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Apple Arcade: The Ultimate Guide

The best games, what it costs, how it works, and what it means for Apple’s future.

In the shortest possible terms, Apple Arcade is a video game subscription service.

It provides access to over 100 games on Apple devices including the iPhone, iPad, iPod, Apple TV, and Mac ranges.

The games are all exclusive to Apple Arcade, a nice selling point. So exclusive, in fact, that you can’t even buy them from the regular App Store.

This does, however, have an impact on the nature and quality of the games.

They are designed specifically for the Apple range of products, which can lead to some inventive and engaging new genres that get the most out of the devices.

If Apple does strike gold with its own must-have franchise, like Mario on the Nintendo platforms, this approach will pay off.

On the other hand, there is currently a lack of what industry types call “AAA games”, the pixelated equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. There is a Sonic the Hedgehog racing game, but it’s simply Not That Good.

Arcade launched on September 19 with 71 games from a wide range of independent and established developers. The number of games has grown consistently since then through mini-launches of ten or so games at a time.

If you sign up to the $4.99 (£4.99, AU$7.99) monthly service, you can play as many of the games as you like, with no ads.

The games must be downloaded to the device. This provides handy offline access but removes the “Netflix for games” appeal that other contenders hope to cash in on.

As with other apps, the games are added to the home screen once the download is complete.

There is a one-month free trial and that’s very much what I signed up for this week. We’re still unfunded here at hi, tech. so we’ll take freebies as and when they arise. Got a Calendar notification set up to remind me to cancel and all.

To access Apple Arcade, you’ll need to make sure you’re on the latest version of iOS. Arcade resides in the App Store, rather than its own, standalone interface.

Quick-fire Q&A with SEO benefits
Let’s have some quick-fire Q&A to get some more facts outta the way.

I had a look at Google’s “People also ask” section for the query [apple arcade] and these seem to be common questions about the service:

Sure, you could just go to the Google results and get your answers to those questions if that’s what you wanted, but there’s a problem.

The answers don’t really respond to the question. It’s Google Does Politics: Apple Arcade Edition.


So, here’s a better stab at it that will bring in the sweet, sweet SEO traffic:

  • Will Apple Arcade have a controller?
  • No way, hombre. You can use a lot of different controllers on Apple Arcade, but it doesn’t have its own controller. The MFi ones (built for iOS games) will work, as will PS4 and Xbox controllers. They connect with Bluetooth.
  • How much does Apple Arcade cost?
  • $4.99 a month, or £4.99, or AU$7.99. Not sure about other currencies, but I do know Arcade will launch in over 150 countries this month. A subscription gives access to six family members.
  • What games are on Apple Arcade?
  • Loads. It’s actually pretty hard to navigate them because Apple has decided not to include charts in the Arcade section of the App Store. This makes for an open-ended discovery journey, which has its pros and cons. I’ve listed my five favorites a bit further down.
  • How do I get Apple Arcade?
  • Were you not listening earlier? Ok, go to the App Store, click the Arcade tab, then sign up for the trial. Y’ might need to update your version of iOS to see it, as I learned the hard way.

(I really hope these answers show up in search results someday.)

Given the existing popularity of mobile gaming, it is easy to see why Apple wants to attract more subscribers to a service like this one.

The mobile gaming industry

  • Mobile gaming takes up 47% of the global video games market today.
  • 25% of all mobile game spending takes place in China, where companies like Tencent have made gaming a central source of revenue.
  • 2.4 billion people worldwide will play mobile games this year.
  • Fortnite was downloaded over 100 million times on iOS in a period of 100 days.

Mobile games will drive most of the growth in the global market over the next few years, so it seems sensible for Apple to dedicate more resources to exclusive titles.

Straight ports of popular console games have their limitations on a smartphone.

The cinematic sweep of Assassin’s Creed is lost a little when you’re also trying to focus on getting off the bus at the right stop. A constant struggle.

Candy Crush remains the most popular game out there, for good reason.

There is room for experimentation with the format, but the focus must stay on quick, engaging games that can be played on the go.

