Last week, Apple Arcade received its biggest update since launching back in 2019. More than 30 titles were added to the subscription service, including much-anticipated games like Hironobu Sakaguchi’s roleplaying epic Fantasian. But while the quantity and quality of titles added were impressive, the most important part of the announcement was a change in direction. Among those big-name exclusives were a number of classics, ranging from Monument Valley to chess to Threes, that help round out the service. Apple Arcade has finally matured into something close to a Netflix for mobile games.
“We opted for a much more analog methodology.” — Hironobu Sakaguchi on the hand-crafted world of Fantasian
Since the beginning, the pitch for Apple Arcade has been entirely centered on quality. While the App Store continues to devolve into a space dominated by free-to-play games, Arcade provided an alternative where some of the most talented developers in the world could create great mobile games without having to worry about monetization. It launched alongside new games from the likes of Zach Gage and Ustwo, and it has continued to add titles on a near-weekly basis. Subscribers get all of those games for a flat monthly fee. It’s been a solid service — but it’s always felt like something was missing.
When you sign up for something like Netflix, it might be because of one of the service’s big exclusive titles like The Witcher or Bridgerton. But that won’t necessarily keep you hooked. Part of what makes Netflix so compelling is everything else, from reality shows to classic sitcoms, that give you something to watch after you’re done with the big tent poles. Frequently, these aren’t traditional exclusives: think of how important Friends and The Office have become in the age of streaming TV.
Those kinds of experiences are something Apple Arcade didn’t really have before this shift. Now, though, when you’re done playing a short narrative game like, say, Creaks or Assemble With Care, there’s a lot more to keep you invested with recent additions like Good Sudoku or Threes.
Even better, while many of these games are available on other platforms or through the App Store, the Arcade versions are generally improved because they feature no form of in-app purchases or monetization. You won’t find puzzle or card games saddled with ads or have to open loot boxes in NBA 2K21. There’s even Star Trek: Legends — essentially a character-collecting gacha game — which almost feels strange to play without being prodded to spend money. (This lack of microtransactions makes Arcade a very family-friendly service.)
It’s also important to note that this change in strategy is additive. Apple has introduced two new categories to Arcade — one for older App Store hits, another for classic games like chess or solitaire — but it’s still releasing those big exclusive titles. In addition to Fantasian, last week’s update included Wonderbox (think Minecraft meets Zelda for younger players), World of Demons (the latest action game from PlatinumGames, the team behind Nier: Automata and Bayonetta), and Taiko no Tatsujin: Pop Tap Beat (a new entry in an excellent long-running rhythm game series). It’s a great and diverse lineup of experiences; sometimes scrolling through games on Arcade can feel like heading into an alternate reality version of what mobile gaming could have been if the race to free-to-play never happened.
Obviously, none of this is a guarantee of success. And if previous reports are to be believed, the shift appears to be a result of Arcade’s inability to keep subscribers hooked. While the subscription model is now dominant for the music, film, and television industries, it’s still relatively nascent for games. Outside of Xbox Game Pass, there hasn’t been a major success to date. Apple Arcade arguably faces a greater challenge being on mobile, where users have long been conditioned to expect games for free. The Netflix of games still feels inevitable, even if we’re not there yet — but Arcade feels closer than ever.