Apple never really gave Apple Arcade a chance (and that’s why it needs to change)

Looks like Apple Arcade may not be going as planned. They’re cutting some games in development and moving to more addictive games, according to a report from Mark Gurman and Jason Schreier in Bloomberg:

On calls in mid-April, an Apple Arcade creative producer told some developers that their upcoming games didn’t have the level of “engagement” Apple is seeking, the people said. Apple is increasingly interested in titles that will keep users hooked, so subscribers stay beyond the free trial of the service, according to the people. They asked not to be identified discussing private conversations.

[…]

On the calls with developers in April, the Apple Arcade representative cited a specific example of the type of game the company wants: Grindstone, an engaging puzzle-action game by Capybara Games that has many levels.

Grindstone is great. But it’s a refined, well-polished version of all the mobile games that hook you in with moreish, one-more-round puzzles as a way of getting you to pay for in-game currency or extra lives via microtransactions. That’s not a criticism of Grindstone: it’s a fantastic version of that kind of game and it’s all the better because Apple Arcade’s model means it doesn’t need those in-app purchases. So it’s no surprise that it has some of the highest levels of “engagement” among Arcade’s offerings.

But Apple Arcade was pitched as an antidote to those kinds of games. And focusing solely on “engagement” misses the point of what makes games valuable in the first place.

I spent most of my time in Apple Arcade in Grindstone but it’s not the most memorable experience . I certainly wouldn’t recommend people subscribe to the service to play it. It’s not even the best version of the one-more-round puzzler on offer, in my opinion: Card of Darkness has a lot more going for it.

Sayonara Wild Hearts, meanwhile, is straight-up one of the coolest games I’ve ever played. It was the reason I tried Apple Arcade in the first place. Give me one of them every few months and I’ll sub for a while. I think about it all the time; I listened to the soundtrack on Apple Music non-stop for almost three months. It’s amazing.

But it’s also a play-through-once-and-never touch-it-again game. And that’s okay. I don’t need mobile games I go to again and again and again. And trying to provide that via a subscription kind of misses the point of those games anyway. A mobile game subscription makes sense if you’re offering a slew of great games that’ll occupy you for a little while before you move onto something else. That makes sense for the model.

My partner is currently obsesses with a Candy-Crush-like game were you solve a bunch of symbol-match puzzles in order to refurbish a mansion. She’s been playing it nightly for the last little while. Before that, it was a word game. Before that, it was a different word game. She’s the model mobile game player: get into a game for a little while, play it exclusively, move onto something else.

It’s high engagement. But it doesn’t make sense for a subscription. Why pay a monthly fee when you can get more-or-less the same experience for free? People may end up spending more in micro-transactions but no-one ever goes into one of those games thinking they’ll buy the in-game currency.

Apple Arcade was a chance to do something different in the mobile game space. And it delivered some cool, interesting, and fun stuff. It was always going to be a tough sell: their hasn’t been a consistent flow of fantastic, single-hit games on the App Store to built a real, vibrant audience for this kind of stuff. There have been a lot of amazing games, of course, but they pale into comparison to the addictive, “high engagement” games on the platform. Part of that is because of the business model Apple promoted in the App Store. Hard to build a high quality, standalone game when you can only charge a few dollars a pop.

Apple never gave the kinds of games Apple Arcade promoted a chance to thrive on their own. That’s why the service was so appealing – maybe they’d finally have one – but that makes it hard to get people who aren’t already into those kinds games a reason to subscribe. They’ve got their games already and they’re the games the App Store has always prioritised, thank you very much.

I’m reading a lot into their statements here but it looks like they could be sacrificing that to do a slightly more polished version of what’s already out there. I’m sure it’s a wise business decision and I’m sure they know what they’re doing –it’d be remiss of me to assume they don’t understand why people play the mobile games they do. But it’s still a disappointing move.

Hopefully the Sayonara Wild Hearts of Apple Arcade still get made. And I’m sure they will. After all, Netflix pump out mediocre show after mediocre show and fall onto greatness occasionally. No reason that won’t happen with games here.