It is clear which sections of the market Apple wants to target with Arcade. Although the games can be played on a TV screen, they are equally at home on an iPhone or iPad.

These are family-friendly, quirky entertainments that allow for short periods of play.

I’ve been using an iPad this week to see what all the fuss is about.

First impressions of Arcade: Good Apple, Bad Apple

This reviewer was surprised to find that Arcade is really just a section of the App Store.

It fits into the iOS ecosystem, rather than carving out its own space. There are no lines of demarcation between Arcade downloads and all other apps on the home screen.

This seems in-keeping with Apple’s plans for the service. It becomes another line item on our ever-extending list of monthly subscriptions that slides seamlessly in alongside the others.

Nonetheless, it is a little underwhelming after the fanfare of the launch announcements.

The Arcade section of the App Store is already proving tricky to navigate and the increasing quantity of games will entrench that feeling further.

Apple has avoided using sections for popular games or personalized recommendations; this will improve visibility for the long-tail of games that may otherwise have gone ignored, but we should expect to see more structure in the near future.

The result is a lucky dip, with Apple wanting users to download and try games rather than gravitating towards the popular options.

I will round up my highlights and lowlights of Arcade in a new feature I’m calling Good Apple, Bad Apple.

Good Apple

Arcade does, fittingly enough, give the sense of being in a games arcade where the visitor can pay a one-off fee at the door, then try all the games for a few minutes at a time.

You can play a satisfying, stylized game for a few minutes, then move onto the next one. In that sense, it has a certain retro charm.

That said, there is still a very healthy number of mystery games on Apple Arcade.

The onus is on keeping the user’s attention in mobile gaming, and many of these titles do a fantastic job of piquing the player’s interest.

I will look at a couple of these in my ‘Top 5’ below; other excellent mystery games include The Get Out Kids and Jenny LeClue, if that sort of thing toots your flute.

Overall, Arcade provides a better gaming experience on mobile than the standard App Store purchases. The absence of micro-transactions is a welcome relief and Apple reviews games before they go live on Arcade, to try and keep the overall quality high.

The games are fun, innovative, and even quite funny at times. The artistic design is striking in many of the games and they make excellent use of the touchscreen format.

The selection is varied in difficulty and genre, too, so everyone should find something worthy of a quick play.

It’s worth the $4.99 a month, even if it’s not worth buying a $1000 phone just to play a few off-beat games.

For Apple device-owners, I can imagine that Arcade will become the standard way to play games on the hoof.

🍏Great price. For the same outlay as one console game ($60), you can access dozens of great games for a year.
🍏 Lots of variety, at consistently high quality.
🍏 No ads or micro-transactions.

Bad Apple

It’s hard to know what you’re getting with Arcade until you download the games and give them a go. As far as drawbacks go, this is pretty minor, but it does add an inevitable element of trial and error.

Moreover, some games are best suited to a larger screen, with a controller. Others are perfect for a quick play on the daily commute.

It would help to have some further guidance before downloading but, as it stands, there is only limited information on the games pages in the App Store.

In terms of the standard of the games, some players will be disappointed with the lack of recognized franchises. There is plenty to enjoy here, but none of the global successes like Call of Duty or Red Dead Redemption.

Hard to keep track of which games are worthwhile.
No “killer” games yet.
Some titles are best suited to a controller and a larger screen.

When combined with Apple’s other existing and upcoming service bundles, Arcade makes a convincing case to stay loyal to the company’s products.

It will live or die on the strength of its games, of course. There are plenty to choose from, but the quality varies wildly.

I’ve rounded up the five I’ve enjoyed most in this week’s hands-on review.

The best games on Apple Arcade

1. Mutazione

This is the kind of game I’d spend my spare time playing, if it wasn’t already occupied with newsletter-writing.

You play as Kai, a young girl who heads off to find her dying grandfather.

Unfortunately, he lives on an island populated by mutants, in a post-apocalyptic landscape.

The illustration is beautiful, the dialogue is layered, and there is a serene joy in pottering about the village.

