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The market for premium, paid games still exists even in an Apple Arcade world

Sayonara Wild Hearts and Apple Arcade with a DualShock 4 controller
Sayonara Wild Hearts and Apple Arcade with a DualShock 4 controller (Image credit: Christine Romero-Chan / iMore)

iPhone XS Max with App Store

App Store (Image credit: iMore)

When the App Store first came out, things were pretty great. We had tons of creative and unique apps and mobile games, which were either free without ads and IAPs or a buy-once-keep-forever kind of thing. These were the days before subscriptions became the norm. I remember buying a ton of apps and games at the time because I was always looking for new things to check out and write about for work. I had a passion for mobile gaming at that point and thought the flame would never go out.

Eventually, down the road, my passion vanished.

At some point, the App Store was transitioning into the freemium phase — everything was free to download, but riddled with in-app purchases. We're talking about paying to get rid of super annoying ads, to access basic features or content, or even to get a leg up on other players with "pay-to-win" game items.

Every Wednesday night, I would check to see what new games were available on the App Store, but it soon became more "free" games than paid ones. I just wanted to pay a few bucks for some quality games that weren't full of ads or IAPs, but the trend has shifted. As I said before, "my excitement for mobile gaming just continued to decline into a visceral abyss."

Then Apple announced Apple Arcade, and I got excited for the future of mobile gaming once again. After all, Apple Arcade gives you unlimited access to dozens of premium mobile games (with some exclusive only on Apple Arcade) for a mere $4.99 a month, and it includes Family Sharing.

But what if subscription fatigue hits, and Apple Arcade is one of those on my chopping block? What happens to all of those great games I was playing? As much as I love Apple Arcade, I sometimes still prefer just paying once, rather than an ongoing fee, to have access to one really good game forever (or at least a nice, long while).

Apple Arcade's "all you can play" is not one size fits all

Even though Apple Arcade is a few months old now, it still feels like an experiment. It allows game developers to experiment with new gaming experiences and make them available to Apple Arcade subscribers. It is also still in the infancy stages, testing the waters to make sure such a subscription model is viable in the long run.

On the surface, many will think that $4.99 a month for unlimited access to dozens of games for up to six people is a great value. And while it is a good value, it doesn't fit everyone's needs.

At the moment, there are over 100 games on Apple Arcade. If you want to get the most out of your $5 for the month, you'll probably download a ton of games at a time, and then play each one for a little bit before moving on to the next title. It's like a buffet — a sample of everything should suffice.

The problem with this method is that each game may not be getting the full amount of attention it deserves. Having access to so many games can be a little overwhelming, and you may not even know where to start. You may love everything, and want to play every game until they're all beat, which means just continuing to pay for the service until that's accomplished. Or you may not love anything at all.

Maybe there's just one game you really want to check out, so you sign up for a month and don't plan on sticking around. But once you beat it, if you unsubscribe from Apple Arcade, you won't be able to replay it or try for better scores. Is a single game worth an ongoing subscription fee if it wasn't designed for that (the opposite of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft)?

So even though Apple Arcade's business model seems like a good idea, it doesn't fit everyone.

There's still a market for premium, paid games

SpellTower+ Tower Mode on iPhone 11 Pro

SpellTower+ Tower Mode on iPhone 11 Pro (Image credit: Christine Romero-Chan / iMore)

There's a lot going on in my life these days, so it's hard for me to keep up with the mobile gaming scene each week. But some recent notable games that came out recently are SpellTower+ by Zach Gage and Maze Machina (opens in new tab), both of which I have personally bought.

SpellTower+ is a modern reimagining of a classic that I played frequently back in the day, and it's one of those games that I come back to whenever I want to relax and unwind. However, despite my love for the game, I don't think I would pay $5 a month just to be able to play SpellTower+. That's why I'm glad that Gage decided to release SpellTower+ as its own download, instead of something that's part of Apple Arcade. And when the first opportunity came up to either watch an ad or pay to get rid of ads and unlock the full game, I did not hesitate. This is one example of a game that I truly enjoy and would prefer to just pay once for it and be done with it.

