Two weeks with Apple Arcade

I’ve long been an advocate of mobile gaming. Although initially dismissing the iPhone’s potential in this area, I was drawn in when I actually owned one. Amazing multitouch experiences like Eliss opened my eyes to new ways of interacting with games, and felt like a logical next step from the Nintendo DS. Subsequent titles like Device 6 on iPad were a joyful fusion of touchscreen handheld technology and modern gaming – something that simply wouldn’t work on another system.

At its best, the App Store became a bastion of creativity – a place that echoed the 1980s games I grew up with, in developers not having to be fearful of being creative. You could create something bonkers and different, and yet have a shot at success. But around five years ago, the wheels started to fall off. The race to the bottom was cemented in, with users expecting dirt-cheap titles that would be updated and added to forever. Then the expectation was that everything should be free.

Part of the blame lies with Apple, but it’s also an indication of modern society. When content becomes ephemeral rather than something you can hold, people have been trained to assume they should not have to pay for it. So we now exist in a world where a developer can create a mobile title, and get a review slamming them for including ads and not enough levels, by someone who otherwise claimed they loved the game – and yet played with Airplane Mode on to disable ads, thereby robbing the developer of any income.

Hence: Apple Arcade. Apple’s surprise announcement this summer claimed we would see a return to rosier times for gaming on mobile, free from the cruft that infects modern releases. Games on Apple Arcade can mostly be played offline. Those that require an internet connection do so due to online multiplayer rather than Nintendo’s penchant for always-online for no good reason. Beyond that, there are no ads and no IAPs. Bliss. Possibly.

Even with these features, I initially tempered optimism with a healthy dollop of scepticism. Remember, this was Apple. This was the company that got good in games by mistake – and despite itself. This was the company that repeatedly bafflingly rejected perfectly good games from the App Store, often for oddball puritanical reasons. It was the company that messed up games controllers to a degree that possibly warrants some kind of trophy. It was the company that despite raking in millions from games, still gave you the impression no-one senior at the company gave the slightest crap about them.

Then Apple Arcade dropped during the iOS 13 beta, letting me check out what was on offer. Immediately, the selection of games was overwhelming. When iOS 13 proper landed, it was the kind of launch line-up other systems would kill for. There were 71 titles in all, from tiny indie delicacies that would find it hard to survive as standalone titles, through to new releases from giants like Capcom. Since that first moment, I’ve been working my way through every game, to play every one at least a little, and therefore get an idea as to who Apple Arcade is aimed at, and whether it’s worth subscribing to.

In the US and UK, Apple Arcade costs a fiver a month, although you get 30 days for free. That second bit to my mind suggests that if you have any interest in gaming, and own an Apple device, you’d be nuts to not at least try it out. I still see a lot of ‘proper’ gamers getting all pissy about Apple Arcade, and that stance baffles me. Are people really so entrenched in their tribes they don’t want – for no outlay – to at least try a new service with dozens of interesting titles? Is the fact these games can be played on a phone, and don’t include any AAA franchises really that much of a barrier? Again, to me Apple Arcade seems a no-brainer.

Beyond that basic recommendation, you’d probably like to know whether the games are objectively good. Personally, I’d say it splits slightly better than 50:50 in terms of great-to-good and OK-to-poor (with OK being a larger group than the few games that are garbage). Some of the titles reek of freemium with freemium bits removed at the last moment, and that’s a pity. But there are deeply premium efforts made with love. Some – like Assemble with Care – may only last an hour, but that hour will be memorable; others – like Super Impossible Road, Card of Darkness, Grindstone, PaintyMob, and Sasquatch – feel like games I’ll still be picking up for the odd go in a year’s time, even if Apple Arcade’s drowning in other new titles by then. And with iCloud save states, this is a service you could feasibly dip in and out of, perhaps subscribing for a while every now and again, if you don’t fancy dropping a fiver every single month.