2. Sneaky Sasquatch

The aim of the game is to tip-toe around, silently grabbing food from unsuspecting “normal people” on campsites.

The sasquatch is not a welcome visitor, hence he must sneak. When he makes too much noise, the people chase him away and he must go hungry.

This game makes intuitive use of the touchscreen, which creates some endearing situations. As in the screen above, where you need to put the food in his mouth.

It’s more fun than it looks.

You also get to make friends with a street-smart raccoon.


3. Pilgrims

Pilgrims has the look of an early Van Gogh (particularly The Potato Eaters), a Goya, or even a Hogarth painting.

It creates a gloomy atmosphere of browns and caramels, punctured by a narrative that is actually pretty funny.

The objective is to travel around, meeting fellow pilgrims, helping them with everyday challenges like roasting nuts or helping a bear out of a cave.

The characters are taciturn, so the player must infer their intentions from the minimal clues they give away.

It’s a charming and idiosyncratic game that is refreshingly hard to categorize.


This one is a little more straightforward, albeit not as simple as it initially seems.

WHAT THE GOLF is, ostensibly, a golf game.

However, it involves puzzles and platform mini-games along the way, and the golfing parts are less than traditional.

Some levels involve hitting a sofa through a maze of cars to reach the hole, for example.

I’d recommend this one for a quick play during a commute or while watching TV.

5. Over the Alps

Now we’re talking.

Over the Alps is a spy game, set in 1939.

The protagonist must navigate some tricky political situations, build trust with contacts, and extract important information.

The narrative unfolds through a series of postcards and European vistas, based on the choices the player makes along the way.

The game mechanics are amusing, but a sense of urgency arrives through developments that we know will lead to war.

This is one of the most engrossing games on Arcade and it is built on a knock-out premise.

After all, who wouldn’t want to sock it to Mussolini?

The competition

Google hurried the launch of its Play Pass subscription, which arrived in the same week as Apple’s Arcade. Play Pass offers ad-free access to over 350 Android games for $4.99 a month, although these games are not exclusive to the service.

However, Google’s eyes are firmly fixed on a much bigger prize.

Google Stadia arrives on November 19 and, while we’ll await that launch before we form firm impressions, the previews are certainly intriguing. Wired had a super feature on Stadia last week, if you’d like to read more about that.

Stadia also avails of the de rigueur ‘play-on-any-screen’ take on video games today. It does so while delivering on the demand for those “AAA games” that Apple eschews in favor of a folksier approach.

Stadia ties in neatly with Google’s push into cloud computing, which it has set as a priority target for the next decade. The gaming platform is a handy showcase for the company’s computational strength.

In order to ensure seamless streaming, Stadia will even predict the player’s next moves and start pre-loading content via the cloud-based servers.

It is an ambitious plan, for sure. For now, it is hard to avoid the sense that Google’s initiative lacks the clear-eyed focus of Apple Arcade.

Microsoft xCloud (working title) is the biggest rival for Google, and Microsoft certainly has the gaming heritage to suggest it can pull off the cloud-based gaming approach. Google has a history of entering arenas it does not fully understand, before quietly closing the project and moving onto something else.

With that in mind, there is a convincing argument that there is room in such a large gaming market for both Apple Arcade and the heavyweight offerings from Google, Microsoft, Sony, and Amazon.

The latter can cater for the e-sports and hardcore gaming fans, while Arcade would settle for the casual, mobile gamers.

The Nintendo Switch is perhaps a more direct comparison, but again this does require purchase of a standalone device.

A lot of people already have iPhones, they like playing games, and Apple now offers an approachable price-point on an all-you-can-play subscription. All in all, Arcade is a great deal.

In summary

It is difficult to judge a service like Arcade in isolation, even if we have just spent the last few minutes trying to do just that.

We can take an empirical look at the options on offer and compare Apple’s gaming subscription to traditional games consoles, Google Play Pass, or the upcoming Netflix-inspired services.

However, our devices now play host to a tangled web of digital services. Arcade has the sense of a sustaining innovation rather than a transformational take on the gaming world. Apple needs a higher-quality gaming alternative to keep its users on board, rather than to attract “switchers” from Android. Arcade fits that bill.

