Apple’s Ambitious Plans for Apple Arcade

Apple introduces apple arcade apple tv ipad pro iphone xs macbook pro 03252019I’ve been writing about Mac games on and off for 25 years, and I can’t think of a single announcement from Apple that has intrigued me as much as Apple Arcade. It could be a real game changer, or it could be a total disaster. Apple Arcade, announced before Apple’s introduction of Apple TV+, is coming this fall. The Mac is getting the new games alongside iPhones, iPads and Apple TV. What’s more, Apple is contributing to the development costs. This is the first time I can remember Apple footing the bill. That should tell you that Apple has some ambitions beyond just launching a new service.
The idea here is that you’ll pay Apple an as-yet-unrevealed monthly price, and you’ll be able to enjoy a collection of games that you can play as much as you want on whichever Apple device you prefer, whether it’s the phone, tablet, or computer. Those games don’t have any ads, in-app purchases, or use tracking technology that might negatively affect your privacy. Apple’s expecting to feature more than 100 games once the service is up and running. The games will all be new titles and exclusive to the platform, including independently created games and games from well-established brands like Sega.

Gaming is a massive market on iOS. There are now almost 300,000 App Store games you can download for your iPhone. But by comparison, gaming is a small niche on the Apple TV. Gaming is a niche on the Mac, for reasons historical that I won’t flesh out here. But suffice to say that Apple is promising equanimity between different devices with this new service, which promises to let you game whenever and wherever you want to, from whichever Apple device suits you.

Apple Arcade is logistically ambitious. Apple Arcade is predicated on the idea that consumers want to pay a flat, monthly rate for a service that provides a mere smattering of games, compared to the cornucopia they can download otherwise. Given that it’s launching with somewhere in the vicinity of 100 games, and the App Store now has close to 300,000, it remains to be seen if that sort of service will appeal to enough customers for it to be successful. I hope so. Because with a few, special breakouts that buck this trend, the current game market on iOS is an undifferentiated slop of “free to play” games. Those games are often choked with intrusive advertisements or heavily dependent on in-app purchases that emphasize “pay to play” or “pay to win” tactics. Those end up draining consumers’ wallets or our patience and generally pissing us all off.

Apple Arcade is technically ambitious, too. Because it’s treating the Mac as a first-class citizen. Frameworks already exist to facilitate the conversion of apps from iOS to Mac and vice versa, both from Apple and from in the case of game development, from middleware providers like Unity. Apple’s doing more to blur that line too. macOS 10.14 includes new apps built using a common iOS/macOS framework that I assume is part of Apple’s secret sauce for Apple Arcade in some way. Apple’s Metal graphics API is now essential to iOS and Mac game development.

But even then, making an iOS game work on the Mac is not a trivial one-step process. You can’t just tap a button and expect to squirt out Mac and iPhone versions of a game, at least not one that’s worth playing. So, part of Apple’s effort is to make this happen easier. One unintended consequence of that process: developers by design will target the lowest common denominator between disparate platforms and devices. The net result is a game that runs well on one device or platform but is just ok on others. I’m interested to see how Apple and its development partners address these differences in scale, technology, and user interface.

Apple’s recent and distant history is peppered with examples of friction with game developers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the very graphics API now used in macOS and iOS, Metal. In 2018 Apple announced that OpenGL would be deprecated in future versions of macOS and iOS in favor of Metal. Some game developers dropped Mac support in future titles; others pulled back. But now Mac game makers are starting to see benefits.

How Apple manages this relationship in Apple Arcade – how it reciprocates by working closely with developers to improve Mac and iPhone software and hardware to suit their needs better – may very well determine how well this new service ultimately thrives.

Apple Arcade is creatively ambitious too because the service is curated. Apple’s picking and choosing which titles to include, and giving those game makers – those storytellers – an opportunity to find their voice. It’s easier to do that when you’re one in 100 rather than one in 300,000. Apple says it’s emphasizing “originality, quality, creativity, fun and their appeal to players of all ages,” which tells you they’re looking to cast a very wide net with the games’ appeal. After all, the worst thing that can happen to this is for consumers to simply not be interested in Apple Arcade.

I’m less worried about this simply because Apple is lining up some all-star talent to help get the service off the ground and set the tone for other content going forward. The company is pulling from both established game companies and indie developers to help populate the service. And Apple Arcade isn’t a service aimed at hardcore gamers or any other niche groups. Apple Arcade is aimed at everyone – people who don’t self-identify as gamers, but people who just want to play games. Good games. Games that are safe to play, but games that are enriching, interesting, immersive, and fun. Games that don’t keep digging in your pocket to be fun.

To borrow a phrase from Apple’s past, it sounds a bit like gaming for the rest of us.

We still don’t know too much about Apple Arcade and Apple’s working privately with developers for now, so it’s keeping its cards close to its vest. As usual, we’re left to guess and infer a lot of details until Apple’s ready to talk further. But it’s safe to assume that the fall rollout will be contemporaneous with new annual releases of iOS, tvOS, and macOS which will be due around that time, along with new and refreshed hardware on both the Mac and iPhone lines. We’ll undoubtedly learn more about Apple Arcade and its underpinning technology in June, at Apple’s annual developer conference.

Games for these devices will all continue to be available independently of Apple Arcade, and the game markets for Mac, iPhone and Apple TV will continue to evolve at their pace. I don’t anticipate that Apple Arcade will be disruptive, but it’s an ambitious and exciting experiment. I hope it succeeds.

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