Apple Arcade liberates game developers from the monetization loop

Apple's subscription gaming service frees devs to focus on fun while ignoring in-app purchase schemes. GameDaily speaks with three devs on the platform. (Pictured: Crossy Road Castle)

Apple Arcade is nearly six months old. With well over 100 games available on the platform (and more added each week), no ads or in-app purchases (IAP), family sharing, and an affordable price of $4.99 monthly, there’s a lot to like about Apple’s foray into subscription gaming. There’s no telling exactly how well Apple Arcade is doing, since the company releases no sales information on it, but in a mobile world where free-to-play and microtransactions dominate, Apple is at least changing the conversation.

“At this point, we still have much to understand about the potential impact all-you-can-eat gaming subscription services such as Apple Arcade will have on traditional mobile games, whether free-to-play or paid. Early indications, however, are that Apple Arcade isn't having any appreciable effect on mobile game user acquisition or monetization as a whole, but that could very well change should these services find their footing over the coming months and years,” Alex Malafeev, co-founder of mobile analytics firm Sensor Tower told us. 

“For now, we expect that most early adopters of Apple Arcade and similar services will tend toward the hardcore gamer segment of the audience, who are willing to invest in the early days of a new concept such as this with the hope it will deliver greater value down the road.”

Apple does appear to be quite serious about investing in the platform. As of last year, it was reported that Apple had invested over $500 million to secure exclusive content for Arcade, and over these last several months, we’ve seen the fruits of that investment. GameDaily recently spoke to three developers -- Hipster Whale, Snowman, and Mighty Bear Games -- about their approach to the service, what it’s meant for them, and how Arcade could be changing the mobile gaming landscape. 

One of the most significant changes for developers making games on Apple Arcade is getting away from a free-to-play mindset that has trained game creators to design for monetization. For Crossy Road developer Hipster Whale, which recently put Crossy Road Castle exclusively on Apple Arcade, it’s been a real eye opener.

“IAP is a big design issue that you have to wrangle when you make a free-to-play game. Here, Arcade removes all of that and you don’t have to think about it so you can focus on what you want to do for the player next,” said Clara Reeves, president of Hipster Whale.

“Providing a lot of content and it not feeling like overbearing IAP was always part of the Hipster Whale brand. We focus on making the games fun and would provide extras you can earn over time. We had this game as a concept and hadn’t had a way to reconcile that monetization loop that comes with a free-to-play game… When Apple Arcade came along, we just thought, ‘Problem solved.’”

She added, “It’s funny being a free-to-play world designer and then not having some of the constraints that come with it, but you still get to bring along some of the great stuff as well. You can still pull those items over – the fresh content people want. They want to have things going on in the world and appear in the game in a timely fashion. We’re always watching what people do and respond to it.”

The folks at Snowman, who are known for mobile hit Alto’s Adventure, worked in conjunction with Agens Games to create Skate City on Apple Arcade. The Toronto-based developer largely agrees with the sentiment about free-to-play described by Hipster Whale. 

“There are some great free-to-play games out there, but as developers we try to focus on what we like playing most: premium games. It’s been awesome to get the opportunity to bring this to Apple Arcade, which let us make the game we wanted to make,” said Snowman senior producer Andrew Schimmel. 

“We don’t have to consider how ads would fit into the experience and we can focus on what else we can add to the game as players continue enjoying it. We can continue to change it and they won’t feel like they have to pay anything else to get some new feature we come up with later. Having to pay more to get more is experience-breaking and it’s kinda cool that we just skip past it all.”

Singapore-based Mighty Bear Games is another game studio that has been singing the praises of Apple Arcade. The developer’s Butter Royale is a food fight-themed take on the popular battle royale genre, and the team was thrilled to be able to just concentrate on making something fun without worrying about monetization.

“This game was designed from the ground-up for Arcade and one of the nicest things about it is that we don’t have to focus at all on monetization. We get to focus on making the most fun game possible, without having to spend development time figuring out how to integrate APIs that serve up ads or track traffic. As a developer, in a way, it’s a much more straightforward process. It’s been very refreshing for us,” commented Mighty Bear CEO Simon Davis. 

Davis said he wouldn’t “close the door” on the free-to-play business model for his own studio, but he really likes making things for a subscription service. Moreover, “[We’re] very happy with the numbers we’ve received from Apple. It’s really great,” he said. 

Snowman’s Schimmel added that subscription, unlike the premium model Alto’s Adventure was released under, provides a studio with flexibility to update a title on an ongoing basis. 

“We wouldn’t have considered continually updating a game if it’s premium,” he said. “We would launch it and see how it did – then it’d be a little trickier how to fit it in. But with the subscription model, it allows us to continually go back and see how we can improve it; see what features we can add. Since Arcade’s continually bringing players back, we can grow and change with it. And a lot of the things that we’re bringing into Skate City are based on listening to our fans and seeing what they want more of. We’re lucky that there’s been overwhelming demand, feedback, and positive reviews. Everyone wants more of the game – that’s the best problem you can have as a developer. This allows us to keep doing exactly that.”

Discoverability is another major issue that all developers face today, and it’s doubly challenging in the mobile games marketplace where both the App Store and Google Play are flooded with apps on a daily basis. Apple Arcade doesn’t automatically solve this problem given that it’s tied to iOS devices and is behind a $4.99 monthly paywall, but because it’s a tightly curated service, it does give participating game creators a fair bit of exposure. 