Maze Machina is the other title that I've purchased recently because it's from the same developer behind Card Crawl (opens in new tab), Miracle Merchant (opens in new tab), and Card Thief (opens in new tab). I bought all three of those other games, and I know the dev makes solid mobile games that are worth purchasing. So when I heard that Maze Machina was a new title from him, I bought it immediately. Again, this is another game that I will keep coming back to when I want an escape for a brief amount of time, but I'm not sure I would continue to pay each month for it.

Suzy Cube on an iPhone XS

Suzy Cube on an iPhone XS (Image credit: Christine Romero-Chan / iMore)

To bring it home, these two games are from well-known indie developers who have garnered respect in the mobile game community. They're both well worth a one-time purchase to download and play for as long as you want. But if they were on Apple Arcade, and these were the only games I was interested in, I'm not sure it would be worth the subscription fee to keep accessing these games.

That's why as great as Apple Arcade is, I still believe that there will always be a market for premium, one-time purchase games. If there is only a handful of games (that have high replay value) that you're interested in playing, it's cheaper to just pay a few bucks for each of them versus continuing to pay $5 a month for several months or longer just to access them.

How do you like to game?

Right now, I am subscribed to Apple Arcade, but I will still buy games that interest me as they come along and aren't on Apple Arcade. I think that the two complement each other nicely at the moment, as Apple Arcade gives you a lot of variety for the monthly price, but there are still quality games that are worth a standalone purchase. But the one thing that makes premium games win, in my opinion, is the fact that if I decide I don't want Apple Arcade anymore, I lose access to all of those games. Meanwhile, with premium games, they'll always be available for as long as the developers support them because I paid for them.

Are you still subscribed to Apple Arcade? Or do you prefer buying single games to access whenever? Let us know in the comments.

Christine Chan
Christine Chan

Christine Romero-Chan has been writing about technology, specifically Apple, for over a decade at a variety of websites. She is currently the iMore lead on all things iPhone, and has been using Apple’s smartphone since the original iPhone back in 2007. While her main speciality is the iPhone, she also covers Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac when needed.

When she isn’t writing about Apple, Christine can often be found at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, as she is a passholder and obsessed with all things Disney, especially Star Wars. Christine also enjoys coffee, food, photography, mechanical keyboards, and spending as much time with her new daughter as possible.