It’s also worth noting the nature of Apple Arcade’s exclusivity. The games are exclusive only to mobile and subscription services. So they won’t rock up on Android, or a service somewhat competing with Apple’s own. But some already exist elsewhere, or are slated to. What’s interesting is many of these games have price-tags that cost several multiples of the Apple Arcade subscription cost. Sayonara Wild Hearts on Switch, for example, sets you back almost three times the monthly cost of Apple Arcade. What The Golf when it lands on the Epic Games store will cost £15.99. This in itself showcases the value at the heart of Apple’s subscription service.

I’d like to think developers are doing well from Apple Arcade. Of course, everyone remains tight-lipped about the terms, but we’ve heard Apple pumped millions to get the games made in the first place, and we know rights are retained by the studios. I’ve no idea if that’s the model going forwards, but I hope creators feel it works out for them, even if this is another lottery of sorts (in terms of getting the invite). For people who like games, though, this is less a game of chance than a rare fairground stall where you’re basically a winner just by turning up.

September 30, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Opinions, Technology

2 Comments

Super Mario Tour vs Apple Arcade: FIGHT!

Apple Arcade! But Apple doesn’t get gaming, right? So clearly it’s going to be a total disaster. What we need on iOS is a company with a proven track record in games, like Nintendo! They’ll show Apple how it’s done, such as with new super soaraway racer Super Mario Tour! I’m sure this is going to be EXCELLENT, and totally show up Apple Arcade for the rubbish that it really is! !!!! !!!11!11!!ONE1!!!

Oh. Well, lots of games want you to sign in. This is still OK! I mean, the fact you can’t do anything unless you sign up feels a bit like Mario has taken you hostage. But THIS IS ALL FINE.

And everyone loves notifications, right?

Off to a browser. This is already like a tour – OF APPS! How exciting!

And now a little minigame! How thoughtful. Oh, hang on. It’s one of those awful CAPTCHA things that often don’t work. I AM GOING TO CONVINCE MYSELF I AM STILL HAVING FUN.

Tap tap tap tap tap.

Congratulations! I’m ready to race!

Oh. Unless the internet connection goes squiffy, in which case Nintendo hates your face and decides you cannot do anything at all. Oops – sorry, I forgot: Nintendo can DO NO WRONG. Mario Kart Tour is SO FUN!

Internet back, it’s time to race in Mario Kart Tour. The tour apparently takes place somewhere with worse kart games. Because this one is… well… what you might expect from a company that clearly hates mobile and won’t release full experiences on it. FINISH! Yes, you probably should.

Still, I’m playing now, so at least nothing can ruin the momentu— oh. Well, fine. I mean, every game needs to randomly download a few hundred MB of data within a few minutes of you firing it up, right‽

*one cup later*

Well, I mean, it’s… fine? It’s not that exciting, but it looks nice. The mobile controls are… OK? Super Mario Tour is probably the fifth or sixth best kart racer I’ve ever played on mobile. BOX QUOTE!

Let’s hope it doesn’t do anything stupid, eh?

Uh-oh.

Fnar!

Uh-oh.

Yikes!

I… don’t even. A gold pass, which nets you ‘extra benefits’ and 200cc races. And a snap at the exact same price per month as Apple Arcade (with its 71 games and counting – dozens of which are really good).

You know, perhaps Apple is on to something here after all.

September 25, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Humour, Opinions, Technology

3 Comments

How Apple Arcade is set to upend iOS gaming forever

Apple yesterday revealed the final details about Apple Arcade. The subscription gaming service will arrive on iPhone on 19 September, and then roll out to other Apple devices over the following four weeks. It will cost a fiver a month – and supports Family Sharing.

This has all sorts of ramifications for iOS gaming – and the potential to upend everything on the platform. First, the obvious positive is Apple is now taking gaming seriously. I’m hoping cross-device sync will work well, the games will be mostly worth playing, and that Apple won’t just get bored in a year and shutter the whole thing. (Anyone remember game Center?) But right now, the outlook is good.

