Apple Arcade's Strength Lies in its Diversity, But Still Has Questions to Answer

By Alistair Jones on at

Lifelike’s developers describe it as “a mesmerising particle symphony.” In the newly-released Apple Arcade title, players control an unassuming yellow dot, flicking it laconically across the screen in search of nests of gently spiralling particles, each of which react to your presence in a different way. As you explore each level these nests collide, creating swirling, pulsing, living hybrids; some drift slowly in circles around you, others scatter at your touch; one combination shot outwards, directing me to my next objective, another saw clouds of blue and yellow drift together in a scene reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Developer Kunabi Brother claims that there’s nothing else like it on Apple Arcade and, from what I’ve seen so far, that seems pretty accurate. While Lifelike uses sound and light to emulate meditative techniques, encouraging players to relax without them even realising, at the other end of the spectrum is something like Redout: Space Assault, a fast-paced bullet-hell inspired by breakneck racing games. It’s a jarring comparison, but indicative of the breadth of the service, even at this early stage.

Such diversity is brought together by something of a theme. Scan down the list of titles available at launch and the prevalence of cartoonish pick-up-and-play titles is immediately obvious, but those more casual titles are joined by acclaimed narrative adventures like The Bradwell Conspiracy and NeoCab, as well as follow-ups to indie hits like Enter the Gungeon, Abzu and Mini Metro.

Apple Arcade is recognisably a mobile platform but already spans a broader spectrum than such a designation might suggest; myriad art styles and genres can be found throughout the launch catalogue, and there are games using the service to attempt things that haven’t taken off in the mobile space. Hogwash’s asymmetrical multiplayer sees three piglets attempt to muddy a farmer’s prize possessions, offering a light-hearted twist on games like Evolve and Dead by Daylight; Monomals wants to build a community of musicians whose compositions stem from the game’s colourful underwater gameplay; everything from hardcore 1v1s to chaotic couch co-op is covered within the current roster.

But while Apple Arcade already boasts an impressive collection, other aspects of the service give cause for concern.

An obvious initial hurdle is discoverability. Apple claims that while the App Store has been a key part of mobile gaming for years, the Arcade will make it easier “for games to get the audience they deserve.” Alongside the suggestion that Apple will pay developers enough to realise their creative freedom, the Arcade bears a striking similarity to the Epic Store, which attempts to offer an alternative to Steam’s hyper-saturated marketplace. It’s a noble idea but, despite 100 games available at launch and more on the way, there’s little sense of how the service will be curated going forward. Nor is there a way for those games that ‘deserved’ an App Store audience but missed out to have another go on a different platform: Apple Arcade is emphatically for new games.

The legacy of these games and the software needed to run them is also cause for potential concern. Currently, all Apple Arcade titles are intended to run on the newly-launched iOS 13. As long as you can run that operating system, Apple claims that you’ll be able to play. But the software giant rolls out a new version of iOS every year, and any long-term iOS gamer can attest to the fact that a lot of older games simply don't work anymore. It also has the expectation that players will be using relatively new hardware. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not long until some subscribers’ devices - and some of those older games - can’t keep up.

Furthermore, if you choose to end your Arcade subscription then you’ll lose access to your games, even if you’ve already downloaded them and only play offline. That’s something we’ve come to expect to some extent: videogame rental has existed since the days of Blockbuster, and the prevalence of services like PS Plus and Xbox Game Pass mean that PC and console players are aware that they don’t own the games they ‘borrow.’ But it feels like somewhat untrodden ground on this particular platform - while Google’s working on its own app subscription, there’s currently no parallel on mobile, and no sense that you don’t possess the apps you're paying for.

Apple Arcade’s breadth (and backing) will no doubt make it a force to be reckoned with, not only in mobile markets, but throughout the indie sphere. As major publishers like Riot, Blizzard, and Epic continue to push into mobile markets, providing a space for smaller developers to experiment and flourish should be commended, especially when there’s already so many different games on offer, and the offer to fund developers' creative endeavours is something that the wider industry is only just looking towards.  But that unprecedented diversity is attached to a service that doesn’t really exist within its industry, and I’m not sure Apple knows what its Arcade is going to look like five or ten years down the line. Perhaps it doesn’t need to, and will roll with the punches as the industry continues to evolve but, for now, I’m approaching the service with pretty cautious optimism.