Latest Apple Arcade additions show Apple is looking backward, not forward

A screenshot of Vampire Survivors on the iPhone
Enlarge / Vampire Survivors on the iPhone. It doesn’t look like much, but it sure is addictive.

Samuel Axon

Apple recently announced new games coming to Apple Arcade, its gaming subscription service for iPhones, iPads, Macs, Apple TVs, and Vision Pro headsets. The headlining title is Vampire Survivors, an indie hit that combined the gameplay of bullet hell shooters and the addictive quality of clickers to become a mega sensation two years ago. Also coming is Temple Run: Legends, an updated take on the popular game from 2011.

Vampire Survivors was already available on the App Store, but it was ad-supported, with the option to spend money in-app to get additional content. The Apple Arcade version, dubbed Vampire Survivors+, is more akin to the PC or Xbox versions that don’t have ads. Both paid expansions will be included at no additional charge.

Meanwhile, Temple Run: Legends is a completely new game (not just a remake of the original Temple Run) that bucks the “endless runner” genre label by breaking its gameplay into individual levels—though there will be some kind of optional endless mode, too.

If you haven’t played Vampire Survivors before, it’s worth a try. Both titles will launch on August 1.

Arcade could use some fresher and riskier picks

These new additions are the most recent in a long line of Apple Arcade titles curated with a risk-averse, only-if-it-is-proven mentality that more or less ensures the subscription service won’t get the sorts of surprise breakout hits that draw people to it.

When Apple Arcade launched, its initial lineup was a fascinating mix of casual and indie titles, some of which went on to be popular on other platforms once Arcade’s exclusivity ended. However, there were reports early on that Arcade wasn’t gaining the traction Apple hoped for, so the company quickly switched gears. It turned to continued, ongoing engagement as the primary metric by which to judge success, which led to a preference for games-as-a-service as opposed to standalone or narrative experiences. And it began primarily releasing games based on established intellectual properties like Hello Kitty or Star Wars, as well as re-releases of games that had already proven their success elsewhere in the App Store.

Many of those re-releases were more than a decade old, hearkening back to the early days of the App Store when premium titles reigned and free-to-play, games-as-a-service hadn’t taken the wheel.

This week, Apple released a new game-as-a-service in a mobile IP from 2011 and a viral indie hit many months after its virality died down. I’m not saying no one is interested in or playing Vampire Survivors now, but imagine how much more it would have driven iPhone owners to Arcade if it had been there when it was first making headlines.

It took only a short time for Apple to shift gears away from its initial strategy of approaching creative new developers that were presenting interesting work at events like IndieCade to leaning only on games that had proven they could be successful, IPs that had proven popular already, or experienced developers who had already made waves on the App Store. Perhaps Apple didn’t give that strategy enough of a chance.

What we have now is a safe subscription service that essentially curates the best of what other people have already discovered and (thankfully) strips out ads and microtransactions. That’s a nice enough value proposition, especially for the price. But we’re unlikely to see breakout hits on Arcade making waves among players, influencers, or the press because, for the most part, Apple is following the headlines with this service, not leading them.

That limits Arcade’s place in the landscape a bit, and limits its potential for growth. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good value for the right kind of player, but it means that those looking to play the next best thing are likely to be looking elsewhere, and by the time something makes it to Arcade, they’ve moved on to the next trend. Your mileage may vary whether that works for you, but with more competition from other mobile games subscription services, Apple might need to accommodate more kinds of players. A greater balance between proven hits and more experimental or ambitious titles day-and-date with other platforms could help capture both buckets.

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