Once upon a time, my smartphone was my most used gaming platform. It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when app stores felt like a new frontier, and game developers had fun experimenting with a little touchscreen rectangle you always had in your pocket. . Then the economy changed. Games slowly got cheaper before eventually becoming totally free. New releases had to choose between shrinking viewership for premium games or saddle their game with in-app purchases. Things got dire. But lately I’ve been having fun with my phone again – and that’s almost entirely due to subscription services.
I came to this realization recently when I switched from Android to an iPhone and started loading my new gadget with games (this is always the first order of the day for any machine I acquire ). I started by downloading titles from the subscriptions I have – Apple Arcade and Netflix – and before I knew it I had two dozen games in a folder, ranging from old favorites to ones I’m continuing To try. Subscriptions, even on mobile, are not an entirely new phenomenon. Arcade launched in 2019. But they’ve now matured to the point that I feel like it’s the best way to play on an iPhone.
Let’s start with Arcade, which might just be the best gaming offering that people never seem to talk about. It launched with a huge lineup of games, things stayed pretty quiet for a while, then in 2021 it got a huge boost with the introduction of classic games. There’s a nice mix between typical mobile time wasters (right now I’m playing a lot of grinding wheel, Good Sudokuand skate town) and bigger experiences like old-school RPG Fantastic or Yu Suzuki’s wonderfully bizarre rail shooter air tornado.
Netflix, on the other hand, had a much quieter start. There wasn’t much to play when mobile games were first added to the service. But that slowly changed. I really started noticing with the release of In the breach, an amazing mech versus kaiju strategy game that originally launched on PC in 2018 but came to mobile via Netflix earlier this month. It’s a perfect fit for your phone, and digging through Netflix’s admittedly limited game library, I found several titles that I really enjoy. These range from colorful climbing game poinpy (from the creator of the excellent falling game Downwell) at dungeon crawler simulator / item shop Moonlight to the very fun arcade shooter relic hunters.
I wouldn’t recommend subscribing to Netflix just for games at this point; the library is far too small and limited. But as a complement to the service and compliment to Arcade, it’s great. Games on these services are also completely devoid of the heavy microtransactions that so often plague mobile games these days. (That’s part of what makes them ideal for families.)
That’s not to say these are the only options for gaming on a phone, far from it. I also play several games without subscription like Key words, Pikmin Flower, Super Mario Runand the recently launched prequel to Octopath Traveler. I had my finger hovering over the download button during Genshin Impact, afraid of what will happen to my free time if I type. But the bulk of the games I play now, and those I plan to play in the future, come from these two subscription services.
Now I have no idea what the future holds. Subscriptions are still a relatively modern phenomenon for games, and their impact on the developer economy in the coming years is unclear. We’re already seeing games leave Arcade as the service changes tactics to focus more on engagement. And given that neither Apple nor Netflix are primarily game companies, there’s always a chance they’ll decide to switch gears at some point and focus on their core products. Plus: given the glut of subscription services for just about everything, I’m sure most people aren’t looking to add a few more.
But for now, and for the foreseeable future, things look good. Arcade added new titles of varying quality on a weekly basis, and Netflix announced upcoming releases from the creators of Monument Valley and Alto’s adventure. Just today I installed a narrative adventure from Netflix that you control by blinking your eyes. We’re not quite back to the glory days of early games on the iPhone, but we’re getting closer – for as long as that lasts.