Apple Arcade

We have cable TV at home. I rarely watch anything live as it airs. Everything is recorded, and the fast forward button on the remote is probably one of the most worn keys. Adverts suck. When you are introduced to a better world, it’s really hard to go back. I hate TV ads even for the duration that I’m fast-forwarding past them.

Whatever the ethicalness of DVR’ing television and skipping the ad breaks is, the simple fact is you can’t do the same thing with apps. If there’s an ad-ridden game, you are seeing the banner ads. You are watching the interstitial ads. Often, you complete a level, you are subjected to watching a sponsored video, and then you get kicked back to the menu screen which has a persistent banner across the bottom.

If ads are one tier of ickiness, the pseudo-gambling virtual currency mechanisms are a million times worse. Nevertheless, that is the status quo of the App Store. It’s so dominant that it’s actively difficult to find titles that do not feature those things. In many cases, a game will have both ads and in-app purchases galore.

Arcade has value on that axis alone; a simple place to find games that do not have those distractions and borderline casino business models. It also helps that the Arcade games are good.

There are currently about 70 titles on offer, spanning a diverse set of genres. There’s puzzle games, RPGs, endless runners, the works. There’s really deep adventures and other games suited to be played in bitesize five-minutes-of-fun chunks on the bus. Apple is promising there will be 100 Arcade games before the end of the year.

I’ve been playing What the Golf, Assemble with Care, and just started Don’t Bug Me. They are engaging and work great on the iPhone. I’m having fun playing with them and not seeing a single ad in that time is — truly — a breath of fresh air. I play Words with Friends with my family, and its egregious usage of advertising is more annoying than ever before. Before, I’d put up with it. Now, I actively detest it. And Arcade has been out for a fortnight.

I’d love for Arcade to offer an ad-free Scrabble clone. Arcade has a word game called Word Laces. It’s fine, but the best thing about it is that it is ad-free. What’s weird when you are playing Arcade titles is that your brain is accustomed to freemium tropes. You are primed to expect a paywall screen that your gems have run out of juice or you need to buy this lightning bolt gizmo to progress. And those things just don’t exist.

Word Laces has a lightbulb button that gives you a hint if you get stuck in a puzzle. It took me a week to have the innate confidence to tap it because my brain was avoiding it, automatically ascribing it as some sort of in-app purchase thing. Nope. You tap the lightbulb, you get a hint.

Apple’s marketing describes the Arcade library as a collection of “groundbreaking” titles that “redefine” games. I don’t get that feeling. The games are not really innovative, they are pretty standard. It’s almost like putting the Steam indie catalogue on your phone. I haven’t seen any Arcade game so far that surprised me with an innovative premise. I don’t care. I like that the games are new releases, offering new content, and I like that they are fun. Being “groundbreaking” is not what interests me.

Arcade is great. You should try it. $4.99 for six people spanning iPhone, iPad, TV and Mac is good value pricing. Nevertheless, it’s not perfect.

I mentioned I downloaded three Arcade games to my phone. I also downloaded many more titles and promptly deleted them after a few minutes, including some of the flagship Arcade recommendations like Hot Lava and Oceanhorn 2.

They aren’t bad games, but they aren’t suited for the phone. Hot Lava really warrants an iPad-or-larger screen to be enjoyed, and the touch control scheme is unplayable. I don’t know how anyone could get past the first level in Hot Lava without a controller with physical buttons. Even more trivially, the performance of the game is poor. It makes my phone run really hot and my 2015-era iPad Pro exhibits terrible FPS. Oceanhorn is a bit better phone optimised, but it still feels too constrained.

Arcade has a lot of games that are clearly not designed for the iPhone and yet probably fantastic TV, iPad or Mac experiences. Similarly, a physical game controller is effectively required for some titles. However, Arcade is careless in this regard. The storefront is identical across every platform and is not personalised for you, or your devices.

A big part of the value proposition of Apple Music is its carefully-curated playlists of songs. Arcade doesn’t have much of that. I don’t think Hot Lava should be the top recommendation when I’m browsing the Arcade tab on my phone. The store shouldn’t recommend games if the device I am browsing with is too underpowered. Seriously, try playing Hot Lava on an Apple TV HD, the non-4K model. It’s a mess of jaggies and dropped frames. Yet when I updated my Apple TV to tvOS 13, Arcade was proudly recommending Hot Lava as a daily play. It reflects badly on Arcade, and it reflects badly on the Apple hardware.

Arcade needs better curation and better organisation. Arcade doesn’t really have categories to browse by genre and there are no charts for ‘most played’ or ‘hot’ games. It’s hard to even view the entire catalogue of games. You have to open the Arcade tab in the App Store, scroll to the very bottom, tap ‘See All Games’ and then scroll a flat list of games in reverse-chronological order. This will only become more unwieldy as new games are added.

Arcade is also a very isolating experience because there is effectively zero social integration. All the games diligently implement Game Center, supporting high scores and achievements. There should be a single place where you can see progress across all of your Arcade games and compare against other people, at least the other people in your Family Sharing group. Even something akin to Apple Music’s ‘Friends Are Listening To’ feature would go a long way.

It’s almost claustrophobic to pack all of this stuff into one tab inside the App Store app. Perhaps, they would be better off with a dedicated Arcade app that can have sections for your library, game recommendations, Game Center achievements, top charts, and search. Interestingly, the Apple TV actually does have a dedicated Arcade app, but there’s no additional functionality exposed there yet. It just mirrors what is shown under the Arcade section in the App Store.

I was also disappointed to find some games inside Arcade that behave like they depend on freemium mechanics, even though they don’t. These games were obviously in development before Apple approached them with its service and have been quickly ported over with the in-app purchases removed. Sonic Racing is a good example of this. It has so many things you can unlock that intrude on the actual gameplay, that only exist because they were meant to be avenues for monetisation. Sonic Racing isn’t even optimised for notch phones; the top toolbar on the game’s main screen is cut off by the Face ID camera housing.

Apple should not have let these big publishers get away with being so tasteless. Apple should scrutinise the finesse of every game, regardless of who made it. Arcade is meant to be a premium service of good games after all. And it mostly is, but there are a handful of slackers in the mix.

As it stands, the infrastructure of the Arcade storefront is at minimum-viable product level. I think Arcade is off to a great start but I hope there’s a lot more in the pipeline. We also have to keep abreast of what new games are added, at what frequency, and whether they maintain the generally high standards of quality. It’s also not entirely clear to me … can a developer choose to leave Arcade and take their games out of the subscription? That would sour the appeal of the service significantly.