14 Comments
  • So, here's one parent's perspective. My kids are 5, 6, 8 and 10 years old and have begged for years for a "gaming system". We've always shunned the idea. And then I saw Apple Arcade. Here are games that are of very good quality, no adds, no IAPs...hmmm...and we can play this on our Apple TV? Ok, sold! For Christmas we bought 4 controllers and it was a huge hit! There are still some things I'd really like to see Apple change, though - especially for the way we want to play games. Multiplayer games, for starters just weren't what we expected at all. "Party mode" - huh? You mean only one person uses a controller on the Apple TV and the rest of us have to play on our iOS devices? Lame. And then I discovered that all the Apple Arcade game saves, etc. are ties to only 1 Apple ID - mine! I wish that it were more intuitive to be able to have my kids hop to their Apple ID on the Apple TV and see their saved progress. I also wish multiplayer games weren't tied to individual Apple IDs and we could just all play with all 4 controllers. I can't slam the content at all, though - the games are a complete hit. Especially ones like LEGO Brawls and Sneaky Sasquatch. And as a parent, I feel pretty good about my ability to install appropriate games and fairly confident that I can just let them play without worrying about inappropriate content, either in the game or in some ad or in-app chat or something.
  • Oh, yeah so far I've enjoyed the content on Apple Arcade. That's great that you and your kids love it though! I can definitely see this being a better option than like, a PlayStation or Xbox for kids that age.
  • Why?
    You can have accounts on those too that can be restricted can’t you?
    The library of games is huge too. MUCH bigger than offered by Apple for a huge range of ages, genres, prices, you name it.
  • As a kid I owned a Playstation 1, and then the original Xbox, I would've felt like one of those kids at Christmas that asked for something and got the "cheap" version if someone got me something like Apple Arcade, but obviously what people buy for their children is their decision. Xbox/Playstation/Switch will always have far better quality games than Apple Arcade
  • I understand that feeling. If you really want a Nintendo Switch, Apple TV/Apple Arcade is an inferior substitute: no Mario, no Zelda, no Pokémon, no portable/handheld mode. I don't even think Fortnite runs on the Apple TV, in spite of working great on an iPad. The original PlayStation had Final Fantasy 7. The Xbox had Halo. Apple TV seems to have some great exclusive games but are they really classics for the ages?
  • p.s. Nothing against Pokémon Go (or Pokémon Home), but if you are looking for a Pokémon RPG you're probably going to find it on a Nintendo console. I had hopes for Nintendo's iOS offerings, but beloved series like Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing are bogged down by mobile monetization schemes.
  • I think Apple TV + Apple Arcade could potentially turn into a nice game platform if they can work out some of these rough edges. Even comparing Apple Arcade to established services like PSN Plus, Nintendo Switch Online, and Xbox Game Pass, I think it offers a pretty good value. Nintendo/Sony/Microsoft seem to have gotten the local multiplayer, multiuser, and controller issue right. And if you are up for competitive local multiplayer, Mario Kart is a fantastic game that pretty much anyone can have fun playing.
  • It has come to the point now that I really don't play games on my iPhone. I still have a few on my phone, old games like Alto's Adventure that I play on occasion to kill time waiting for something, but I absolutely REFUSE to be taken in by in-app purchases and games that rely on rapidly depleting and horribly slow but carefully designed to replenish supplies of "coins, hearts, health, etc" . Pretty much all the games I see in the iOS App Store are these awful things, so I just ignore the entire genre. I tried Arcade, there were a few good games, some did not work at all, some were extremely short, but very few games have been added since the launch, so I dropped the service. Overall, the gaming experience on iOS is about as lackluster as it has always been.
  • The gaming experience on iOS is good if you avoid freemium games like the type you mentioned. Even though the App Store is full of them now, there are still very good games that are released which aren't freemium, you've just got to dig a bit deeper to find them. I usually just end up ignoring all the games with "GET" on them and just look for the ones with a price tag
  • I agree. So far the Apple Arcade games are very light games without a lot of crunch to them — games that otherwise would have been smothered by freemium nuisance factors designed to impede gameplay until you threw money at it to make it stop. But there isn't anything like X-Com or Civilization or heck even Baldur's Gate. And those are really the things I want to see more of.
  • I think this is a good service for families, especially with younger kids. I have looked at the available games and nothing suits my fancy except for Oceanhorn 2. But, why cant I pay $10-$15 for just Oceanhorn 2 and play it outside of Arcade? I fear that subscriptions are going to get out of hand before it’s over. I am paying monthly and yearly for several things outside of games and the sheer number of subscriptions has forced me to take a hard look and frankly, stop some of the bleeding. I don’t mind paying for a game then paying for new DLC later with minor updates and enhancements between but somewhere there has to be some happy medium between freemium and subscriptions.
  • Subscriptions are already getting out of hand, but you aren't forced to buy them, I never will. It sucks that you can't buy Oceanhorn 2 on its own, I really enjoyed the first one. Guess I'll never get to play the second one 🙁
  • I wish more people would vote with their wallets for premium, paid games rather than freemium games with awful "mobile style" monetization schemes: 5 different in-game currencies that you can buy with real money; loot box/gacha mechanics; energy systems/play-and-wait; pay-to-win... I have little to no interest in freemium games, and subscription fatigue is setting in. Apple is contributing to subscription fatigue with Apple Music, Apple Arcade, and Apple TV+, as well as encouraging iOS developers to adopt subscription pricing to fund ongoing maintenance due to Apple breaking your app yearly with iOS upgrades.
  • Apple Music isn't so bad since you get the iTunes platform as a subscription which I can understand, but I'm not a fan of another TV service with its own content and also not into Arcade having games which you can't buy outside of Arcade. Apple doesn't purposefully break iOS apps, it's just that they make a lot of structural changes to iOS whereas other companies focus more on backwards compatibility, it's what allows iOS to be so smooth, and generally the breaking changes are fairly easy to fix. Lots of programming languages deprecate functionality so if you were to keep using the latest version of the language (which you generally want to do) you still have to update your code, but again it's usually nothing significant