Apple Arcade and the value of small, meaningful games

Apple Arcade looks great on the surface, but what does it mean for the kinds of developers who don’t make games based on playtime?

When Apple announced Apple Arcade last month, it was met mostly with praise. For a relatively low monthly fee, you’ll get access to a rotating selection of over 100 games, all playable offline, without any sort in-game purchases—a welcome break from the aggressive free-to-play design that the mobile marketplace has bred. But more than that, Apple Arcade seems focused on a more curated experience, “where storytelling and design are pushed further than ever before.” They’re contributing to the development costs of creative new games, primarily from indie developers – the creators of Florence, Monument Valley, and ABZU are just a few of the names already signed up.

The catch: developers’ share of Apple Arcade’s revenue will reportedly be split based on the total playtime of their games – the more people who play a game, and the longer they play it for, the bigger the slice of the pie for that game’s developer.

That’s a huge disincentive to create the sort of short, meaningful games that a lot of Apple Arcade’s development partners are known for. Florence is a brilliant piece of interactive fiction that chronicles the highs and lows of a relationship, from those initial butterflies to the heartbreak on the other side. It’s also a game that you can play in its entirety in under an hour, and there’s little reason to come back other than experiencing it all over again.

How would something like that fare against an arcade-style time waster like Frogger in Toy Town? Assuming it follows a similar format to the original Frogger, this’ll be a game that is designed around endless replaying as players chase high scores and try to get just that bit further than their last go. Even playing a few minutes here and there, a player could easily rack up a hundred hours in a month.

How is something like Florence supposed to compete with that? Under Apple Arcade’s reported revenue model, a game like Frogger in Toy Town will be inherently more valuable, and that’s a worrisome proposition.

Frogger in Toy Town.

Best case, we’ll see fewer and fewer small, thoughtful games on Apple Arcade, in favour of endless time-wasters. Those small games have enough trouble as it is getting a footing in the traditional app stores and game marketplaces. They get drowned out by bigger, louder games, and there’s a common view that the amount paid for a game should be borne out in its running time. The way Apple talks about this new service makes it sound like a haven for exactly the sorts of games that the traditional marketplace buries, but paying developers based on how many hours people played their game takes all those problems and amplifies them.

Worse case, we’ll see more and more games on Apple Arcade start to artificially inflate their playing times. There’ll be more needless grind-based game systems, more inane sidequests, more padded storytelling—anything that can keep the play clock ticking, even if it waters down the experience. As long as they’re not so invasive that they makes people stop playing entirely, these sorts of things will be directly rewarded by a revenue-based-on-play-time model.

And the worst case – one that Apple’s quality control would hopefully limit, but who knows – would be designing for addiction. If a developer’s revenue is directly related to how long people play for, it’s in their interest to find ways to get people coming back for more, and more, and more. Free-to-play games have spent years perfecting the art of turning playing a game into a habit with things like login bonuses, daily quests, and timed events—all things that make sure players check back often, often if they’re not playing huge marathon sessions. Tie revenue directly to playtime, and there’s even more of an incentive to build such exploitative systems into games.

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But there’s a bigger philosophical question at play here: should a game’s worth be determined solely on how long it takes you to get through it? Is a 50-hour game inherently worth more than a two-hour game, even if those 50 hours consist mostly of tedious game systems and a story that overstays its welcome? Even if the two-hour game serves up the best two hours of your life? Under Apple Arcade’s proposed model, it is – 25 times as worthy, in fact.

None of this is to say that small games are better or more deserving of making money than epic RPGs or fun, endless time-wasters. There’s a time and place for every sort of game; just because I’m an art-game snob doesn’t mean I don’t spend hours and hours playing Final Fantasy XIV, or trying to get 100% completion in whatever Ubisoft’s latest To-Do List Simulator is, or drilling fighting game combos into muscle memory. The point is that different games, created with different goals in mind, for different audiences and different moods, should exist on an even playing field.

Apple Arcade’s reported revenue model, which would tie developers’ returns directly to how long people spend playing their games, is as far from an even playing field as possible.



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