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Apple Arcade teeters on irrelevance as it desperately seeks ‘engagement’

A report from Bloomberg on June 30 revealed an apparent change in direction for Apple Arcade, the company’s subscription game service. According to the report, Apple has canceled contracts with several developers “while seeking other titles that it believes will better retain subscribers.” According to Bloomberg, Apple wants games that will keep players hooked — and subscribed to Arcade. Grindstone, an action-puzzle game with tons of levels and constant progression, is cited as an example of what Apple is looking for.

Apple Arcade’s original pitch focused more on high-quality, innovative games. This is, in fact, still what you’ll see when visiting Apple’s site for Arcade, which promises “games that redefine games.” Apple’s launch promoted small, innovative, self-contained games like Sayonara Wild Hearts, Sneaky Sasquatch, Exit the Gungeon, and Overland.

Arcade’s launch lineup looked strong. Yet it has slowed to a trickle since. Only 20 new games have appeared on Arcade in 2020. Worse, many of those games have failed to stand out. Games like Beyond a Steel Sky and Crossy Road Castle are exceptions to the rule, but while they stand out on the roster, they’re not enough to propel Arcade forward.

A focus on “engagement” will mean different games

Now, with a shift in focus toward engagement, it’s unclear if Apple’s past branding of Arcade will remain true for the service going forward.

Most games promoted by Apple at the launch of Arcade are small, tight experiences. They’re games built to wow the player with a novel experience, which also means they’re not designed to bring in repeat players. You start them, experience them, then put them down.

A drive toward engagement will push Arcade away from games like these and toward titles that are more like the mobile gaming market overall.

Grindstone for iOS

Grindstone, which reportedly represents the direction Arcade wants to pursue, illustrates the point. I like Grindstone. It’s a fun action-puzzle game supported by outstanding art. Still, it’s not fundamentally different from comparable free-to-play games in the genre. It delivers brief, snackable, repetitive levels inside the structure of a massive game with gobs of progression.

Massively multiplayer games provide a point of comparison. Some games in this genre are free and generate revenue microtransactions, while others are driven by subscriptions, and others take a hybrid approach. Whatever the business model, games in this genre — which is why massively multiplayer games never “end,” and instead focus on replayability.

Why does Apple Arcade need to exist at all?

Don’t get me wrong. I have no ax to grind with repetitive, replayable content. I’m a fan of massively multiplayer games, and actually prefer them over most single-player experiences. Still, I can’t help but feel that Apple’s shift in direction destroys the appeal of Arcade.

Engagement-driven games don’t just do well on mobile. They do so well they’ve crowded out smaller, carefully crafted games, suffocating innovation in the process. Arcade was Apple’s attempt to drag mobile gaming out of that rut.

Now, the company seems ready to abandon that fight — which begs a question. If Arcade is simply going to offer games similar to those available without a subscription, why does Apple Arcade need to exist at all?

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