Schimmel was effusive in his praise of Apple’s discoverability solution. “It’s been amazing. When we talk to a lot of our developer friends in the industry, that’s a big concern,” he said. “How are you going to launch your game? How are people going to find your game? How much money are you putting into PR to get it up to the surface? The App Store is such a huge, amazing place that it’s hard to figure out how to make your products shine. 

“With Arcade, you have this rising tide of premium titles that work together to show where mobile is going and what it can do. We feel pretty lucky and proud to be a part of that curated experience… It’s cool when you think about Arcade as a platform – in that you can play them and try them out whenever you like as opposed to when you have to commit to each purchase. Even better, you can grab it and play it wherever it makes the most sense for you.”

Davis said that for Butter Royale, being part of Apple Arcade automatically boosted discoverability by giving the game more press exposure. “With Arcade, we’ve had a lot of coverage and positive press – and we’re pretty happy about the number of downloads we’ve had. It’s not just about the store, though. It’s about having a variety of ways to chat with your audience,” he noted.

As Schimmel remarked above, Arcade’s subscription model enables developers to continue to engage their audience. Mighty Bear said it definitely plans to keep the content flowing in Butter Royale. “Players are very engaged and coming back every day to get more content,” Davis said. “Over time, seasons will change and we will create content to match it tied to the time of year. So, for example, Easter is coming, so chocolate eggs and fields you can play in are natural fits [but we] can’t go too far into the secrets now.”

Apple may have another ace up its sleeve with its Nintendo-like approach to content. The company is clearly embracing a family-friendly vibe for Arcade, and as our sister site SuperParent pointed out last year, the subscription could be a great choice for parents. Apple has strict privacy policies and parents can lock more mature games behind parental controls on the platform. Moreover, in the traditional world of F2P gaming, there have been nightmare stories of children racking up huge credit card bills due to IAP. That’s the antithesis of family-friendly. 

None of this has been lost on the developers GameDaily spoke with. The Hipster Whale team remarked that being able to create games that can be played with their own children was a huge motivator. 

“A lot of us in the office have kids, and as a mom and a gamer it was important... that I could play with my kids and my dad…at our various skill levels and all be having a fun time together. Really, that’s a major focus of the studio – creating games that we can play with our kids,” Reeves explained to our sister site SuperParent. “Having kids makes you think about the world in so many different, new ways. With games….and making games….it became apparent that there weren’t enough games for our family that could bring us all together to play.”

Mighty Bear Games echoed this approach. Despite the massive popularity of games like Fortnite, many parents may not feel it’s appropriate for their kids to be playing a battle royale shooter. 

“There were no battle royale games that would be a good fit for a wider audience,” said Davis, who spoke with SuperParent as well. “From a creative perspective, we often refer to Pixar movies. They are accessible to kids, but a parent can see the same film and appreciate parts on a whole different level. That’s what we had in the back of our minds. I have nephews that are four – obsessed with Toy Story – they also like watching shooter games, but they aren’t allowed to play them. Originally, we were pitching a different game… When we came upon a food fight concept, it just seemed the obvious answer in front of us all along.”

Skateboarding, of course, has been a part of youth culture for many decades. With Skate City, Snowman is aiming to capture the zeitgeist of classics like the Tony Hawk or Skate series, but they also made sure to test their game out with kids. 

“Testing with kids has been part of our development process and seeing how they’ve been taking to it has been really heartwarming for us. It’s an unexpected reward,” said Schimmel. “We actually did another event a little while back. It was a meet-and-greet party and someone brought their seven-year-old. We sat him down on the couch, and after I showed him how to play, he started bouncing off the couch screaming. He was so engrossed.”

It’s still early days for Apple Arcade, but Apple does appear to be ramping up its marketing. We’ve observed TV commercials for the service lately, and only a week ago Apple posted a job listing for a Marketing Program Manager. At this point, developers still have the chance to get in on the ground floor with Arcade, but they should think carefully about what kind of game they’re making for the platform.

“Come up with an angle for your game that’s very interesting and appealing – something that resonates with the arcade audience, something that can work globally, is non-toxic, and is fun,” said Davis, who added that devs need to remember that Arcade titles are playable across a variety of screens, supporting iPhones, iPads, Macs, and Apple TV. 

Don’t forget about the “broad appeal factor“ either, he said: “A lot of games – especially outside of Apple Arcade – are so serious. I think that a sense of fun and playfulness is highly underrated.”

In a world where entertainment subscriptions have become the norm, and where subscriptions in gaming (Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation Plus) are gaining momentum, Apple Arcade stands as an interesting alternative to the AAA ecosystems we’ve grown accustomed to. Time will tell if Apple’s approach resonates with the iPhone crowd. In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about the games, we highly encourage you to check out SuperParent’s reviews of Crossy Road Castle and Butter Royale.

Thanks to Greenlit Content’s Darren Gladstone for his contributions to this feature.

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Editor-in-Chief

James has been covering the games industry since the early 2000s and was previously the editor of GamesIndustry.biz. He loves Zelda, Metroidvania-style games, action adventure and single-player narratives. He's also the proud father of twin boys and is obsessed with good coffee and Yankees baseball. You can reach him @bright_pixels on Twitter or you can email him at james.brightman@gamedaily.biz.

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