Anyone who knows me will be tediously aware of how much time I’ve spent since September wading through the ocean of games on Apple Arcade, to the detriment of reading, side writing projects, interpersonal relationships etc. It’s a strange thing: playing a high-quality iOS game is fun, playing 10 of them is a chore, and playing 111 is a Sisyphean ordeal. Hashtag first-world problems, right?
Still, writing 77 reviews in five months hasn’t been enough to beat my initial admiration for Apple Arcade out of me. It’s a concept that is simultaneously brilliant and brave, striking as it does at the worst qualities of Apple’s own (immensely lucrative) App Store ecosystem and the user-bleeding freemium business model underpinning so much of it.
The material is good too. A glance at my ever-expanding ranking of the
best Apple Arcade games will give an idea of the quality of the roster: ChuChu Rocket! Universe is currently down at position 46 and yet my review is basically entirely positive. There are so many good games to choose from that something as solid as ChuChu can’t crack the top 40.
The problem – we’re in the fourth paragraph now, of course there’s a problem – is that most of the really excellent games arrived at the start. What The Golf, Bleak Sword, Grindstone, Card of Darkness, Shinsekai, Spaceland, Mutazione, Tangle Tower, Overland – that’s nine of the top 10 – were part of the original lineup. And more recent launches have been altogether less impressive.
Apple generally adds a new game to the roster each Friday, but last Friday (21 February) was an exception, with no new launches. Loud House, which came out on the 14th, is quite addictive but basically a remake of Flight Control from 2009; Charrua Soccer, from the 7th, is a genuinely fun football game afflicted by peculiar AI; Secret Oops!, which came out at the end of January, is ranked at 66.
A few classics have been added over the months: most notably Pilgrims (currently ranked 8), Pac-Man Party Royale (12) and No Way Home (16). But the first two came out in October, so we’re looking at one top-class game in the past four months. (To be fair it really is excellent, as my US colleague Leif has
discussed in some detail. Leif used to write a weekly column about the new games, but told me he’s going to save future columns for ones “that really stand out”.)
And I haven’t even started on the updates yet. A lot of the games launched with a minimal amount of content, and promises that more would follow soon; but Down In Bermuda, for example, still offers just two non-training islands all these months later. There are honourable exceptions – Tint started with a solid 50 levels, and has added numerous more – but Bermuda’s efforts are not untypical.
Is this a problem? After all, as we’ve already discussed, a new subscriber to Apple Arcade has at least 40 excellent games to choose from, and even those who signed up in September will be doing well if they’ve played all of those to death by now. (Some like Assemble With Care are consciously short experiences, but there are plenty more offering either a long-form story or a multiplayer mode with replay value.)
Well, yes it is. It’s a problem of perception, and one of value. People signed up on the understanding that Arcade was an ongoing concern – that whatever was available now, there would be far more of it to come. And they are now, understandably, disappointed, and many are ending their subscriptions. A narrative is forming: that Arcade has somehow failed; that it hasn’t delivered on its promises; that Apple must be struggling to get developers to release on this platform. That something is wrong. And this is despite the service still being fundamentally excellent value and a positive force for change.
This is particularly frustrating because there was so much at the start. We didn’t know what we had, and many of us (guilty!) splurged through as many games as we could try without making any of them last. As another colleague, the freelance writer Craig Grannell,
pointed out on Twitter, Apple could have started with a core of 40 games, instead of 70, and left itself with far more to add in future. There are also questions over whether the company is now rushing games that aren’t ready, or allowing through others that don’t meet earlier standards, just so it can maintain a reasonably steady output. I for one would prefer it to release less often, so that the ones we get are top-20 standard; the radio silence last Friday might just indicate that Apple is doing exactly that.
So okay: I still love Apple Arcade, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. But I do wish some decisions had been made differently. I wish the service had been less front-loaded. I also wish Apple didn’t make such a fuss about exclusivity, or games being new, since there are loads of established premium games that would suit Arcade down to the ground.
I’m also intrigued to find out what happens next. At some point (having long since passed the target number of 100 games) Apple will start to remove games from Arcade – at which point they will presumably drift back to the App Store, and assume a different and far less pleasing aspect.
How will Apple decide which games are cut adrift? If it bases this on pure gameplay time, doesn’t that incentivise exactly the sort of freemium tactics that Arcade is supposed to stand against? And if on the other hand it’s a measure of quality, how is this decided? (I would be happy, if any Apple employees are reading, to act as a consultant in this matter, in exchange for an extremely reasonable number of company shares.)
Finally, if a game proves far more commercially successful on the App Store than it was in Arcade, despite the presence of in-app purchases, adverts and other unpleasantness, will Apple have the conviction to keep Arcade going? Will it leave money on the table to do the right thing, or the thing that makes sense in the longer term? I hope so.
In the meantime, keep on enjoying those Arcade games, and let’s hope Apple has a few really top-notch releases up its sleeve. I’ll see you
every Friday (at noon, UK time) to find out.