Apple has priced this service sensibly. It’ll work on Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, and Apple TV. Also, you’ll be able to use MFi, PS4 and Xbox One controllers with many titles, rather than having to grapple with the Siri Remote, or play complex console-style fare using touchscreen controls.

The question is where this leaves pretty much all other gaming on Apple platforms – particularly iOS. At launch, Apple Arcade will have dozens of titles, and over 100 will arrive within “the coming weeks”; Apple is planning to add more titles every month. So for the price of a single premium iOS game each month, you’ll get access to hundreds. Quite how premium games are going to compete – even in the short term – I’ve no idea.

But Apple Arcade will impact on free and freemium titles as well. Apple has stated Apple Arcade titles can have no advertising, and no in-app purchases. Once a player’s immersed in that system, the vast majority of free App Store titles are from a user experience perspective going to range from irritating (ads being periodically thrown in your face) to downright skeevy. Clearly, developers will have to up their game in this regard – or hope that people would rather pay nothing and put up with a terrible UX than venture towards a subscription.

It’s an interesting time for Apple and games, then, and one that is filled with much promise. But it does feel ironic that the one time Apple finally gets interested in games, it may make the rest of the iOS gaming ecosystem even less viable. Here’s hoping it has the opposite effect – acting as a halo that draws more gamers to Apple devices, and finds them venturing from the Arcade tab to the Games one, and exploring the many goodies found within.

September 11, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, News, Opinions, Technology

1 Comment

How old is too old to play videogames?

Over on Digitiser 2000, Paul ‘Mr Biffo’ Rose mulls over: how old is too old to play videogames? Only he puts a space in ‘videogames’, because of a traumatic experience with a production editor.

Anyway, his story is that having blasted the iconic Digitiser into millions of eyes in his 20s (and, more recently, endearingly bonkers YouTube telly show Digitiser), he now finds himself an old git, 48 years ‘young’, playing games. What a total man-child idiot! Except: no.

Frankly, I find it astonishing this is still a question people need to ask themselves. Games are just another thing people do to be entertained and pass the time. They are interactive entertainment that sits part-way between puzzle solving, dexterity test and television. No-one suggests at 36 you should throw your telly out of the window, or at that 43 you should stop doing crosswords. But gaming has somehow been labelled a juvenile pursuit.

In part, this is down to short memories. Arcade games when originally created were aimed squarely at adults. Early home-gaming systems were largely in that space, although often also marketed as family entertainment. It was mostly with the arrival of NES-era consoles that gaming took root as something ‘for the kids’. Only, those kids grew up, and a big chunk of gaming grew up with it. Today, the range of games you can access is huge, from tablet-based fare like Thinkrolls that my then0two-year-old managed to grasp on an iPad, through to the kind of content that no-one under 18 should really be setting their eyes on.

Any negativity is really just another oft-repeated hot-take by curmudgeons and spoilsports who hate people liking stuff that they themselves don’t like. Comics? Pah! Those are for children! (What, even Saga? OK, then.) Tabletop gaming? Are you twelve? You still watch Doctor Who? Pfft! Etc!

A few years back, I wrote a piece for Stuff that sums this up, and I stand by it. In short, like what you like, and – assuming it doesn’t negatively impact on others (i.e. I’m not going to support, say, your desire to catapult parked cars at supermarkets) – nuts to everyone else. So you want spend evenings building a Picade retro-gaming console, like I did, to tinker with ancient games in your spare time? Go you! You prefer Harry Potter over more ‘worthy’ books bothering the fiction charts? Have fun with it! You want to settle down of an evening with MarioKart rather than EastEnders? Queen-Vic-You-Don’t!

You’re not too old to do the things you like. Instead, as you get older, you should cram more of what you love into those years you have left, not discard them because some miserable gits disapprove.

