What good is any electronic device if you can’t play games on it? I don’t care if it’s your TV, your lawn mower or your toaster: every device you own deserves a port of the iconic shooter Doom. But let’s be honest, smartphones have not provided the bright, next generation of gaming that so many of us were hoping for. They’ve annihilated so many other gadgets, like pocket calculators, flashlights or compact cameras, that it seemed like Nintendo’s Switch gaming handheld or the Steam Deck portable gaming PC were the next tech to get their lunch eaten. But it hasn’t happened. Mobile gaming has been a weird landscape for players, but I’ve discovered that only one platform has figured out a winning formula even though the smartphone hasn’t changed beyond its touch screen rectangle format in the past dozen years: Apple Arcade.
It’s not like you can’t play video games on your phone. People have figured out how to install emulators to get old school favorites playing while companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google have figured out how you can stream high-end looking games directly to your phone via the internet. There are people who enjoy these experiences, but there are usually plenty of steps or peripherals involved to get it done. What if you just wanted to download a game to your phone and play it?
It’s a problem that doesn’t seem very difficult considering how many other apps, social networks and utilities we download for our phones anyway. But then we run into other problems.
Controlling games, especially complex ones, is difficult with only a touch screen, which means that there are plenty of game genres that just don’t work very well. There’s also a collective psychological hurdle toward paying $10-$50 for a full video game on our phones when the graphics won’t be as good, the action will consume our batteries and the controls will be simplistic. On top of that, if we happen to switch platforms — Apple to Android or vice-versa — we lose access to those games.
Because of all this, what’s happened in mobile gaming has been, frankly, perverse. If people won’t buy a full game on release, we’ve seen time and time again that they’ll buy ornamental trinkets, upgrade passes and additional content piecemeal if the game is free. If the cost to entry is zero dollars, is it really such a big deal to pay $5 for a gaggle of lootboxes with pleasant animations that deliver randomized jewels and trinkets? Even worse, this line of thinking has invaded high-end video game series like Call of Duty or Star Wars Battlefront in destructive ways in which you still pay full price for the title, but then have to keep sliding in quarters to progress.
Where Apple Arcade succeeds, and it brings me no joy to express that it stands alone and is only available on Apple devices, is that these games play like mobile games should. Arcade eliminates the microtransaction nightmares of so many other mobile games. For $5 a month, you can download and play as many of their specifically labeled games as you want. These are games designed to be played as if you paid full price for full experiences. They don’t beg you to buy coins or add more time or prod you with randomized lootboxes for shinier kit. Even if these are little more than (not entirely) de-monetized versions of existing classics, they feel the most complete and comprehensive ways to play in a marketplace that otherwise would not have allowed them to exist. Mini Motorways is a game even I might have been hesitant to pay $5 or $10 for, but here it is consuming my entire bus commute nearly every single morning.
Yes, unfortunately it took a trillion dollar company to fund a bunch of tiny mobile games to remove the stigma of buying and downloading full-sized games for our phones when we do it all the time on our computers or gaming consoles. It’s my hope that Google and others learn the lesson.
— Staff notes originally run in our daily email newsletter, Indy Now, along with news updates, photos of the day, a weekly poll and more. Sign up below.