By Akriti Rana and Nimish Dubey
When Apple had launched its game subscription service Apple Arcade in September 2019, many users were left puzzled. The concept of a game subscription service was relatively new, and Apple was doing very well on its App Store front, which already included a number of premium games. What then was the need for such a service?
Apple’s positioning for Apple Arcade was that it would give subscribers high quality games without the hassle of putting up with ads or in-app purchases. Once you subscribed to Apple Arcade, you could pretty much download as many games as you wanted from the Arcade library, without having to make any additional payments. You could also play all the games offline without even needing an Internet connection. All for $4.99 per month in the US, and just Rs 99 per month in India (many of Apple’s services are actually more affordable in India as compared to the US).
“Apple Arcade will give customers the freedom to try any game from its handpicked collection of titles that are all-you-can-play, have no ads, ad tracking or additional purchases, and respect user privacy,” the company’s press release read. Quite significantly, titles on Apple Arcade would not be available on Android.
Too niche for a casual crowd?
In its initial days, Apple Arcade seemed to be a very niche, even slightly elite, offering. Apple Arcade’s initial portfolio of about seventy titles was a mix of the quirky, the funny, and the whimsical, with innovation running through them like a steady thread. There were some amazing games, but they seemed to cater to a tiny part of the gaming audience, especially that part of it which was actually looking for something very different from online arena battles or gem-based puzzles. You had titles like Assemble with Care, where a story progressed as you repair gadgets; Sayonara Wild Hearts, which was laced with pop music and had stunning graphics; and even something like Cricket Through the Ages, where the history of humanity was told through the sport.
The problem was not with the quality of the games on Apple Arcade. There did not seem to be anything there for the casual gamer. It was a great place if you had time to explore and try out new things, but not quite the place for someone who wanted to simply kill some time, or find something familiar.
Great reviews, but not really making news
One of our colleagues described Apple Arcade thus: “It is a bit like Nintendo, but for iOS. You have very different titles from the routine, which means gamers should be willing to invest some time to understand and appreciate what they are getting.” The challenge that Arcade faced was that many mobile gamers simply did not have that sort of time to invest in trying out and discovering new titles. Of course, Arcade did have offerings for TV and desktops too, but it was the mobile platform that was the main attraction, as there were way more iPhone handsets than Apple TVs and computers. Most Apple Arcade apps also seemed tailored for a mobile experience.
Apple was also making a big difference on the developer front by collaborating with new and established names to come out with different titles. But the challenge was that it was dealing with a world that seemed all too comfortable with its daily gaming fix of PUBG (or Battlegrounds Mobile India), Call of Duty: Mobile, and other mainstream games.
Arcade’s initial fate therefore was a bit like an art film — critics and reviewers loved it, but a lot of the mainstream audience stayed away, preferring to go with familiar titles.
Even though Apple bundled Arcade with its all-in-one subscription service, Apple One, in September 2020, the tendency was to view the service as something which was great for gaming purists. We, for instance, would not have recommended it easily to a mainstream iPhone user, because the games were not exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Think of a bookstore that stores no thrillers and bestsellers, but has an excellent collection of intellectual, fiction, and academic titles? Apple Arcade was somewhat a gaming equivalent of that.
Bringing the classics to the library
That changed with Apple’s largest expansion of Arcade in April 2021, which turned things around for the service. More than thirty new titles were added to the game library and the accent was on more mainstream gaming, with an NBA game and a Star Trek title among the new releases.
More significantly, however, Apple added two new categories to Apple Arcade — Timeless Classics and App Store Greats. Both categories brought an element of familiarity to what had until then been a largely offbeat, slightly eclectic game library.
While Timeless Classics brought in titles such as Sudoku, Chess, and Backgammon, App Store Greats delivered well-known titles such as Fruit Ninja, Monument Valley, and Threes. Also included were “remastered” versions of immensely popular casual gaming titles like Alto’s Odyssey, Angry Birds, and Cut the Rope.
Adding ‘+’ value
A big change in Arcade was also the introduction of enhanced versions of commercial titles. Whereas in the past, games on Arcade were not available on the App Store, Arcade now got special versions of them, minus ads and in-app purchases, and often with some extra content as well. These games were marked with a ‘+’ in their title, letting you know that they were special Arcade editions. Many games that came with hefty price tags got the ‘+’ treatment, which meant that you actually could save money by subscribing to Arcade.
For instance, you could download Monument Valley 2 for Rs 449 or play Monument Valley 2+ in Arcade under the regular Rs 99 per month plan. Similarly, you could fork out Rs 179 for the amazing The Room Two, or get an enhanced version of it, The Room Two+, on Apple Arcade without having to pay anything extra, apart from the monthly subscription. Apple Arcade was now making a sound economic sense too.
Apple Arcade in 2022: A good value for money
Thanks to all these changes, Apple Arcade is rather different today from the slightly niche service it started out as. It has more than two hundred titles to offer and unlike in its initial days, these are a mix of the casual and serious offerings. This means that you can drop into Arcade for a spot of timepass,slicing fruits or making Sonic run through hurdles, in between meetings or on your way to work. You can also dive into a more immersive mode with Oceanhorn 2: Knights of the Lost Realm and The Room Two+ at home when you are looking to play for hours rather than minutes.
The streak of innovation is still very much present as proved by the recently released Moonshot: A Journey Home, a physics-based puzzle where you play a baby Moon who needs to get back to Mother Earth. But it is the icing on the gaming cake right now, rather than the cake itself.
The future also seems bright for Apple Arcade with talks that the success of titles like NBA 2K22 Arcade Edition could spark further Arcade Editions of franchises like FIFA, and that film and series exclusives (especially those on Apple TV) could come to Arcade — there are rumours of a Ted Lasso-inspired football management game.
Apple Arcade does not have the perfect game library yet. There are not too many good sports oriented titles there, and most games tend to be a little on the short side (there are very few epic adventures out there), and it has yet to find its equivalent of a Genshin Impact or Call of Duty: Mobile for multiplayer action. But more than two years after it started, Apple Arcade is finally offering a good value for money today.
At just Rs 99 per month, you will get a mix of the familiar, the innovative, and the exotic. All without ads, in-app purchases or privacy issues. If you have an iPhone or an iPad and like gaming, this is one subscription worth having. We would recommend giving it a try even if you are not an avid gamer but have an iOS device, simply because it offers so much for so little.
Netflix, which is dipping its toes in gaming service waters itself, would do well to take notes. After changing the app ecosystem with the App Store, Apple might be well on way to doing the same — albeit less dramatically — in gaming via Apple Arcade.