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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Keith Stuart

‘Games are more important to Apple than ever’: what’s next for Apple Arcade?

‘An incredibly popular IP’ … patrons of a Hello Kitty theme restaurant, possibly playing the 2023 iOS hit Hello Kitty Island Adventure.
‘An incredibly popular IP’ … patrons of a Hello Kitty theme restaurant, possibly playing the 2023 iOS hit Hello Kitty Island Adventure. Photograph: VCG/Getty Images

When Apple launched its games subscription service, Arcade, in September 2019, it drew a huge amount of attention – as with everything the company does. Offering 100 premium (ie, not ad-infested) mobile games for a monthly subscription fee of £4.99/$4.99 (now £6.99), and the promise of more titles to come, it was an attempt to bring the Netflix business model to gaming.

It offered an alternative in a mobile gaming market in which free-to-play and ad-supported games were dominant. The dominance of behemoths such as Genshin Impact, Clash of Clans and Candy Crush previously made it difficult for the makers of paid-for, premium games to find an audience, but Arcade offered a range of curated titles that could run across Apple’s devices – iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple TV – with no ads or in-app purchases. Games also worked offline, eliminating the annoyance of being kicked out of a game on the London Underground.

Five years later, the market is very different. Consumers are bombarded with new subscription services across TV, movies and games, while legacy platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are aggressively expanding into Apple’s territory with gaming offerings of their own. So what does this mean for Arcade? Is it still a priority for Apple?

Alex Rofman is Arcade’s senior director, a 15-year Apple veteran who has been in and around mobile gaming since the beginning. “2023 was a banner year for us,” he says. “All of our critical metrics reached record highs. Two of the highlights for me were the launch of Hello Kitty Island Adventure – an incredibly popular IP that hadn’t really found its home in the gaming world yet – and What the Car winning mobile game of the year at the Dice awards last month.”

‘Extremely silly and original’ … What the Car trailer.

There is always a lot of scrutiny of Apple’s strategic thinking – indeed the company’s opacity around its business decisions has effectively created a whole strata of tech analysts. But Rofman describes a pretty straightforward approach to setting up Arcade. “It was about games that were designed just to be fun and engaging, not built around a business model, not built around timers or video ads,” he says. “We were not looking to replicate the top genres on mobile necessarily, we weren’t looking to bring a match-three that was better than Candy Crush … we focused on games that wouldn’t have had an opportunity were it not for Arcade.”

“On Apple Arcade we get to bring extremely silly and original premium experiences to a very broad audience … I have a hard time imagining how to get players to laugh, if they are interrupted by ads,” says Tim Garbos, co-founder of Triband, the developer of What the Car.

Looking at Arcade today, innovative titles such as Assemble With Care, Card of Darkness, Neo Cab and Mutazione still get space on the front page. But there is also a huge emphasis on family games such as Hello Kitty, Tamagotchi and Disney. This makes practical sense for a big demographic of Apple users: tech-savvy parents with bored kids. “‘Free to play’ games aren’t particularly family friendly,” says Rofman. “They don’t necessarily have offensive themes, but parents can’t hand their iPad to their kid in a free to play game and feel comfortable that there’s not going to be $100 in currency purchases or whatever.”

This, alongside the increasing number of older, fondly received App Store games such as Fruit Ninja, Jetpack Joyride and Threes being folded into Apple Arcade, does look to represent a change in direction since the opening catalogue. Back then, it seems Apple thought Arcade would be for fans of cool, offbeat indie games who just couldn’t find them on the App Store: well-reviewed, award-winning titles from producers such as Annapurna, Die Gute Fabrik and Devolver absolutely dominated the selection. They’re still present, but not in the same numbers. Family games have taken over.

But Rofman is keen to reiterate Apple’s commitment to interesting indies. “Arcade is a place for games that might not otherwise exist, and I think that’s a really important part of our strategy,” he says. “We fund the development of new games so that developers can build them without risk. What the Car is a perfect example of that. Another one is Sneaky Sasquatch: its developer RAC7 is two guys who have been making games together since they were in high school. They don’t want to run a studio. To see the success and the growth of that game has really been amazing. It’s very aligned with Apple’s values: it’s an incredibly deep, challenging game, but there’s no violence. There’s nothing offensive. So we do think that Arcade is an outlet for indie studios with creative, innovative ideas. That is still important to us and always will be.”

There have been dissenting voices. In February, industry website ran an article in which unnamed developers aired their frustrations with the service. Some pointed to a swathe of cancelled projects, which can have a devastating effect for smaller studios. Others claimed that royalty payments on games are falling, and that Apple seemed to be deprioritising the service. Rofman, naturally, defends the company’s record. “With respect to the article, developers with games where the player base is growing can expect to see their bonus pool earnings grow as well, given that they’re based on engagement,” he says. “But as you can imagine, despite the incredibly high quality of our catalogue, not every game in a catalogue of more than 200 titles is going to grow its player base month over month.”

He also disputes the idea that Arcade is a victim of Apple’s perceived lack of interest in games. “Games are more important to Apple now than they ever have been,” he says. “You can see this with the investment we’ve made in silicon. Finally, Macs are capable of running high performance games, in ways that they weren’t 10 or 15 years ago. And certainly with the latest iPhones, you can now run an immersive high performance game on a device that fits in your pocket. I think you’ll continue to see investment and focus on the gaming space, because games are incredible and our devices are great gaming devices.”

In the future, Apple Arcade will feature games made for the company’s much-vaunted Vision Pro. The spatial computing device launched with 12 native games – a mixture of brand new titles and familiar games augmented with spatial elements. “Spatial gaming is probably the biggest thing right now,” says Rofman. “If you think about it, since the invention of touch gaming, there really hasn’t been much innovation in the kinds of games that we all play. The graphics are better and TVs are getting thinner, but in terms of gameplay styles and input methods, there hasn’t been innovation in a long time. Vision Pro opens up an entirely new world of possibilities and we’re barely at the dawn of it.”

Vision Pro is going to be a niche product for a few years yet, quite possibly forever. In the meantime, Apple needs to continue to support independent developers, and showcase a wider range of new, non-licensed titles. Whatever issues it faces, Apple Arcade has a vital role in the mobile gaming ecosystem. People put it into contention with Netflix and Amazon, but really what it’s moving toward, in content terms, is the Nintendo Switch: family-friendly but challenging games in a safe, heavily curated environment, divested from invasive free-to-play monetisation. Rofman feels 2023 was a banner year but, with competition hotting up and developers struggling, it will be in 2024 that Apple Arcade’s ambitions will really be tested.

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