Apple Arcade Is Helping Indie Game Developers Flourish

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Apple Arcade is already breathing new life into premium gaming by creating a place for developers to thrive free from all of the negativity and pressures of so-called “free-to-play” apps.

When Apple Arcade was announced last spring, there was a mixture of optimism and skepticism from different quarters. Apple’s choice to price the service at an unprecedented $4.99/month for a whole family of six people to access to 100 quality game titles, however, has quelled many of the criticisms, and while not all of the games are of epic proportions, there’s little doubt that each of the titles has something special and unique to offer in its own right, and even more importantly, the developers who have published games on Apple Arcade are enthusiastic about the freedom that it’s given them to explore their ideas without the pressure of figuring out how to make money at every turn.

In an App Store that’s become increasingly plagued by games that are continually pressuring users to spend more money to get ahead or unlock exclusive features, Apple Arcade has become a breath of fresh air.

Freedom to Think Big

According to The Verge, which spoke with several developers who have already published games on Apple Arcade, the general sense is that it has given them the freedom to work on creative projects and premium games without the need to worry about whether they’ll be able to recoup the time and investment they’ve made in developing a game that might otherwise be hard to monetize.

It’s creating a space where you can take risks. You don’t have to think about the monetization model as you’re designing.

Andrew Schimmel, producer at Snowman (via The Verge)

Even more importantly, Apple seems more interested in leaving the big game development houses to their own schemes, choosing to invest in smaller indie developers instead. Further, many of the studios that Apple has chosen to welcome into the fold are those that have a history of producing games that are sold for a “pay once” fixed price tag, rather than being infested with ads or in-app monetization schemes.

The problem of course is that even though some of these boutique studios have produced great games in the past like Alto’s Adventure and Monument Valley, they’ve also faced the biggest struggles making money from their games due to the rise of “free to play” competitors that have been choking out premium-priced games.

Where’s the Money?

Although neither Apple nor any of the participating developers have shared any details on their financial arrangements, it seems like Apple is following a model more akin to what it’s done for its movie and TV service, Apple TV+; that is to say, primarily funding developers on the front-end rather than paying developers based on downloads or some other metric of user engagement.

The Netflix model of providing and paying for content is a lot more in line with what this is.

Ryan Holowaty, Noodlecake Studios (via The Verge)

In fact, when Apple originally unveiled Apple Arcade back in March, product lead Ann Thai stated outright that Apple wasn’t just “curating” games for the new service, but was actually “backing their development” and “working closely with developers.” Combined with the later report that Apple has earmarked over $500 million to fund the development of games for Apple Arcade — an average of $5 million per title — it seems clear that Apple is more interested in investing in developers to encourage the creation of great games than it is entering into complicated and uncertain profit-sharing arrangements. Regardless of the details of their arrangements, however, Apple Arcade developers definitely seem enthusiastic about the terms.

I know that the deal I took with Apple was very good for the game and very good for me, and it’s one that I was happy with when I signed it and I’m still happy with it now.

Zach Gage, developer, Card of Darkness (via The Verge)

By contrast, Google’s new competitor to Apple Arcade, Google Play Pass, explicitly pays developers based solely on user engagement. This gives customers the benefit of access to a variety of games and other apps on the Android platform, but does nothing to encourage developers to do anything all that differently than they’ve already been doing, since they’ll still have to create games that will encourage users to keep coming back for more.

Apple’s model, however, is not only encouraging developers to take risks, but to also be more creative in exploring different approaches. For example, Assemble with Care, which came from Ustwo, the studio behind the critically-acclaimed Monument Valley, is an artistic and fun game that might not be possible anywhere else, since it’s a short game that doesn’t encourage users to keep coming back for more. A few years ago Ustwo could have been confident in selling the game for an upfront price, as it did with the original Monument Valley, but the race to the bottom on the App Store has finally hit zero, and there just aren’t enough customers willing to actually purchase even quality games any more.

Apple Is Still in Control

To be clear, it’s not all sunshine and roses for developers, who note that they must meet several standards with Apple Arcade that wouldn’t be an issue if they were developing independently. Beyond the need to meet Apple’s Sept. 19 launch deadline, studios were also required to ensure that their games were playable not only on the iPhone and iPad, but also on the Apple TV and Mac, as well as localizing them for 14 different languages, from English to Arabic.

Due to Apple’s privacy policies, developers also get virtually no information on who is playing their games. Apple prohibits Apple Arcade games from including any kind of tracking code, and the only information Apple provides to developers is how many people have downloaded the game.

Still, the studios who are participating consider the service to be well worth playing by Apple’s rules. As much as developers want to see metrics, some of that is just out of habit, and presumably Apple’s marketing team has a much better idea of which games are doing well, and since it’s working closely with developers, it will hopefully be able to provide useful feedback.

Apple Arcade is also still very much an exclusive club inside the traditional walled garden. Although any developer can pitch an idea to Apple, inclusion is still by invitation only, and Apple seems to have no published criteria for who gets the golden ticket.

Personally, when I look at some of the free charts and I see the games that are in there, I’m disheartened. When Apple is curating things based on quality, that bodes well for us.

Ryan Holowaty, Noodlecake Studios (via The Verge)

Not surprisingly, however, the developers that are already inside the garden are quite happy to see that Apple is keeping the riff-raff out, but this is something that anybody who is interested in quality mobile gaming should also appreciate. As the rest of the gaming world burns, Apple Arcade stands to be a relief from the chaos — a place where users can get back to the simple enjoyment of gaming for its own sake, and where developers can be free to explore some of their greatest and most creative ideas.

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