Will Apple Arcade be a beacon of hope?

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An Apple Macintosh with the title "Arcade Opportunity"

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Title card created using: A selection of games announced for Apple Arcade (captured from https://www.apple.com/apple-arcade/ on 29 March 2019), Macintosh 128k vector by Juan Cruz Budin at http://juancruz.co/

Overcoming the over-played and over-paid.

Apple announced its upcoming gaming platform, Apple Arcade, a subscription service that promises no ads and no in-app purchases. I am tentatively excited. I love video games. Games that have a story to tell or have fun gameplay that hook you for hours. I have however, been turned off by the trend of free-to-play games which are supported by ads or in-app purchases. Free-to-play games are not the kinds of experiences I want to have on my phone. As a developer, it would be fun to take shot at making a mobile game but would anyone play if it wasn’t free? Apple Arcade could be a beacon of hope in an App Store that is flooded with cash grabs.

Free-to-play games are not the kinds of experiences I want to have on my phone.

Video games are a form of media which incorporate so many other art forms into an interactive package. They have inspired me since I was a child regardless of platform. Games have enthralled me on home consoles such as PlayStation with Red Dead Redemption and Nintendo Switch with Super Mario Odyssey. Late nights and many hours have been sunk into Civilization on PC. Despite this, there are no games on my phone. It’s a perfectly capable device that I carry around with me all the time but I haven’t played any games on it for months. The last game I actively played for a few hours was Mini Metro which is fantastic but it’s not something that’s engaging for long periods of time. So why don’t I play games on my phone? It’s not that I am opposed to playing games on my phone, it’s because there are very few mobile games that I like. There is the occasional gem but they are so often lost in a sea of free-to-play games I just can’t bear to play.

Free-to-play games on the App Store are engineered to maximize the amount of ad revenue they can take in over long periods of time. They are free to download but you pay for them tenfold in wasted time and/or money. These games aim to make a game-play loop that is addictive and rewarding so they can keep you engaged long enough to bombard you with ads. Ads can come in a few different forms. A beautifully crafted score screen will be violently plastered over with an irrelevant banner ad. You may be forced to endure a full screen video or interactive ad between levels. You’ll be offered in-game rewards to watch more ads. The alternative to this is in-app purchases. You will be incentivized to play through real monetary risk and reward. Not so much as to quench your gaming thirst but instead to force you to wait until an artificial timer runs out. Of course you could always pay for the privilege of playing again. The overall experience is frustrating so that you might consider paying to remove the ads. Games with in-app purchases are more akin to gambling than gaming, utilizing dark patterns to hook players and empty their pockets. The same hooks which are used in slot-machines are employed in many popular games on mobile, although not inherently damaging on its own, the aggressive promotion of in-app purchases is somewhat predatory. This is not the enjoyable, rewarding and addictive gaming experience that I grew to love. How did it become this way?

gameplay screen
microtransaction modal showing in-game currency to buy
gameplay with no moves left

The progression of hook to microtransaction incentive to timer (captured on device from Board Kings on iOS, March 2019)

Money is the driving force behind decisions to include in-app purchases and advertising, it can be a very lucrative business model — far more so than a single up-front purchase. Video games are a pulled by very opposing forces, they are creative endeavors but they are also a product made to be sold. The greatest strength of video games is the combination of different mediums like music, storytelling and art which culminate into experiences that everyone can enjoy. This is also the pitfall of video games, they can be expensive to plan, build, market and distribute. With all the time and effort that goes into making a game, how can it be sold to as many people as possible to make back the investment?

Arcade machines of yore made their money from attracting patrons and asking them to become skilled at the game. By paying to play, not too dissimilar to how free-to-play mobile games get revenue today, players would test their skill and over time become adept at the game. If you could build an arcade cabinet where two or more players could compete, you could foster competition and encourage players to practice with a passion all the while, collecting coins.

Revenue Stream: Slow, steady and consistent low rate

Home console and PC gaming changed the environment of playing video games. You couldn’t encourage people to spend money like at an arcade cabinet but you could charge for a product up front. This changed game design, a home experience encourages more depth and longevity than an arcade game. This is the experience I grew up with, going to the store and buying a physical game. Eventually the introduction of downloadable content or expansions would try and convince you there was enough content to justify another purchase.

Revenue Stream: Fast, steady and inconsistent high rate

Mobile games have multiple different options when it comes to generating revenue but have followed a trend towards free-to-play. By dropping the barrier to entry, it’s easy to start and quick to become addicting. Once the player is hooked, they are encouraged to spend money or time in a variety of ways. This may be through advertising for those who are averse at paying anything directly or it could be a small cost that occurs every now and then. A game can cater to a very large audience and make consistent small amounts of ad revenue from all players. Some players will opt to enhance their play experience with small in-app purchases. A very small number of players may choose to spend large amounts of money on their experience.

Revenue Stream: Moderate speed and consistent but varied rate

Game creators and publishers have a few different ways to make money but unfortunately, the majority of mobile games are designed to make as much money as possible to the determent of quality. In-app purchases are promoted to players constantly and dark patterns are employed to encourage spending. This can be as simple as hiding the dismiss button in the corner of the screen or forcing you to wait a few seconds for it to become tap-able. If you do spend money on in-app purchases, methods of indirection are used to make it difficult to track how much you’ve spent over time. By creating an in-game economy where you have to trade between real currency to one or more in-game currencies makes it difficult to form the connection between what you are spending and what you are receiving in-game. When you buy 60 gems and then use those gems to buy 20 more moves, there is an intentional disconnect. This is Apple Arcades value proposition.

A subscription service like Apple Arcade has the potential to revive the experiences I want to play and enjoy on my phone without the focus on dark patterns and deceptive practices. A subscription model has the opportunity to separate paying and playing that is far too tightly intertwined in the current mobile gaming sphere. It will foster experiences that are unique, experimental, artistic and varied without the pressure and influence of in-app purchases or advertising. It can be a safe space for children to play games that don’t gamify gambling. I hope Apple Arcade will encourage creators to focus on experiences *not *crafted to extract as much money as possible through nefarious means but to be experiences we remember. Time will tell whether or not it allows creators to make the games they want to make and get paid doing it. I can only hope that soon there will be games on my phone again, games that I look forward to playing without the harassment of ads and in-app purchases which sour the experience.

Seth Corker

A Fullstack Software Engineer working with React and Django. My main focus is JavaScript specialising in frontend UI with React. I like to explore different frameworks and technologies in my spare time. Learning languages (programming and real life) is a blast.