“I think the opinion in the zeitgeist is that mobile games have become free-to-play and that the market has spoken,” Andrew Schimmel, lead producer of critically-acclaimed mobile skateboarding game Skate City tells Gadgets 360. “And to be successful on mobile, you have to have a free-to-play game where your design is focused around monetisation loops, and loot boxes, and all those sort of secondary design tenants. It's not the sort of game that we want to make or the game that we want to play. So being able to make premium games in a new arena where you can take risks again and try to make bold things and step away from sort of what's been done for is a really cool, exciting space to be in as a developer.”
By “new arena”, Schimmel is referring to Apple Arcade, the subscription-based video gaming service that was announced earlier this year and is now available on iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV. With the latest software updates, you'll see a new “Arcade” tab in the App Store. For Rs. 99 a month in India ($5 in the US), owners of Apple devices get access to over 70 exclusive games — and growing — that don't have any advertisements or in-app purchases. You can play all of them online or offline. Better yet, up to six (Apple) family members can enjoy all those games at that low price.
“It's unbelievable — 99 bucks for six people in your family, and you'll get all the games for free,” Lucid Labs founder Chirag Chopra, behind the Arcade game Possessions, tells us. “And if you look at the kind of games, the quality of the game, you see that you'd probably end up paying $5–8 (about Rs. 350–570) per game, if you were to buy those games on the App Store. It's good, because look at the effort that goes into jailbreaking the device and then pirating those apps versus pay 99 bucks and you will have these cool games. But yes, time will tell.”
That's partly the same argument as that made by streaming services against digital movie purchases. Why buy one movie for Rs. 500 when you can have 3,000 of them for the same price? But unlike films, games don't play across platforms. That's obviously the case with Arcade too, which is essentially part of Apple's attempt to diversify its revenue stream with the help of services, to counter the growth slowdown on the hardware side of things.
Apple's hunt for diversification is great news for game developers like Schimmel and Chopra who are trying to make premium games in a free-to-play world. Per a report that looked at all of 2018, free-to-play games — across mobile, console, and PC — brought in $88 billion (about Rs. 6.25 lakh crores). The size of the gaming market in total? $110 billion (about Rs. 7.8 lakh crores). But Arcade developers don't have to worry about the game's recurrent micro-earning potential. Or even what it should cost in the first place.
“We've been talking about how we should price Where Cards Fall since we started working on it four years ago,” Snowman founder and creative director Ryan Cash tells Gadgets 360. Best known for the Alto series — Alto's Adventure and Alto's Odyssey — Snowman worked with The Game Band on Where Cards Fall, which has been in development by creator Sam Rosenthal since his college days a decade ago. Snowman is also a partner on Skate City. “It's the kind of game that's quite serious, it tells a very important story. And it's quite a lengthy game, it's between 10 and 20 hours, depending on how you get through the puzzles. So it's a game that would normally be, maybe on other platforms, $20 (about Rs. 1,400), or something around that price point.
“But we wanted to reach a wide variety of people and really expand the game's audience. The best way to do that would be to make it free. But Where Cards Fall is certainly not like a free-to-play game where you can throw ads and in-app purchases at it. It would totally ruin the experience. And then going for a price like 99 cents (about Rs. 70) where you can get the volume in, cheapens the product and makes people not really take it seriously. So that was always a big discussion point and always a bit of a struggle. I think if it weren't for Arcade, we probably would have launched the game for $5, maybe as sort of an introductory price and eventually brought it up to $10. But it's really a game that we ideally would have wanted to sell for $20, maybe even $30.”
Owing to the shrinking space for premium games, it's been a long road for some Arcade developers. With Possessions, Chopra has been on a winding three-year journey. After an initial bit of development, back when Possessions was being developed for multiple platforms, he took it to Google's Indie Games Accelerator programme, where the Android maker brought together around 30 Asian developers to train and mentor them. That lasted for four months. Soon after Chopra & Co. graduated from the Google benefit, they landed a publisher in Noodlecake Studios, which helped them with funding and improving the game.
“We received so much feedback about how [augmented reality] would be a cool thing to add to it, because the mechanics make sense,” Chopra adds. “And how we can also add some story narrative element to it, because there's no depth to the game. It wasn't something that we were not planning to do anyway but we required some direction in order to pursue it properly.”
Other changes were necessitated by way of bringing it to Arcade, as Cash explains: “Skate City was intended as a mobile-only game that was designed for the iPhone and the iPad. So we did have to kind of go, ‘Okay, how are we going to bring this to Apple TV and to the Mac in a way that felt kind of true to the game spirit and felt native to those platforms?'”
Chopra concurs and says it took a lot of time to port Possessions to Apple TV, owing to hardware optimisations and getting it to work with the Siri remote. For what it's worth, Apple maintains a “very close-knit relationship” with developers, guiding them on how to make the game and supporting them with development funds. Chopra calls Arcade “a miraculous opportunity” and adds: “If you are building a cool game and Apple likes it, then Apple will do whatever it can to make sure that it sees the light of day and you are comfortable making it.”
Being on Arcade does have its downsides for now, as Cash says: “I think the one thing that we're always kind of reminding ourselves of is that a lot of regular people who don't work in tech or games, they haven't updated to iOS 13 yet, potentially. And if they're not the kind of people who follow the [Apple] keynote and read the blogs, there's a good chance that they haven't even noticed Apple Arcade yet.”
Schimmel states that he's “been explaining to a lot of fans how to go about downloading the game. So that's something that we're going to be addressing, see if we can make those barriers a little shorter, and figure out how to make it more natural for players to hop into the game, as it would be in the regular App Store. And I think that's just an issue with the early evolution of the service.”
And while it looks great for Apple to have more than 70 Arcade titles at launch, that presents an obvious discoverability problem for the developers of said games. Moreover, the big caveat for Arcade in countries such as India is the negligible adoption rate of Apple's devices — per latest available numbers, the iPhone accounted for less than 3 percent of all mobiles. In India then, Arcade is catering to a tiny subset (one that pays for monthly subscriptions) of that tiny share. Thankfully, Apple has 1.4 billion active devices across the world. (That figure also includes the Apple Watch, which doesn't support Arcade.)
Chopra claims Possessions has outperformed Lucid Labs' previous Apple games, partly due to the global spotlight it got on the front page of Arcade earlier in October but mainly because it's a new thing right now, which means users are curious to try out Arcade and see what it offers. And it helps that Apple is offering a one-month free trial, which is what ever Arcade user is currently on, and it's been less than a month since launch. Chopra isn't thinking about bringing Possessions to other platforms as they are contractually bound to be exclusive for Arcade for a few years, while Cash and Schimmel say they will consider that option for Where Cards Fall and Skate City once it's a viable option.
Meanwhile, they will continue making games for Apple Arcade. (If you're wondering whether a third Alto game is on the cards, Snowman has nothing to announce for now.) Cash calls it “the ideal home for the kind of stuff that we want to make” and adds: “Back in the day, it was all about making a game as fun as possible. It was never about designing with monetisation in mind. You always just knew you're making a game and you're going to sell it. And so, I think we're really going to see better game design in the future for mobile as well.
“Because if people are making a game for Apple Arcade, it's really just like what's fun, what's getting my goal across, or maybe telling a powerful story. But you don't have to think, ‘Okay, like, how are we going to hook someone to spend money?'. I think we're going to get a pure gaming experience out of that. And I think that's quite exciting.”