For years, games for smartphones have broadly fit into one of two categories – either they were free-to-play, oftentimes packaged with obtrusive advertisements and microtransactions built into an experience designed to get you to fork over real money, or they were premium titles, requiring players to invest a nominal up-front fee. While the latter category usually offers more polished and fun titles, few smartphone users are willing to spend money in the App Store, making the former category substantially more profitable for developers. As a result, the number of premium games on offer for both Android and iOS devices has dwindled in recent years, and smartphone users looking to play video games on their devices are often left with titles that subtly encourage them to part with real money for in-game advantages. Looking to address this problem in the gaming environment on their devices, Apple announced the subscription service Apple Arcade, which for $4.99 per month provides iOS users with a selection of high-quality, ad-free mobile games with no microtransactions present.
The service, which launched just a few days ago, is already being praised by media outlets for offering a solution to the dearth of quality games available for smartphones. For the price of a typical premium smartphone game per month, Apple Arcade gives access to more than 70 titles, many of which were custom-designed for the service. This wide selection of titles, which subscribers have unlimited access to for the duration of their subscription, ensures that gamers can find titles that match their specific interests as well as explore other genres of gaming without investing money in titles they’re not sure if they’d like. Apple has leveraged the service to fund the development of indie titles that otherwise would not have been realized, as their designs aren’t conducive to the free-to-play model that currently dominates the industry. As an example, Card of Darkness, a game which combines dungeon-crawling mechanics with a virtual card game, was developed by a ten-person studio paid directly by Apple to be featured exclusively on the Apple Arcade service.
Card of Darkness has already received rave reviews, as media outlets praised its dynamic and addictive gameplay unencumbered by ads or in-app purchases. The success of this title, in addition to the others on the platform, bodes well for the future of the service, whose innovative approach to game development is likely to produce titles of similar and even greater acclaim as time goes on. Because the funding of titles is handled up-front by Apple on a per-app basis, developers don’t have to worry about generating a return on their investment, freeing them to explore risky but unique game design options and package them into a visually appealing and polished product.
Developers creating experiences for the Apple Arcade platform have to contend with a number of rules and restrictions that Apple places on developers, though. Game creators are required to ensure that their titles function well on a variety of devices Apple offers, many with radically different form factors, and must localize their games for 14 different languages to ensure that all markets have access to the same selection of titles. For many developers, however, the trade-off is worth it, as the service makes possible titles that wouldn’t be financially viable under the standard App Store model. Where Cards Fall, for instance, has been in development for long before the announcement of Apple Arcade, but seeing as the game offers 20 hours of narrative-driven content, the developers would have charged roughly $20 for the title, which is a substantially greater cost than the vast majority of App Store titles. Apple Arcade ensured that the title, which otherwise may never have seen the light of day, would be financially viable.
For Android users, Google offers a competing service called Google Play Pass, which for an introductory price of $1.99 per month grants access to a collection not only of games, but of other apps, like weather and photography programs. While the competing service is superficially similar to Apple Arcade in its structure, the selection of games available on Google Play Pass is not as strong. Android is a more difficult operating system to develop games for, as a staggering variety of hardware combinations need to be taken into account as different manufacturers support different features. Additionally, Google Play Pass pays developers based on users’ engagement with their apps, meaning developers who create titles that users play for long periods of time make substantially more money than developers who create short titles. As not every game has to be long-lasting to be fun, this practice discourages developers interested in creating shorter experiences. It’s unclear exactly how Apple decides how much to pay developers for titles on their service, but developers have expressed satisfaction with the deals they’ve made with the software giant.
With the advent of Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass, the once-bleak market for smartphone games seems to be making a resurgence. As consumers shift towards preferring a Netflix-style of content delivery generally, wherein they pay a monthly fee for unlimited access rather than paying for titles individually, services like these take advantage of this change in customers’ mindset. Given the surprising early success of Apple Arcade, and the introduction of similar services from Nintendo and Sony for their respective platforms, the subscription model of video gaming seems poised to reshape the industry as a whole.