Earlier this year when my daughter turned 13 and we asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday, the top thing on her list was for the family to play some video games together. She said that when we do that, we all end up interacting and laughing a lot more than if we watched a movie or even went out somewhere to celebrate. I never thought of it that way, but there's plenty of truth to it.
- Massive selection of games; new games each week
- The subscription cost for a year equals one console game
- Can download and play all games offline
- No ads, upsells or in-game purchases
- One subscription works for up to 6 family members
- Multiplayer modes are inconsistent and frustrating
- Biggest marquee games haven't arrived yet
So when we found out this spring that Apple was going to be launching a new video game service, my daughter and I started following the news about the games that were announced to see if there were any that we might like to play. By the time Apple Arcade was released this fall, we found more than enough to make it worth subscribing after the one-month free trial -- even if playing together in multiplayer mode wasn't always as good as it could have been for a lot of the games.
Of all the new services Apple launched in 2019 -- which included Apple TV ($169 at Walmart) Plus, Apple News Plus and the new Apple Card -- Apple Arcade is the most polished and offers the clearest value for consumers. Pay $5 per month -- which adds up to the same price as one console game per year -- and you get access to over 100 games and a steady stream of new titles virtually every week. The fact that you can play the games across iPhone ($699 at Apple), iPad ($359 at Walmart), iPod Touch ($250 at Amazon), Mac and Apple TV as well as download them to your device to play offline are added bonuses.
While Arcade isn't perfect and has important opportunities to improve in 2020, it's still a service that's easy to recommend -- especially at its price and with the number of mobile gamers growing so quickly around the world. It's an especially easy service to recommend for parents, since it gets kids off the merry-go-round of in-app purchases and the games can be downloaded to mobile devices to play in the car and while traveling. Plus, the catalog is curated so there's very little objectionable content. All of that is what has made Apple Arcade a CNET Editors' Choice pick for 2019.
Sayonara Wild Hearts was named the Apple Arcade Game of the Year.James Martin/CNET
Changing the paradigm for mobile games
In recent years before the launch of Apple Arcade, gaming on iOS devices had become a race to the bottom. Nearly all the most popular games on the App Store were either free or 99 cents -- and would make their money by charging for in-app purchases and add-ons, or by inserting advertisements.
As this freemium model came to dominate, it elbowed out some of the best and most creative games from indie studios and small developers. A lot of these games didn't have ads or in-app purchases and so they typically charged $1.99 to $4.99. But their audiences were dwarfed by the freemium titles. The shame of it was that there were a bunch of beautifully designed games with strong gameplay that were getting overlooked because they didn't fit very well in the freemium model.
At the same time, a lot of parents were getting frustrated because their kids were racking up big bills from in-app purchases or were constantly asking for permission to buy tokens or add-ons for the games. Alternatively, kids were getting exposed to unknown content from ads in other games. Above all, these freemium game systems were all about getting kids -- and adults -- addicted to playing these games and then continually milking them for more money through on-going purchases.
We can look at Arcade as Apple's attempt to change the environment on its platform for mobile gaming and skew it back toward quality titles, often at the expense of freemium games. Make no mistake, Apple makes a ton of money from taking a cut of all of those freemium microtransactions. But it's playing the long game and betting that if it can help quality games to flourish on its platform then it will attract plenty of kids, parents and casual gamers. And since mobile games and casual games are where most of the growth is in gaming, it makes sense that Apple decided to take a stronger hand in the direction of gaming in its massive ecosystem.
The Apple Arcade games catalog
Every game system rises or falls on whether it has games that people actually want to play. One of the biggest challenges that Apple Arcade faced as it got off the ground was that most of its games were original titles from lesser known developers. There were very few well-known game franchises or games based on movies or professional sports leagues or pop culture tie-ins to attract gamers to part with their money.
