Apple Arcade is already straying from its original promise

Today marks the six-month anniversary of Apple Arcade, and Apple’s subscription-based gaming service has every reason to be booming. It’s got over 100 games, it costs only $4.99 a month, and Apple is offering this package at a time when much of the world is sequestered indoors and saving money out of fears of a financial crisis.

And yet Apple barely mentions the service in public anymore. New releases of Apple Arcade games rarely make ripples on social media. It’s still too early to say “Game Over” for Apple Arcade, but this is as good of a time as any to wonder what went wrong and figure out how Apple could improve the situation.

There is some hope for Apple Arcade, partly because there has been a noticeable change in its direction. The situation was a little direr just a month ago, as ahead of the half-year mark you could already find some outlets proclaiming doom and gloom in the wake of Apple Arcade’s contemporary releases and the service’s seemingly slow adoption rate. But late last month, Apple managed to kickstart a tad more interest in the service with the release of Crossy Road Castle, which essentially gave Apple Arcade its own version of Super Mario Bros. Two weeks later, it followed up with Roundguard, a fantasy dungeon crawler that draws liberally from Peggle. Notably, both of these games “feel” more like traditional mobile games than the bulk of what came before them in Apple Arcade, which may signal a shift in strategy from the folks in Cupertino. I can’t say I’m exactly happy with it, but at this point I’m ready to admit it might be the smart way to go.

crossy road castle level Leif Johnson/IDG

Why did the chicken cross the stronghold?

Dropping the dream

Apple Arcade was so attractive in those early months precisely because it distanced itself from the negative associations of mobile games. Not only do Apple Arcade games not have in-app purchases, but early games like Sayonara Wild Hearts and What the Golf? bore little resemblance to what you normally found under the Games heading in the App Store. These felt like games that usually would have launched on platforms like the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4, and indeed Sayonara dropped on both those systems on the same day it appeared on iOS.

With such a move, Apple legitimized mobile games for the usual “gamer” crowd. While ports of console games to iOS aren’t terribly uncommon, you almost never see them drop on iOS at the same time they drop elsewhere. And in this case, you were even saving money. Sayonara Wild Hearts costs $12.99 on the Xbox, PS4, and Switch stores, but in the Apple ecosystem, all you have to pay is your $4.99 monthly Apple Arcade subscription. That’s roughly twice the price of taking a bus ride here in San Francisco.

The dream faded quickly. Six months later, it seems safe to argue that releasing 53 games at once on launch day wasn’t the best strategy. Instead, Apple should have gone for a more piecemeal approach, such as starting with around 30 games and building the library from there. As it is, we got front-loaded with all kinds of wonderful games, but we only got a handful of new releases that lived up to that level of quality in the following months.

That’s not to say there weren’t some gems, and a few of those follow-up games even make my list of the 10 best Apple Arcade games. Consider Manifold Garden, which looks like it takes place inside an M.C. Escher print. Or (please) check out Pilgrims, which presents a charming new take on the collectible card genre. These games are very much in that “art house” tradition of gaming I advocated for Apple Arcade last year, and they’re well-suited to Apple’s original promise of “critically acclaimed” games that stand out for their “originality, quality, creativity, and fun.”

manifold garden William Chyr

Manifold Garden feels a bit like Portal.

It’s been harder for Apple to live up to all elements of such a promise as of late. Recent games like Doomsday Vault and No Way Home were definitely good, but not so good to recommend that someone should pick up Apple Arcade for the sake of playing them alone. We were slipping away from Apple’s claims of letting us play “something extraordinary” by “some of the most critically acclaimed game developers in the world.”