Apple Arcade Could Be Apple's Chance to Finally Get Video Games Right

It may have found its niche.

Apple has a bold plan to revitalize what has not always been a sterling reputation in the world of video games. Apple Arcade, announced Monday, is a subscription service offering access to over 100 “new and exclusive” games, accessible across the iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple TV with the ability to stop on one device and continue on another.

Initial titles include Oceanhorn 2, Sonic Racing, Mistwalker’s FANTASIAN and more. Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said in a statement that it will be “great for families, respect user privacy and will not have ads or require any additional purchases.” It’s led to a warm reception from industry watchers.

“I think having a game platform or marketplace where you can try a bunch of games and use them on your variety of devices plays really well into Apple’s strengths,” Ben Arnold, Senior Director of Innovation and Trends for the Consumer Technology Association, tells Inverse. “They have this great line up of devices. They’ve also got this awesome content that everyone has in their pockets and they want to seed into that trend.”

Sonic Racing.
Sonic Racing.

It could be the first step toward what could eventually be considered a major turnaround for Apple. Although its press release describes the existing App Store as “the world’s biggest and most successful game platform,” it has hardly been controversy-free, with criticisms mounting about its low-quality freemium apps that seem more optimized for convincing children to spend thousands on in-app purchases than delivering superior gameplay. The store launched in 2008 and promised big-name titles like Super Monkey Ball, but users gravitated away from paid titles and toward freebies like simple tapping games. TechRadar declared App Store gaming “broken” in 2014.

Apple has gradually worked to rectify this. In 2014 it launched the Metal graphics application programming interface to squeeze more dramatic pixels out of lower grades of hardware, the same year it released the “Made for iPhone” game controller specification to standardize peripherals. The iPad Pro that launched in 2018 comes with a graphics chip that the firm claims is as powerful as the Xbox One S. The magazine-style App Store, launched in 2017, places emphasis on curated high-quality games instead of leaving it up to charts and algorithms.

Slowly but surely, Apple is fixing its process for game discovery.

'Beyond a Steel Sky,' another Apple Arcade game.
'Beyond a Steel Sky,' another Apple Arcade game.

Apple Arcade: Apple’s Troubled History With Games

Apple has never been a particularly big player in the world of video games. While the Mac’s graphical interface offered an ideal platform for games in 1984, IBM-compatible machines ate away at its market share and Apple subsequently became less attractive to game developers. Former Apple CEO John Sculley was quoted in a 1986 story as referring to his company’s home computers as “computers for use in the home,” apparently fearing association with the sort of low-power machines used by hobbyists for playing games rather than the more practical yet expensive machines used by businesses. By 1990, Apple was actively rejecting joystick support for the Macintosh LC out of fear that others may use it as a game machine. Apple’s 1996 attempt at a console called the Pippin failed spectacularly, selling around 42,000 units.

Initially, it appeared Steve Jobs would change the approach when he returned to Apple in 1996. At the 1999 MacWorld event, Jobs gushed about how developers had asked for better support and the firm delivered, with OpenGL graphics and 3D hardware across the board. Giving the stage to developer Bungie, Apple showed a game called Halo to demonstrate its new commitments.

Halo emerged in 2001 as a launch title for the Microsoft Xbox, only coming to the Mac the following year. While supporting the OpenGL standard instead of something proprietary was a welcome move, legendary Doom developer John Carmack dismissed these token gestures in a 2008 interview:

“The truth is Steve Jobs doesn’t care about games. This is going to be one of those things that I say something in an interview and it gets fed back to him and I’m on his s*head list for a while on that, until he needs me to do something else there. But I think that that’s my general opinion. He’s not a gamer. It’s difficult to ask somebody to get behind something they don’t really believe in.”

This idea was echoed by others in the industry. Valve co-founder Game Newell said in 2007 that Apple would go through cycles, where a team would talk about how they’d love to do something with gaming, Valve would tell them what they need, the team would disappear, and a new team would emerge with no knowledge of the last. Newell concluded: “I just don’t think they’ve ever taken gaming seriously.”

Over the years the company continued to make erratic and half-hearted moves into games. The iPhone’s App Store gradually slid into mediocrity, its Xbox Live-style Game Center social network fell by the wayside after its 2010 launch, and the game-supporting Apple TV that launched in 2015 gradually shed big names like Minecraft despite strong hardware and software underpinnings.

Minecraft
'Minecraft'

Apple Arcade: New Beginnings

The Apple Arcade could be the puzzle piece that brings together its recent moves in gaming. It enables users to try a wide variety of high-quality games without worrying about either in-app purchases or one-off payments, putting the A-series chips to good use with impressive graphics.

It also solves a big issue with gaming across Apple’s platforms. Releasing a game through Apple products can be a disjointed mess, with separate App Stores for the iPhone and Mac, and no guarantee that a game purchased for iPhone will include its Apple TV or iPad counterparts. While the iPhone has developer interest as it sells more than 200 million devices per year, the more niche Apple TV and Mac suffer. The Apple Arcade promises one subscription with access everywhere.

“They’ve got a very robust ecosystem for all types of content, not the least of which is gaming,” Arnold says. “I think it benefits them to reimagine that model given the portability in game titles and being able to play them on a lot of different devices.”

Apple Arcade stretches across all Apple's devices.
Apple Arcade stretches across all Apple's devices.

The prospect is similar to Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus, which offer access to a select free titles each month as part of the monthly subscription. Xbox Game Pass expands on this further with access to around 100 titles. Streaming services like xCloud, PlayStation Now and Google Stadia take this one step further, running the game off a server and connecting over the internet. When Google demonstrated Stadia earlier this month ahead of its launch this year, it switched the game from a Chromebook to an Android smartphone seamlessly.

“I think in terms of gaming in the future we’re looking at — especially with everything that’s going on with streaming services — we’re looking at a future where the particular device isn’t as tethered to the game or the platform,” Arnold says, citing Fortnite’s successful use of cross-platform play between the PS4 and iPhone.

Fortnite
Fortnite

Apple has tried and failed before as it works to strike the right tone. Before iCloud became standard on practically every Apple device, the company floundered with services like iTools, .Mac and MobileMe. Similarly, while everyone remembers the original iPhone in 2007, nobody remembers the iTunes-supporting Motorola Rokr from 2005.

The company is forging a markedly different path from its competitors, but it could work. It doesn’t offer virtual reality and big studio support like the PS4 (and likely upcoming PS5) but it runs on a convenient device and offers access everywhere. It doesn’t have the any-device compatibility of Stadia, but it runs offline. Pricing is yet to be announced, but Apple may have finally found its gaming niche.

Additional reporting by Danny Paez.