Sure, there were some exceptions such as Frogger in Toy Town, Lego Brawls and Pac-Man Party Royale, but most of the Apple Arcade games -- and the studios that made them -- were ones most people had never heard of.
To exacerbate the matter, several of the most anticipated Apple Arcade games -- including some Apple touted in its initial marketing -- have yet to arrive on the service. Those include The Pathless (the female archer game from Annapurna Interactive that was front-and-center on a lot of Arcade promotional materials), Fantasian (from the legendary Hironobu Sakaguchi, who was featured in ), Beyond a Steel Sky (sequel to a popular 1990s cyberpunk game) and Proxi (from Will Wright, famous creator of "The Sims" series).
We should expect that all of these games are still coming -- Apple CEO
. But, if you're looking for flashy and well-known games before subscribing to Apple Arcade then you're likely to be disappointed.
Thanks to @mistwalker and the legendary Hironobu Sakaguchi san for the sneak peek of Fantasian. Games like this are exactly why we made @AppleArcade — so the world’s most creative developers can transport players into immersive new worlds. 素晴らしい！ pic.twitter.com/is8eef9U4v— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) December 10, 2019
That said, the breadth of quality games on Arcade is impressive -- even if you're just hearing about them for the first time in the minutes before your first play. There are a ton of different types of games across a lot of different genres — mystery games, family games, puzzle games, nostalgic games and more. They're all easy to download from the new Arcade tab in the App Store and you can do a one-month free trial to make sure there are games you'd want to play before you start paying your monthly fee.
The bottom line is that there's more than enough good stuff to justify the price tag. Just keep in mind that most of the games and gameplay are still phone- and tablet-centric, so they still play like a lot of the premium $5 iOS games from before Arcade. But, there are a few notable exceptions, like Shinsekai Into the Depths, which feels like a console game, and Sayonara Wild Hearts, which was named Apple Arcade Game of the Year and is so unique that there's really nothing quite like it on mobile, PC or console. If Arcade can attract more games like those two in the future, then it could get a lot more interesting to more types of gamers.
Shinsekai Into the Depths is one of the most console-like games on Apple Arcade.James Martin/CNET
Where Arcade can still learn from Nintendo
The biggest caveat to Apple Arcade is its multiplayer gameplay. For a service that puts kids and families at its center, the fact that its multiplayer modes are inconsistent and confusing between different games is a disappointment and a missed opportunity.
Leading up the launch of Arcade, CNET's editors -- many of whom have a long history covering the games industry -- saw it as a threat to the hottest game system of the past couple years, the Nintendo Switch ($311 at Walmart). That's because both target family and casual gamers. For families, one of the most frustrating parts of the Switch is that in order to play multiplayer games, every Switch user needs to own their own copy of the game.
One of the best features of Apple Arcade is that one subscription gives access to up to six members of a family group. That means it has the potential to be a lot more attractive for families to game together.
Unfortunately, there's no consistent multiplayer mode across the various Apple Arcade games. Some games have you simply play on one system with multiple controllers. Others only let you play one at a time on the same device and then compare scores. Still others try to use invite codes to let you join with people on their devices to play together in the same game -- but the sad state of Apple Game Center makes it difficult to connect to people and streamline that process.
It results in an experience that makes it a lot less fun than playing your friends and family at Mario Kart on Nintendo -- the gold standard in multiplayer gaming.
If Apple can improve Game Center so that you can more easily make connections to family and friends as well as bring some consistency to its multiplayer modes, then it could win over a lot more family gaming time.
For now, it's a terrific platform for putting a lot of games at the fingertips of individual casual gamers. There's plenty of good stuff to cycle through -- even if you've never heard of most of it. And the fact that you can download a ton of games and run them on a relatively inexpensive device like the Apple iPad 10.2 -- also a CNET Editors' Choice -- makes this a great deal for a lot of people. It's limited to Apple devices, but with Apple Music now on Android and Apple Arcade on the way to becoming Apple's second most popular service, there's always the possibility that could change.