After a round of bulletpoint mini reviews, I think I’m ready to prose on Apple Arcade as a product.

There’s a very good reason I almost never play free games: the developers are there to make money off of me. If I don’t pay something up front, they are gonna get the money somehow. In a rare fortunate case, I pay to unlock the full game — a clean, one-time transaction. This is no different than a paid game with a trial period.

In other cases, there’s the hook for you to pay up, and micro transactions have made it super easy to plug in such hooks. The levels are made extremely hard, so you’d either have to wait 6 hours to retry or pay $0.99. Pay $2.99 and your coins will doubl forever, essentially giving a 50% discount to the weapon you need to guarantee a win.

These games are shit. The developers never set out to be with you when you play the game: they don’t care about the flow of the game, or how miserable a level makes you feel, because they are there to make money.

In short, they don’t share your best interests. The more they make you miserable, they more you’ll probably pay up, because frustrated players = paying players.

So there’s a reason paid games are more fun: the developer cares how the game makes you feel, every step of the way, so you and everyone on Twitter will say good things about this game, and they can sell more copies. The games are so carefully crafted because happy players = more money.

Those would be the ideal thinkings before Apple Arcade: a subscription service that gives you access to dozens of game titles, and you don’t pay another dime.

The service is great because, although we are paying at different times, the developers have aligned interests with the players: happy players will be more engaged in the game, and presumably will earn the developer a bigger share of the subscription pool. The developer is financially motivated to make me feel good playing the games.

Granted, subscription model is not a new thing. Netflix is a prominent leader in the subscription business, and for a very good reason: happy viewers = more profits earmarked for the producer.

There’s one other thing that Netflix shares with Apple Arcade: both are businesses on attention. Exclusive attention. One hour watching How I Met Your Mother is an hour less spent on The Office; one hour playing Where Cards Fall is an hour less working my way through Rayman Mini. The time is equal, at least it is equal to the player. I’d even go further to say that one hour spent watching a sitcom is just as the same as an hour spent on playing games: both require my attention, produce zero value (other than the tremendous amount of joy), and are exclusive of other activities that require the same amount of time.

Because of the universally equal value of our attention, Apple Arcade can potentially work, just as the business model has worked with Netflix. It’s hard to imagine Apple rolling out a subscription service for all the productivity apps, because the apps produce value, and it’s hard to measure the value as it differs from person to person. In extreme cases, an app may stay in the background, and it is designed to stay in the background, until you absolutely need it — 1Blocker for example. If it’s not the attention business, it’s hard to justify the price.

But there’s also the same argument for games: some games are not designed to have 100 hours of play time; but the 4-hour gameplay tells a story that’s way worth the bucks. Some games may incorporate waiting to be part of the experience, Lifeline as an example. In some way, it’s hard to justify how much you earmark for each developer after all, isn’t it?

Anyway. I’m worrying about a problem we don’t really have yet. Developers are not inanimate dumbasses; they adapt to a new system quickly should one appear. Developers used to offer Game X Lite or App X Lite as a trial when IAP wasn’t an option. Later, they started moving to paid full-app unlock (me among them) when IAP was made widely available, and some adopted subscription model to generate sustainable income. People adapt. We will see how this fare in the next year or two.

So what’s in it with Apple Arcade for a regular player? It has eliminated micro-transactions, and aligned the interests of the player with that of the developer. So overall it’s a good thing. It’s a start in the right direction. It’s something quite commendable because Apple’s is trying to solve the micro-transaction gaming problem it inadvertently started. (It’s also something only Apple can easily pull off, given the fat pile of cash it’s sitting on.)

As of whether it’s worth it —

  • For AAA title fans who want absolutely the best graphics and sound, Apple Arcade has nothing to offer you. Why would you even bother looking this way in the first place? Granted that the iPhone 11’s have a chip that’s faster than any other chip in the world on a single core, but the hardware ecology isn’t built around AAA game experience.

  • For indie game fans, Apple Arcade is huge. You can tell it from the names of all the studios — ustwo (known for Monument Valley), Simogo (Device 6, Year Walk, and if you are old enough, Bumpy Road), Snowman (Alto’s Adventure & Odyssey), RAC7 (Splitter Critters), Devolver (Downwell, Reigns), among many others. This is the first day launch calibre that other game consoles would die for.

  • For casual gamers, the $4.99 price, combined with a one-month trial, is just a no-brainer. The broad spectrum of games covers both casual gaming that you want to start and finish on a 5-minute bus ride, and the hardcore action and roleplaying game that requires you to sit down for 30 minutes in a row. There are different genres, themes and gameplay. There should be something for you.