over these games, the people that make them, and who gets to benefit from this service. Moreover, having these games offered through a subscription adds an additional barrier to access, making editorial coverage of them harder than ever.
“Why is editorial coverage of mobile important?” you might ask. Well, I may be a bit of a biased source, but it’s a large reason why some mobile developers have ascended to stardom and continue to exist today. Having teams of enthusiast press explore the App Store to pluck out gems from a constant torrent of new games is the way that folks like Luca Redwood (10000000, You Must Build a Boat) and Rocketcat Games (Wayward Souls, Death Road to Canada) made names for themselves as quality developers of mobile games. This kind of editorial coverage may not feel necessary for the 100+ games that launch on Apple Arcade, but it will be important for helping bridge the gap for new creators to use and benefit from the service as it grows.
While it's true that Apple does have its own editorial staff, their team has never done a good job of discovering new quality games and creators on the App Store, so there’s no reason to think that Apple Arcade will change. That is, unless Apple decides to put together an editorial staff that is actually good or they create an accessible pathway for new and diverse creators to approach the platform. Given the initial slate of games announced though, it's unclear whether Apple intends to do this at all, or if the plan is just to continue mining big name developers to put games on the platform, which would be ok, I guess, but not terribly interesting (not to mention potentially damaging to the longevity of the service!).
What reason do we have to trust Apple?
Until the announcement of Apple Arcade, Apple has barely recognized that games even exist on their store. They’ve just been quietly raking in money and otherwise not really doing much to cultivate a space for developers to thrive (or even persist) using their platform.
In fact, Apple is largely responsible for all of the problems with mobile gaming today. They’ve created an ecosystem where the most effective and sustainable way to make real money and continue existing is to put out games that are essentially flashy, gamified storefronts instead of meaningful interactive experiences. This is partially because of the App Store becoming a “race to the bottom” as consumers became less and less willing to pay for mobile software, but just as much to blame is Apple’s complete lack of support for mobile devs when it comes to ensuring support for their games with new iOS updates and hardware releases.
Because of Apple’s frequent updates to everything in its ecosystem (including policies, not just software and hardware), there’s just not much of a sustainable way for a developer to create a “pay once and play” experience without having to end up investing a lot of time, effort, and money just to keep that game up on Apple’s storefront post-release. Given this, it's no wonder that many devs have turned to building experiences designed to earn money (through ads, IAPs, or both) over time in order to offset the cost of keeping their game up-to-date with Apple's ever-changing requirements. This isn’t just true of games, either. You can see a lot of mobile apps shifting toward subscription models specifically because of this issue as well, and it makes for an environment that ultimately doesn’t feel friendly to developers or consumers.
I realize that Apple’s promise of Arcade is that it will solve the problem of games becoming glorified stores or ad-ridden nightmares, but I don’t know if Apple is aware of or willing to confront the fact that actually committing to this vision is going to take more than just cherry-picking games to plop behind a paywall and waiting for the money to come in.
Is this sustainable?
The hardest question to answer about Apple Arcade is around its sustainability. This is because the answer to Arcade’s longevity depends heavily on the answers to the questions above.
It’s all a bit of a domino effect. If Arcade is too expensive (which it likely will be for the majority of the current mobile game audience), the whole service could be dead on arrival. The lack of a large, dedicated subscriber base for these games would probably mean paltry returns for developers and little incentive for Apple to try to keep or court new ones. And–given what we know about Apple’s history with how they’ve handled and supported games on their marketplace–I’m not sure why anyone is ready to trust that they’ll be able to handle this potential reality well at all.
Unless Apple gives some really solid answers to all of the lingering questions around Apple Arcade, it’s hard to see why anyone should be excited about it yet. The service definitely has the potential to create a new golden era of mobile gaming on iOS, but only if Apple actually dedicates itself to creating a welcoming environment for creators and players alike. It takes more than a simple paywall to do that, but for the time being, that's really all they've promised.