January 10, 2019. Read more in: Gaming, Opinions

1 Comment

Simogo quits iPhone and iPad gaming, and points the finger of blame at Apple

Simogo was my favourite mobile developer. Its games include Device 6, Year Walk, and the amusingly audacious one-thumb stealth/puzzle/platform/route-finding hybrid that is Beat Sneak Bandit. But, as you may have gleaned from the tense used in that opening line, the company has – for now at least – quit iOS.

Apple should treat this as a body blow. Simogo has consistently been one of the best developers on the platform, pushing the boundaries of gaming in new and interesting directions. Device 6, in particular, remains a masterclass in touchscreen game development – a strange puzzle/adventure hybrid, where you explore corridors composed of the very words in the game’s narrative. Sure, it could be made for a traditional console or PC – but it’d make far less sense.

But sadly, Simogo elaborates in a blog post that Apple is the problem, and I suspect the company remains largely oblivious to the pain it’s putting developers through, not only in terms of supporting games, but also regarding the longevity of their output.

Some choice quotes from Simogo’s writings say everything:

Let’s get the rough things out of the way first. This year we spent a lot of time updating our old mobile games, to make them run properly on new OS versions, new resolutions, and whatever new things that were introduced which broke our games on iPhones and iPads around the world. We’ve put months of work into this, because, well, we care that our games live on, and we want you to be able to keep playing your games. Had we known back in 2010 that we would be updating our games seven years later, we would have shook our heads in disbelief.

I’ve heard similar from other developers. It’s such a shift from when I visited an EA developer press event around 2012, when indies they’d got on board were brimming with excitement about iOS gaming. Then, it was a breath of fresh air – less hassle with platform issues and gatekeepers alike. But iOS has become a moving target in a way it never used to be.

This year, a lot of time we had planned to spend on our current project, ended up being spent on just making sure that our games would not be gone from the app store. Because sadly, the platform holder seems to have no interest in preservation of software on their platform.

This in itself is quite curious. I suspect Apple has no senior advocate of gaming. I’ll be amazed if anyone in Apple leadership is a big gamer. Much of the evidence points to Apple still largely considering gaming broadly throwaway. There’s a kind of ‘read and burn’ mentality, which is at odds with how the company thinks about movies, television, music and books.

We can criticize and be angry and mad about it all we want, but we don’t think that any efforts we put in can change that direction.

Developers feel powerless. They feel that Apple isn’t listening – and doesn’t care.

So, instead, we’re thinking a lot about how we can find ways to preserve our games, and our own history, because it is inevitable that our mobile games will be gone sometime in a distant, or not so distant future, as iOS and the app store keeps on changing and evolving. We don’t have a definitive answer, or any final ideas how this would be possible, but we’ll keep on thinking about it, and try to come up with solutions, and we welcome any input and ideas on this from you too!

I at the time wrote about the appocalypse. Many games have since been updated, but then the iPhone X threw another spanner in the works. Regardless, even 64-bit support feels like a stay of execution. Come iOS 12, how many games will fail to work and just disappear?

The response to all this is perhaps inevitable:

As you can imagine, this has led to thoughts about platforms in general.

Simogo notes that the iPhone changed everything, and the ease of mobile development drew the tiny studio to making iPhone games, but:

it’s getting increasingly financially unviable, tiring and unenjoyable for us to keep on making substantial alterations for new resolutions, guidelines, and what have you, as they seem to never end.

The appeal is gone. And, crucially:

Before we started Simogo, we had made console games, and had grown really tired of the clunky processes, politics, certifications and primitive development environments that was involved in making a console game. Today, a lot of that clunkiness is gone, and sadly, for a small developer like us, mobile has become more difficult to support than consoles.

In other words, the advantages mobile had – iOS had – are gone, while console gatekeepers have slowly recognised and removed barriers to entry.

The next Simogo game therefore won’t grace the iPhone and iPad. It feels like the end of an era.

December 12, 2017. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, iOS gaming, Opinions

Comments Off on Simogo quits iPhone and iPad gaming, and points the finger of blame at Apple

« older postsnewer posts »