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Why are developers betting on Apple Arcade?

The mobile subscription service frees developers from monetisation worries, but questions linger about its future

Like Xbox Game Pass before it, Apple Arcade is vying to prove that the subscription model can transform the games industry just as it has other forms of entertainment. However, unlike Game Pass, the mobile service stands to reach a far broader audience thanks to the ubiquity of the devices that carry it.

Apple Arcade is still very new, having only launched in September, but it already has 100 games in its catalogue. At a recent event in London, an Apple representative said he believes this is "unprecedented within platform launches." The variety of games on offer is not insignificant, again speaking to the wider audience developers can reach through smartphones (and tablets, Macs and Apple TV, as the firm kept reminding us).

This reach is "invaluable" to studios like Italian startup 34bigthings, said co-founder Guiseppe Franchi. The developer's Arcade offering, sci-fi shooter Redout: Space Assault, is a prequel to the original Redout, which mainly appealed to hardcore PC gamers. With touch screen controls, or the ability to pair your device with a controller, 34bigthings has made Space Assault more accessible in the hopes of attracting a broader range of players.

The game was originally going to be self-published on PC and console (and will still launch on these platforms next year), but its inclusion in Apple Arcade as part of a subscription is both a "good deal" and opportunity for the studio.

Similarly, Lifelike -- the "mesmerising particle symphony" by Vienna-based indie Kunabi Brother -- is the type of game that stands a better chance of reaching people through a subscription. Based around various meditation concepts, this spiritual successor to the team's previous game Frost would have been "very risky" to release as a premium title.

"This is a very exotic and daring game concept, so Apple Arcade was the perfect game platform at the perfect time," said the studio's Julia Angerer.

Lifelike was officially produced by Apple, which means it was also at least partly funded by the electronics giant. While Kunabi Brother can't go into the specifics of the deal -- the same answer given by every developer on Arcade -- this "definitely encouraged us to take the risk to produce this."

Both Lifelike and Redout, along with most other games at the showcase, were previously planned as premium titles before their developers secured deals to launch on Apple Arcade. And Apple is also keen to offer games exclusive to the service, collaborating with more familiar names to produce them.

A surreal and meditative game from the makers of Frost, Lifelike would have been 'very risky' as a premium game but Apple Arcade takes the risk away

A surreal and meditative game from the makers of Frost, Lifelike would have been 'very risky' as a premium game but Apple Arcade takes the risk away

Pac-Man Party Royale, for example, was developed by Parisian studio Pastagames in partnership with Bandai Namco, specifically for Apple Arcade. Game designer Nadim Haddad said this required "a 100% different design."

"There's no in-app purchase, no advertising, nothing you're used to in modern mobile games," he explained. "So we could concentrate 100% on the gameplay itself."

"The curation is key to how this works. It's difficult for [Apple], having to experiment, but up until now we are very satisfied. They've done really well with the first steps"

Denis Mikan, Kunabi Brother

Picomy art director Jimmy De Meza echoed this. His studio's game Monomals -- which is about fishing for sound effects and using them to compose music -- was going to be a freemium game for Apple Watch. The scope and ambition grew beyond this platform, but since Apple paid to secure the game as an exclusive for Arcade, Picomy did not have to compromise on its design.

"We have all the freedom to keep the vision and develop the game according to how we see it, how it will work as the best experience for the player, and Apple has been really helpful with all the other parts of bringing the game to Arcade," said De Meza.

However, herein lies the first of many unanswered questions surrounding Apple Arcade. Neither the developers nor Apple are able to explain how studios are paid in the long term. Is the monthly fee split based on play time, or is it a one-off payment to get the game onto the service?

In a group Q&A, the Apple representative said: "Aside from the fact we help them financially, I can't get into [the details of] individual deals. From the feedback you'll get from the developers, I think you'll get that it's a great way for them to launch games."

Both Monomals and Pac-Man are expected to receive hefty updates in future, including new game modes, levels and characters. Yet it's unclear how the further development required for this post-launch content is funded. When asked, Pastagames' Haddad said, "That's an Apple question" -- an answer we heard from almost every developer on a variety of subjects.

It's safe to assume Apple has set aside a significant investment to fund this initial wave of titles. When appealing to an audience as vast and with such disparate tastes as iOS users, it serves to have 100-plus titles available within the first few weeks. But what happens when that initial cash pot runs out? How do developers get their games onto Arcade?

Monomals was originally designed for Apple Watch but its scope grew beyond this. Apple Arcade gave developer Picomy 'freedom to keep the vision' for what the game could be

Monomals was originally designed for Apple Watch but its scope grew beyond this. Apple Arcade gave developer Picomy 'freedom to keep the vision' for what the game could be

Another point of confusion is whether any of these launch games are permanent fixtures. From Netflix to Game Pass, most subscription services shake up their catalogue periodically, dropping older content in favour of the new.

Apple's representative emphasised that the service is too young, adding: "Right now, we're very focused on the launch part, so we're not thinking about or commenting on removing them."

