Games

Five Months Later, Apple Arcade Hasn't Transcended its Splashy Launch

Apple's services had a bunch of incredible games to kick things off, but since then? Not much.
February 18, 2020, 7:00pm
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Image courtesy of Apple

There's a moment every month that I remember I’m subscribed to Apple Arcade, and it’s when the company sends my bill. That day was [checks notes] today. Given that means I’m stuck with it for another month, I’ll check to see what I’ve been missing, download a couple of games, and inevitably go back to ignoring the service until another $5 is taken out of my account. The cycle repeats itself.

Apple Arcade, Apple’s splashy subscription service that promised high-quality mobile games without endless microtransactions, launched back in September with great fanfare and, more importantly, great games. Grindstone wasn’t just a great puzzle game, it was one of my favorite experiences of last year. Card of Darkness! What the Golf! Sayonara Wild Hearts! Exit the Gungeon! Jenny LeClue! The first month of Apple Arcade was an explosive counterpunch to the earned cynicism that’d rotted expectations many had for what mobile gaming could be.

It didn’t replace games being released on the App Store, but it provided a comforting alternative. “Hey, here are the good ones.” And sure, not every one of those was exclusive to Apple Arcade, but if these were the types Apple was courting, it boded well for its future. Like many others, I signed up for the free month of access because it’s hard to turn down free, but like so many other cheap-ish services I’ve signed up for in the past on the attraction of a free month, I also quickly forgot I was signed up for it? Then, around the time my latest bill was due, it prompted me to ask Twitter for a reaction to Apple Arcade in the months since it rolled out:

379 people is a small and anecdotal sample size for a service that’s pitched to a base of a staggering 1.4 billion users. And yet, the most common reactions that came through my timeline—”I cancelled after a month,” “stuck with it cos I’m terrible at cancelling things,” “keep forgetting to cancel but every time they take my money I try a new game,” “thanks for reminding me to cancel it,” and “so I can keep access to Grindstone”—rang a familiar bell, because different versions of it have been floating through my head on a monthly basis.

I, too, viewed Apple Arcade as a Grindstone subscription service. Capybara’s puzzler was a game I couldn’t get out of my head for months at a time, as I dumped dozens of hours into trying to climb the game’s virtual mountain, slaying thousands of monsters on my path to eventual glory. And for a time, I was happy to pay $5, 10, even $15 for the chance to keep playing. I was getting my money’s worth, even if it seemed a little silly to be paying for a “subscription service” for one game. But eventually, I’d tapped out of Grindstone levels.

In the six months since launch, Apple Arcade has added 39 games—roughly six per month—which is a lot, and in line with what Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Network offer month-to-month. Apple Arcade cannot be accused of being an empty lot, but it’s also to trying to strike a balance between artsy indie games, prominent on the early App Store days but fell away as exploitative experiences like Candy Crush took over, and family-friendly games that focus on multiplayer and augmented reality. So in a given month, you might see The Mosaic, a surrealist adventure about corporate normalcy, juxtaposed against Monomals, a cute but extremely basic action game with a music creation tool clearly focused at kids.

And that, generally, is the rhythm of Apple Arcade. One game for you—the hardcore gamer, the well- informed gamer. And then one game for the family, a quality piece of entertainment deliberately walled off from the toxic design that’s infected so much mobile game design. (Even if Apple Arcade’s existence is a tacit admission by Apple’s that it’s happy to profit off both, rather than use its power to eradicate it from an ecosystem it has full control over.)

Which for a certain person, like a member of a family wholly in the Apple ecosystem, this makes sense. You have children who play games on a hand-me-down device, but you’re tired of having to pay for new gold coins so they can keep playing. You’re looking for something more substantial to play on the go, but you can’t always be bothered to bring a Switch along.

The problem is when you don’t fit that type, or fall a little off the mark. I have a kid, but she’s three years old, so a little young for the games Apple Arcade offers, which are aimed at children a little older. They’re fast, hard to follow, and involve lots of rules—not exactly a three year old’s headspace. That means half the games on Apple Arcade go… poof! And what if you, like a lot of people, don’t have kids at all? Same boat. Which means you’re stuck with the other half of the offerings, which themselves have been a mixed bag since launch.

(It should be clear how much of a value Apple Arcade is if are that person, though. Family sharing means a single $5 account can provide games for everyone. And unlike Game Pass or other services, games don't leave Apple Arcade. The library only grows bigger over time.)

Apple Arcade’s opening salvo was captivating because it tried to capture that early touch screen magic, when the idea of playing games by tapping a screen was novel. Grindstone, What the Golf, and Card of Darkness were games that could exist on other platforms—and in the case of What the Golf, eventually would—but they felt at home on an iPhone or iPad.

With singular exceptions like the delightful Guildlings, there has been precious little of that since. At times, scrolling through Apple Arcade’s lineup feels like I’m going through a list of the hundreds of nameless new games available on Steam. A platformer here, an action game there. A lot of games that would play better with a controller. (It’s possible to connect an Xbox or PlayStation controller to an iOS device now, but that’s another gizmo in the bag.)

Everything looks the same, and it’s hard to tell what I should be paying attention to. The result is that I end up not paying attention to anything at all, and part of what I’m paying for Apple Arcade, though, is the curation. All subscription services go through ups and downs, as games float in and out of their service, and the bonus for Apple Arcade is that, over time, that number only goes up; these games are never leaving. But right now, it feels empty.

At the end of the day, sure, it’s only $5. But Apple set expectations high last fall, and I’ve expected more. Apple is competing with the other devices in my life, and quite often, when I’m faced with the option of seeing what’s on Apple Arcade or seeing what’s on the eShop, it’s not a question. The games will cost more on the eShop, but they’re going to be better.

If they add more levels to Grindstone, though? Take my goddamn money.

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