Where Cards Fall, developed by The Game Band and published by Toronto-based studio Snowman, doesn’t seem like your typical mobile game. The stylish, moody puzzler depicts the rough transition of entering adulthood from your senior year of high school. Each challenge follows a narrative arc, and the pace is slow and meditative. Despite its somber subject matter, the game quickly reels you in with its rich visuals. Skate City, another title released by Snowman and developed by Agens, is a low-key skateboard game with a hypnotic soundtrack and mellow, Southern California visuals.
But quirky, indie titles like Skate City or Where Cards Fall rarely see the light of day in today’s crowded mobile-game marketplace. With Apple’s new Arcade service, where subscribers pay $5 per month for access to dozens of exclusive games, these games are finding a new home. Mobile games are the largest segment of the gaming industry, and are expected to generate over $150 billion in revenue in 2019. These sorts of games tend to make money through a free-to-play model, either supported by in-game purchases or ads. Traditionally, unless you’re a big studio, it’s been tough to convince players to shell out $4.99 or even $0.99 on a game they’ve never tried. A look at the top grossing iOS games by Sensor Tower include a long list of well-known game franchises like Candy Crush Saga, Fortnite, and Call of Duty. There have been notable exceptions to this rule, such as Monument Valley 2, which generated more than $10 million in the first 12 months of its release.
But for the thousands of indie games that haven’t achieved name recognition, Apple Arcade could be a viable pathway to success. The model of Apple Arcade, akin to the all-you-can-eat style of Netflix, gives subscribers the freedom to try out games they’ve never heard of or aren’t sure they’ll like. Instead of competing with hundreds of thousands of iOS games, an indie title only has to stand out in Apple Arcade’s much smaller pond.
Andrew Schimmel, Snowman’s lead producer, said his studio tends to steer clear of the ad-supported model. Alto’s Odyssey and Alto’s Adventure, also released by Snowman, are premium mobile games, both of which cost $4.99 when they launched. “The games we like to play personally are sort of the immersive experiences where you dive into a world and you really get to sink your teeth into it,” Schimmel told Quartz. It’s not interrupted by some of the mechanics that free-to-play brings, such as when you hit a paywall or you’re reminded that there’s a shortcut that you can pay for, or pay-to-earn progress. That never really sat comfortably with us as designers.”
Free mobile games that survive on ad revenue are popular, but can also irk users. App reviewers of Rescue Cut – Rope Puzzle, which is currently the most downloaded free mobile game app on Apple’s iOS App Store, mainly voice irritation about the pop-up ads. “More ads than there is actually gameplay,” writes one reviewer.
Schimmel said he believes that Apple Arcade may be a good alternative for mobile game developers who don’t want to be restricted to either business model. “I think if you want to make a premium game, and if you don’t want to have ads or in-game purchases, it’s an awesome avenue to consider, because it just lets you focus on the game that you want to make,” he added.
But it’s still too soon to tell if Apple Arcade will be a blessing to indie mobile game developers. The tech giant just launched the service in September, and currently offers more than 100 titles from a variety of different publishers, such as Annapurna Interactive, Square Enix, and ustwo. If gamers don’t end up holding on to the service after the one-month free trials Apple offers, it could spell trouble for indie mobile games. And for Apple, it’s looking for any revenue streams it can find beyond the iPhone right now.