Games

Five Months In, Here's What Developers Think of Apple Arcade

While most developers seem happy, it's clear the service has a lot of room to grow in the future.
February 21, 2020, 6:05pm
Five months in, here's what developers think of Apple Arcade.
Image courtesy of Apple

When Apple Arcade launched last fall, it promised a return to a certain golden era of the App Store, one lost as games like Candy Crush and others took over. As I outlined earlier this week, that proved true during Apple Acade’s spectacular launch, headlined by games like Sayonara Wild Hearts and Grindstone, but in the months since, quality has dropped off. It remains a terrific service for families with young kids, but beyond that? A pretty mixed bag.

Apple Arcade also introduced a functional split in the gaming experience on Apple platforms; games released on Apple Arcade are only available in Apple Arcade. There’s no way to, for example, play Grindstone outside of Apple Arcade, even if that’s the only game you’re interested in. But the App Store still exists for games, which also means developers are looking at two different ways of releasing games: Apple Arcade and the regular App Store.

Designer Zach Gage is one of those golden era developers for iOS, having been associated with a number of high-profile success stories on the platform, including SpellTower (2011) and Ridiculous Fishing (2013). Gage recently released SpellTower+, a “reimagining” of the original word puzzler, where players drag their finger across tiles of letters to form words.

The original SpellTower came out on the App Store because that was the only option almost a decade ago. But Gage was also part of Apple Arcade’s launch, helping design one of the more beloved early games, Card of Darkness. SpellTower+ is not part of Apple Arcade, however, a decision Gage arrived at, he told me, “for a few (probably boring?) reasons.”

“I feel like SpellTower has an established fanbase, some of which is on Android, and it felt wrong to take the game away from them,” he said.

Additionally, he didn’t want to “fully abandon that business just because something new has come up, even if that thing is as lucrative as Apple Arcade.”

Another crucial distinction between the App Store and Apple Arcade: the latter is not an open platform. You don’t “choose” to publish on Apple Arcade, as Apple hand picks the games. Gage said developing Card of Darkness for them was a “great experience” and fully planned to pitch the company on developing something new for Apple Arcade “in the future.”

Part of Apple Arcade’s problem was the way it pitched itself: access to dozens of high-quality games right away. That library, at launch, was tremendously impressive. But it’s also not surprising Apple has not been able to maintain the same pace in the months after.

“There was a ton of buzz on the value proposition, but now players seem to have a bit of a hangover,” said one Apple Arcade developer who asked to remain anonymous.

That same developer, who has been involved with mobile games both in and outside of Apple Arcade, was nonetheless “very happy” with how things had turned out for their game.

“My biggest concern right now is discoverability moving forward,” the developer added. “Not all new games are being marketed as strongly as they could be and instead, most of the focus seems to be on the service as a whole and not on the upcoming products."

One recommendation that came up in conversation with developers: a separate app dedicated solely to Apple Arcade. At the moment, Apple Arcade exists “inside” the App Store app itself. Apple sends notifications when a new game is added, but if you just want to scroll around, you do have to dig a bit to find things.

Part of my own problem with Apple Arcade is that when I open my phone for a distraction, it’s undeniably faster to load up Instagram or Twitter, instead of having to figure out what game to play. On an iOS device, Apple Arcade is competing with more than just games.

One reason Apple Arcade was able to launch with so many games was because not every game was explicitly designed for it. Once Apple Arcade excited as a concept, it started attracting developers already developing a mobile game. Apple Arcade became their home.

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A screen shot from the Apple Arcade game Where Cards Fall, courtesy of Snowman.

Snowman founder and creative director Ryan Cash was part of two games in Apple Arcade’s launch. The Alto’s Adventure developer expanded from only in-house creations to collaborating with other developers, as was the case with Skate City and Where Cards Fall.

Where Cards Fall wasn’t meant to be an Apple Arcade release—it was intended to come out in fall 2016. A few delays later, it suddenly made sense to join Apple’s growing lineup.

Part of what attracted Cash to Apple Arcade was being able to let a game like Where Cards Fall be released into a system where they didn’t have to overthink how it would make money because that responsibility fell to Apple. Now, Where Cards Fall didn’t need to find a way to hide ads in its menus or charge so much money that it turned off most mobile game players.

“We wanted to reach the masses with that game, but we didn’t want to compromise the game’s design in doing so,” said Cash. “Arcade is the best blend of both worlds.”

Cash couldn’t share any specifics about the performance of Where Cards Fall or Skate City, but said he was “very optimistic” about the future and like Gage, figured Apple Arcade and the App Store can “co-exist alongside each other.”

My conversations with developers about working with Apple and publishing on Apple Arcade were generally positive. Apple has access to enormous financial resources, and thus, confidence from developers that Apple Arcade will be around for a long time, no matter what happens. Plus, a guaranteed check from Apple makes it a lot easier to sleep at night, rather than wondering if your game will get lost in a sea of endless mobile games, cloned to death, or quickly ignored because people disagreed with how much you wanted to charge for it.

Comfort wasn’t just something that was pitched at players. It was aimed at developers, too.

Good intentions will only get you so far, though.

Running a games service is hard—ask Google. It requires Apple to be good at something it hasn’t been at in the past: creating content. In this case, Apple isn’t building the games in-house, but it is curating what to fund and publish on Apple Arcade. That’s fundamentally different than the transactional cuts it’s taken from the movies and music hosted on iTunes, which are created by other people. The games that became popular on the App Store had nothing to do with the influence of Apple, outside of the platforming framework they set up.

Part of the psychology driving subscription services is making them cheap enough that then even if people don’t end up spending every day on the service, at the very least they might forget about signing up and get charged anyway. At $5, Apple Arcade is in that sweet spot.

Phase one of Apple Arcade, pitching potential, is over. The question is what happens next.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).