Apple Arcade and the future(s)

Monday, September 23, 2019

Comments: 4   (latest April 20, 2020)

Tagged: apple, apple arcade, indiepocalypse, economics, subscriptions, mobile, iphone

Apple Arcade's launch is splattered all over the pundosphere, with every possible hot take from "This is pretty good" to "This could be a problem."

I haven't tried Arcade yet. I'm waiting for iOS 13.1 to drop on Tuesday. Also, I'm wallowing in new unplayed PC games already (Little Misfortune, Asshole Goose Game, etc). A free trial month of 75 more games feels like more of a threat than a promise. But hey, I can still blog about it.

Everybody(*) loves Apple Arcade for obvious reasons. "This is a really good deal for players"; "Apple pushes back against manipulative free-to-play crap." These are both true statements. They both amount to the same thing: Apple is investing a lot of money in iOS games and releasing them for way below cost.

This is great for the devs involved. I recognize a lot of names on that launch list and I am happy for them. But it also leaves us wondering how long the party will last, and who will be invited. Community nerves are already sensitized, or just rubbed raw, by the arguments around the Epic Game Store. Epic is also in its money-hose platform-building stage -- but for how long?

Thus the asterisk on the statement above. Investment dollars and free games buy a lot of love and a lingering whiff of fear. It's hard not to see Arcade as yet another stride in the race to the bottom. Is the "premium" pay-up-front game about to suffocate?

It's worth remembering that "race to the bottom" predates creepy pay-to-win gem-and-crate mechanics. The phrase was being kicked around in 2009; the App Store was barely a year old.

I'm not sure whether to blame that early downward rush on oversupply, cutthroat developer competition, or subtle Apple manipulation. Apple didn't distinguish "top paid games" from "top games" for quite some time, so free games dominated the early App Store listings. Not to mention, iOS game prices started an order of magnitude below desktop. Somebody must have spent time pushing the idea that $60 AAA, $40 feature, $20 niche-indie would never exist as mobile categories. I don't know if it was Apple; it could have been publisher groupthink. But it was still a decision.

Whatever the process, the low prices were all to Apple's roaring advantage. Apple didn't care about their 30% cut of 99 cents. They wanted every shiny new iPhone to come with a flood of nearly-free software. They got that.

Now Apple is trying to change the course of the flood... maybe... for some developers... or maybe just shift it to erode a different levee. (Sorry, that metaphor sank.) The boom, by definition, cannot last. Let's game out (ho ho) the possible futures.

World 1: Apple keeps pumping in money forever. Epic wants to profit off its store someday, but Apple doesn't have to. In theory Apple could keep the money-hose running forever: write off Arcade funding as a loss-leader to sell iPhones. (Just like they pump money into iOS development and then give the OS away free with hardware.) I don't think Apple wants to do this, given flattened iPhone sales and their talk about "shifting to services". But nothing is certain.

In this future, premium is dead. You'd have to be stupid to spend your own money competing with games that Apple is funding. You'd also have to be stupid to pay money up front for any game when all the good stuff is on Arcade. The rest of the App Store's "Games" tab becomes a sea of free-to-play or actually-free games.

World 2: Apple stops pumping money, continues curating a list of games for Arcade. The $5/month subscription fee goes to support a relatively small pool of developers plus a cut for Apple. It's hard to say whether the numbers make sense (we haven't seen any numbers) but it's at least possible that this is self-sustaining.

In this future, Arcade effectively becomes a prestige publishing label. It's awesome for the devs who are selected, but most games aren't on it. You'll still be able to find premium games on the regular App Store. Life won't get easier for devs, but it might not get much harder. (Existing prestige publishers like Annapurna might feel like they're swimming in a whale tank, though.)

Apple's curation biases obviously become important in this case. The launch list for Arcade is pretty diverse, which is a bias in itself: it implies a future with more creative ideas and fewer tired clones. That would be nice, of course, but it's still Apple making the calls. Don't expect gay bathhouse games.

World 3: Apple stops pumping money, makes Arcade a service that any dev can opt into. That sentence shatters into nonsense even as I type. How can a $5/month fixed fee support an unlimited number of developers? It can't. (As noted, iPhone ownership has plateaued.) Ergo, Arcade will de-facto be limited to a small slice of games.

Why do I say this? The subscription money will be divided up according to some formula. We haven't heard anything about what that might be, but it will inevitably favor some kind of game. (If it's per hour played, for example, short narrative games and hand-crafted puzzlers will be frozen out.) Devs will figure this out and optimize. That kind of game will take all the Arcade money. Everybody else will go back to the regular App Store.

It doesn't have to be "per hour played". If the subscription money is divided evenly between developers, then big games with high production values will be frozen out; Arcade will be flooded with quickies. If the subscription money is handed out proportional to popularity, then a few popular games will eat the pie and everybody else will be frozen out.

However it works out, I think Arcade will rapidly lose the glow of prestige in this future. Premium games will have to stay away. Without Apple's river of cash, the numbers won't be attractive to most developers.

World 4: Arcade fails and Apple shuts it down. Apple pulls a Google (Reader, Plus, ...) (Remember Ping?) After one or three or five years, we're back where we are today -- except players are more bitter about paying for games. I can't see the masses rushing back to premium shouting "Yes, we want to pay money up front again!" The future becomes a painful parade of Google and Amazon and flippin' Facebook trying to "do Arcade right", meaning cheaper for players and worse for developers. Whoever wins, we lose.

You see that I'm taking the economist's view. Mobile gaming (and gaming in general) has too few dollars chasing too many games. Thus all the hurt: falling prices, the sea of manipulative free-play strategies we all hate. A real economist, which I am not, might be able to determine which of those is the cause and which is the effect! I hope someone's looking at that. In the meantime, we make guesses.

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