Subscriptions have made gaming on an iPhone fun again

Subscriptions have made gaming on an iPhone fun again

Once upon a time, my smartphone doubled as my most used gaming platform. It’s hard to believe now, but there was a period when app stores felt like a new frontier, and game developers had a lot of fun experimenting with a little rectangle of touch screen that you always had in your pocket. Then the economy changed. Games slowly got cheaper before becoming free completely. New releases had to decide between a shrinking audience for premium games or saddling their game with in-app purchases. Things got dire. But lately, I’ve been having fun with my phone again, and it’s almost entirely due to subscription services.

I realized this recently when I switched from Android to an iPhone and started loading up my new device with games (that’s always the first order of business for any machine I buy). 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 intend to try. Subscriptions, even on mobile devices, are not a completely new phenomenon. Arcade was released in 2019. But now they’ve matured to the point where I feel like it’s the best way to play games on an iPhone.

Let’s start with Arcade, which might be the best gaming offering that people never seem to talk about. It launched with a huge variety of games, things were pretty quiet for a while and then in 2021 it got a big boost with the introduction of classic games. There’s a nice mix between the typical mobile time wasting machines (right now, I’m playing a lot of Grindstone, good sudokuY skate town) and bigger experiences like old school RPG Fantastic or Yu Suzuki’s wonderfully bizarre rail shooter whirlwind of air.

Netflix, on the other hand, got off to a much quieter start. There wasn’t much to play when mobile games were first added to the service. But that has been slowly changing. I really started to take notice with the release of in the gap, an amazing mech vs. strategy game. kaiju that originally launched on PC in 2018 but made its way to mobile via Netflix earlier this month. It fits perfectly on your phone, and while rummaging through Netflix’s limited game library, I found several titles that I really enjoy. These range from the colorful climbing game pointed (from the creator of the excellent falling game) down the well) to the dungeon crawler / item shop simulator Moonlighter to the very fun arcade shooter relic hunters.


I wouldn’t recommend subscribing to Netflix solely for gaming at this point; the library is too small and limited. But as a service add-on and Arcade add-on, it’s great. The 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 great for families.)

That does not mean that these are the only options to play on a phone, far from it. I am also playing various games without subscription like knots, pikmin flower, Super Mario Runand the recently released prequel to Octopath Traveler. I’ve had my finger on the download button for Genshin Impact, scared of what will happen to my free time if I tap. But most of the games I play now and the ones 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 comparatively modern phenomenon for gaming, and it’s unclear how they’ll affect the developer economy in the years to come. We’re already seeing games abandon Arcade as the service changes tactics to focus more on engagement. And since neither Apple nor Netflix are primarily gaming companies, there’s always a chance they’ll decide to switch gears at some point and focus on their core products. Also: Given the glut of subscription services for just about everything, I’m sure most people aren’t looking to add a few more to the stack.

But right now, and for the foreseeable future, things are looking good. Arcade has been adding new titles of varying quality on a weekly basis, and Netflix has announced upcoming releases from the creators of monument valley Y High’s Adventure. Just today I installed a Netflix narrative adventure that you control by blinking. We’re not back to the glory days of early iPhone gaming, but we’re getting pretty close, while it lasts.

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