Apple Arcade: high caliber games with quality of life issues

Apple Arcade is a no-brainer investment for devoted iPhone gamers; for five dollars a month, you get a wealth of top tier, original mobile titles. But if you’re not already actively invested in mobile gaming today, Apple Arcade may not be the service that makes you a believer. As an already devoted console gamer, the service didn’t provide enough to keep me paying.

That caveat shouldn’t distract from the quality of games offered here. Given the usual knocks against mobile as a gaming platform — lack of genre variety, monetization in the form of annoying microtransactions — Apple had an uphill climb. But as a credit to the high bar Apple has set, I found many quality titles within a few hours of play.

Out of the thirty or so games I previewed, I had ten clear winners that were the focus of my thirty-day trial. That’s an impressive hit to miss ratio, especially in light of the usually meager “launch library” that most new consoles have in the first weeks of their lifespan. Grindstone, a match puzzler from the wizards at Capy, started monopolizing my morning commute. I finished several enjoyable, short adventure games on business trips and the couch through my Apple TV (Assemble With Care, Neo Cab).

But three weeks in, the honeymoon period ended. Quality of life issues started to pile up. First I ran into syncing problems. I’d start a game offline (usually in the subway or on a plane) and transition online only to find the game reset my progress. Or my iPhone save wouldn’t correctly transfer to the Apple TV. Admittedly the problem rests on developers, not Apple directly; an iCloud API serves as the backbone for Apple Arcade sync. It is on individual game developers to implement it as they see fit. Nevertheless, the errors made me wary of starting a game in any condition where I didn’t have a reliable internet connection.

Also, few Arcade titles support background audio to listen to your music or podcast of choice. The moment you jump back into gameplay your soundtrack pauses as the game’s kicks back in. It’s a developer-based problem, but one I’m surprised wasn’t caught aggressively in QA given how popular streaming and podcast apps are. As a huge podcast listener, I found myself having to choose between podcasts or Arcade games on the go. What I first expected to be a minor inconvenience on paper dramatically cut back chances to squeeze Apple Arcade into my daily routine.

Even with some sync and soundtrack problems, I had high hopes for Apple Arcade at home. A DualShock 4 controller paired with my Apple TV HD might have made the service an interesting counterpoint to a traditional console. But for most games I tried, the slow performance was a show stopper. Frame rates would frequently dip into what felt like the single digits to the point where several action-oriented titles were unplayable. Granted, my Apple TV HD has a processor four years older than my iPhone. Still, I expected the graphical quality to scale (e.g., a cut back on texture quality, shadows, draw distance) to address performance problems. Strangely this never happened; graphics remained in a pristine condition even as the moving image chugged and stuttered.

Cumulatively, these otherwise small issues became impossible to ignore. Maybe I’m just spoiled by conveniences that in the console space I take for granted. On my PS4 and Switch, save syncing just works. Performance issues are rare. I also prefer how console titles, on average, provide a far more immersive experience suited for longer play sessions. That bite-sized game focus isn’t the fault of Apple Arcade on its own, and you can find several exceptional titles in the service that provide long, engrossing storylines. Nevertheless, the service can’t overcome iOS’s predominant setup. A small screen, touch controls, and short bursts of playtime during a commute shifts standards in a different direction than sitting on a couch with button-based input and a 4K TV.

Looking back at my trial period, Apple Arcade failed to make any lasting impression on me for fairly clear cut reasons, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. Reactions were hot on Arcade with its initial launch, but lately, the buzz within tech and social media has dropped precipitously.

I admit my console-centric tastes don’t portend doom for Apple Arcade. I’d bet that the service will be a sizable revenue generator for the company; there’s a lot of families otherwise stuck in microtransactions hell that will readily jump on Arcade’s flat rate as a better alternative. Take a fraction of the remaining massive iOS base willing to sign up, and we’re talking a lot of money. Nevertheless, there’s a big difference between another reliable revenue stream for Apple, and one that’s so culturally significant it pulls momentum away from the existing console and PC space. The former is a safe bet; the latter I’m increasingly convinced won’t happen.