From the consumer’s perspective, the quality of individual games on Arcade is unlikely to be the sole decision factor when choosing a new laptop or phone. Arcade will always play a supporting role, in this regard.

Therefore, from Apple’s perspective, it is important to assess where Arcade fits into a wider business strategy, at a pivotal moment for the company.

And that’s exactly what we’ll do next, with the aid of charts and words.


“We set new all-time records for AppleCare, Music, cloud services, and our App Store search ad business and we achieved a new third quarter revenue record for the App Store.

What’s more, we had double-digit services revenue growth in all five of our geographic segments.”

— Tim Cook, Apple CEO
Q3 earnings call

It is no secret that Apple sees services like Arcade, News, and TV as an important component of its future growth strategy.

From 2016 to 2020, Apple aims to double revenues from services. As we will see below, it is on track to do so.

On its Q4 2018 earnings call, Apple stated that it would no longer report on its unit sales for specific devices. Instead, it now reports on its total installed active user base, which it sees as “representative of the underlying strength of our business.”

This helps to ward off market jitters in response to lower-than-expected iPhone sales, and helps to focus on the bigger picture. Case in point: iPhone sales fell year-on-year in Apple’s Q2 2019 figures, but stock rose 7%. Those two data points no longer march in lock-step, as they have done historically.

Apple reports that its active user base exceeds 1.4 billion worldwide, which helps explain the ongoing optimism. Those users form a very healthy potential market for lucrative subscription services.

There is pressure on Apple to deliver on this strategy, as growth has stalled of late:

Quartz removes the iPhone from the equation in the chart below, to take a look at the other core sections of the business. ‘Traditional’ Apple hardware has hit its saturation point, but Wearables, Home and Accessories are starting to tap into their undeniable potential.

Meanwhile, Services stands out as the top performer:

Statista isolates service in this chart and places these revenues in a handy pie chart alongside other areas like the iPhone and Wearables:

The company still relies on iPhone sales, although emphasis is also placed on how valuable those customers become over their life-span.

The rumored, new “$400 iPhone” should ensure that a new generation of users enter the market soon.

Apple’s cash pile is decreasing, although we shouldn’t feel too sorry for them just yet. This is due to a range of new investments, both in R&D and M&A.

Demand for AirPods continues to grow and Apple has made health data a priority now, too. While the Apple Card is far from the company’s most innovative idea, it offers some handy features and helps keep customers locked into Apple’s all-important user base.

This is a marked change from the iPhone-heavy focus of previous years, and it seems a wise diversification for the long term.

Of course, Arcade is just one of the bundled services Apple plans to launch this year.

Apple TV+ arrives on November 1 and will offer a Netflix rival that works across Apple devices and on screens with an Apple TV box. The TV app will soon allow users to view shows from HBO from within the app, too.

This open approach is a volte-face from the Jobs-era Apple, which demanded co-existence between Apple products and Apple services, to the exclusion of .

Slowly, painfully, Apple is permitting access from ‘Other Devices’, although an Android-specific app is still a distant possibility.

TV+ is similar to Arcade, in that it costs $4.99 a month and will host exclusive content developed for the service.

Anyone who purchases a new Apple device will also get a subscription to TV+, as standard.

This hints at the hybrid product-service growth strategy that will reduce reliance on one-off high-ticket purchases from its dedicated fans.

In the process, this increases the switching costs for existing customers, who are locked into the entertainment, health, and finance ecosystems Apple is creating for them.

Critics cite the lack of a “new iPhone” moment as evidence that Apple has lost its shine. It has been judicious, even a little lackluster, in its development of a strategy that goes beyond incremental upgrades to core products.

As a tentative first foray into the world of subscription entertainment, Apple Arcade is cause for optimism. It may not be revolutionary, but it offers users a great deal and a good reason to stick with Apple devices.

Given the gargantuan advantages Apple has already built over the competition, this may be all it needs to attract a huge base of committed subscribers.

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