He went on to assure that Arcade will always be "a very curated catalogue" focused around quality. While there's no defined upper limit for the number of titles Apple would like to see on the service, Arcade is not intended to become another App Store with hundreds of thousands of games.

"Subscription is the answer for all the people tired of the free-to-play model, because the advertisement, tracking and in-app purchases [are all gone]"

Charles Capelle, Bandai Namco

The Apple representative added: "You'll have a little bit of recommendation, but also a lot of editorially curated relevant categories and subcategories that we encourage you to browse. The idea is you can go in, explore, look at the product pages and find what you like. It's a hub for discoverability and finding games you might love."

Kunabi Brother boss Denis Mikan is encouraged by this, adding: "The curation is key to how this works -- how many titles and which titles are there, and of course how those titles are promoted on the App Store. It's also difficult for [Apple], having to experiment, but up until now we are very satisfied. I think they've done really well with the first steps."

In fact, one thing all the developers seem to be far less concerned about is the possibility of their games being buried. Given the challenge of discovery in the mobile market as it stands, 34bigthings' Franchi said Arcade developers are "in a privileged spot."

Mikan added: "When you compare to the number of apps on the premium market, Arcade really gives us more of a chance. If you're one of 100... it's an attractive spot to be. The premium market for such apps is tough. This takes the risk away. We don't know how it will go, but it really was a no-brainer for us."

One last oddity emerged from talking to Bandai Namco producer Charles Capelle, who revealed that, unlike with other mobile games, the publisher cannot directly track Pac-Man's performance. Instead, it relies on Apple to "tell us whether the game is successful or not."

On the one hand, this is freeing in its own way; no longer will studios have to pore over data in order to identify retention rates, average revenue per user, average session length and all the other metrics that drive the free-to-play market. On the other, Arcade developers are blind as to whether they're taking the right direction post-launch.

Pac-Man Party Royale was designed specifically for Apple Arcade, but oddly Bandai Namco has no ability to track its performance, instead relying on Apple

Pac-Man Party Royale was designed specifically for Apple Arcade, but oddly Bandai Namco has no ability to track its performance, instead relying on Apple

"[Data is] something that usually helps to make the game better, but because there's all this controversy about mobile gaming at the moment -- advertising is bad, tracking is bad, gacha boxes are bad -- it's also very refreshing as game designers to work on an Apple Arcade game because it allows us to focus on gameplay and not worry about monetisation aspects," Capelle said.

"It's a bit harder to update the game based on live data because we don't have it. But we can only use our gut feeling as game designers to figure out what's wrong, and also try to stay aware of the feedback from the community and bring fixes that directly answer that, but also what we think is missing from the game."

"There's no in-app purchase, no advertising, nothing you're used to in modern mobile games. So we could concentrate 100% on the gameplay itself"

Nadim Haddad, Pastagames

The biggest question the industry is waiting for an answer to is the impact subscription services will have on premium games. The market for premium games on mobile has been notoriously challenging for years, as audiences gravitated towards free-to-play, but Mikan believes Arcade and premium "will still co-exist together" -- especially as "it was before Apple Arcade that the premium market got tougher."

De Meza points out that, while the range of games in Arcade is broad, it might not (yet) have something that caters to particular tastes. And there will always be mobile users who would prefer to pay a one-off fee of £4.99 for a specific game, than £4.99 every month for a catalogue of hundreds.

Capelle declared subscription to be "the answer for all the people tired of the free-to-play model, because the advertisement, tracking and in-app purchases [are gone]."

He continued: "People are used to the subscription model on TV and in other media, so for video games it could be the answer and what some people expect. They really just want to pay at the beginning of every month and be done with it, not have to pay for DLC or loot boxes. I think it's a nice direction for the industry that's really allowing us to focus on game design.

"I know I'm repeating myself, but it's very important for game designers to not have to cut the part of their game or try to remove some of the fun or implement something that leads everyone to pay. We don't have to do that, and we can really make the game instantly fun because that's what we want."

34bigthings' chief marketing officer Max Da Viá added: "Subscription programs are becoming very popular, not only on mobile but also on all other platforms as well. I think there will still be space for premium products. Subscription will be used for catalogue or less relevant releases, I think big releases will still be released as premium products, both for mobile and for Steam."

Xbox recently said at the GamesIndustry.biz Investment Summit that not only are Game Pass subscribers playing more games, they're buying more of them as well. Will Arcade have the same effect on the App Store? The Apple representative was unsure, but he was quick to emphasise that the launch of Arcade does not equate to the death of premium games on iOS.

"There are games that are extremely successful on premium -- Minecraft is a good example," he concluded. "We think Apple Arcade is another way for people to play and will ultimately benefit our gaming ecosystem and gaming as a whole. People will just enjoy more, want to play more, want to experiment more, and that's something we want.

"This is complementary to games on the App Store and is just one more way to play. Maybe for some people it's the only way they'll play, but for many other people it's going to be one more."

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Latest comments (1)

Jacob Riis Communication Director, Nordic Game Program10 days ago
I think the arcade is a relief. Grindstone is my favourite example right now, a typical free-to-play gem-matching puzzle game but without all the annoying stuff. Looking forward to more of this.
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