Why Apple Arcade may be the game-changer that Nintendo Switch was

Commentary: Apple Arcade's focus on complete games could get us off the never-ending treadmill that is freemium games.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
4 min read

The Nintendo Switch will likely be one of Apple Arcade's biggest competitors. But they both share a philosophy of complete gaming experiences. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

I tap on the display, and tiny digital warriors and wizards storm the field, ready to attack an enemy base. Wizards blast through the walls, while my warriors rush in with swords at the ready. Within minutes, all that's left is rubble.

Sound exciting? It is, perhaps, for the first several dozen times. Or even several hundred times, when you take into account upgrades and the possibility of new units and features. But what about several thousand times? Because with games like the smash hit Clash of Clans, the only thing that's waiting next is more battles. There is no end game.

But that's mobile gaming in a nutshell: A never-ending treadmill that compels you to keep going for no real reason beyond that next upgrade or power-up -- which just pushes you to keep playing further. It's a trend called freemium gaming, and it's designed to suck you in.

The new Apple Arcade, which Apple Arcade will launch on Thursday for $4.99 per month and run on iPhones, iPads, Macs and Apple TVs, could be an antidote to that -- even if it means paying another subscription. Here's how I know.

Up until this past spring, that was me on the treadmill, faithfully running to nowhere. My wife and I were fans of Clash of Clans. Then I migrated to a similar Transformers strategy game, as well as racing title Asphalt 9: Legends, spending months grinding out points and earning currency for that next Autobot character or sports car. There I was, dutifully tapping on my screen every few hours or jumping in a race so I could earn a daily bonus.

But then I got the Nintendo Switch for my birthday. It's no exaggeration to say it's changed my life.

With a toddler in tow, I've had precious little time to myself. Console games were an early sacrifice to my new life as a parent. But the Switch gave me the ability to bring AAA-quality titles on the go. More importantly, games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey reminded me that video games could be creative, surprising and -- most importantly -- come to a resolution.

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This isn't news for longtime Switch owners, and I acknowledge I'm extremely late to the game here. But this revelation has fresh relevance with the debut of Apple Arcade.

Like the Switch, Apple Arcade offers a library of games built from the ground up to be complete, satisfying experiences. Because the developers are paid through the subscription model, there isn't the temptation to add mechanics like the option to pay to speed through artificial delays in a game or to unlock new levels or features.

To be clear, I haven't played any of the games yet. They may all be clunkers. Though with more than 100 titles, some are bound to be good, or even great. Sayonara Wild Hearts, from Simogo, was shown off at Apple's event on Tuesday, and it looks like a refreshing mash-up of rhythm-based music games and a racer. Capcom's Shinsekai: Into the Depths offers stunning graphics and underwater effects.

Read more: All 51 games announced so far for Apple Arcade

But beyond the specific titles is the philosophy that goes into building the games for Apple Arcade. Just like with Switch titles, there's no ulterior motive beyond making a great experience.

Apple has an advantage in that the games can be played on the iPhone, the one device you likely have on you in virtually every waking moment. You don't need to lug a separate gaming device with you. And at $5 a month, the service is roughly the same price as a single major Switch title over the course of a year.

But I'm not here to stack the two against each other. I'd just note that the impact the Switch has had on me has been profound. It's opened my eyes, and I suspect that with Apple's broad reach, Apple Arcade may do the same for others.

After spending an arguably unhealthy amount of time on the Switch -- especially on the go -- I no longer feel the pull of those mobile titles. Every once in a while, I check into Transformers: Earth War out of some inexplicable sense of obligation. I've made some personal connections from the game, after all. But the passion for these games just isn't there.

The treadmill I once happily ran on is clear to see, and I'm not getting back aboard.

Update, 9:30 a.m. PT: To include additional background and information on the new games. 

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