Once upon a time, my smartphone was my most used gaming platform. Hard to believe these days, but there was a time when app stores felt like a new frontier and game developers had a blast experimenting with a little touchscreen rectangle you always carried in your pocket. Then the economy changed. Games slowly got cheaper before eventually becoming totally free. New releases have had to choose between a dwindling audience for premium games or paddling their game with in-app purchases. Things got bad. But lately I’ve been having fun with my phone again — and that’s almost entirely due to subscription services.
I recently came to this realization when I switched from Android to an iPhone and started loading my new gadget with games (which is always the first task for any machine I purchase). I started downloading titles from my subscriptions – Apple Arcade and Netflix – and before I knew it I had two dozen games in one folder, ranging from old favorites to ones I always want to try again. Subscriptions, even on mobile, are not an entirely new phenomenon. Arcade was introduced back in 2019. But they’ve matured to the point now that I feel like it’s the best way to play on an iPhone.
Let’s start with Arcade which is perhaps the best gaming offering that people never seem to talk about. It started with a huge selection of games, went pretty quiet for a while, and then in 2021 it got a huge boost with the launch of classic games. There is a good mix between the typical mobile time wasters (at the moment I play a lot whetstone, Good sudokuand Skate City) and bigger experiences like old-school role-playing Fantastic or Yu Suzuki’s wonderfully bizarre rail shooter air twister.
Netflix, on the other hand, started much calmer. When mobile games were first added to the service, there wasn’t much to play. But that is slowly changing. I really started paying attention with the release of into the breach, an incredible Mech vs. Kaiju strategy game that originally released on PC in 2018 but came to mobile via Netflix earlier this month. It’s a perfect match for your phone, and when I poked around Netflix’s admittedly limited library of games, I found several titles that I really enjoy. These range from colorful climbing games Poinpy (from the creator of the excellent falling game Below) to dungeon crawler / item shop simulator moonlighting to the very fun arcade shooter relic hunter.
I wouldn’t recommend subscribing to Netflix just for games at this point; The library is way too small and limited. But as an add-on to the service and to compliment Arcade, 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’s not to say these are the only options for playing on a phone – far from it. I also play several non-subscription games such as node words, Pikmin bloom, Super Mario runand the recently released prequel too Octopathic Traveler. I hovered my finger over the download button Genshin Impact, Afraid of what will happen to my free time should 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 comparatively modern phenomenon for games, and it’s unclear how they will affect developer economics in the years to come. We’re already seeing games leaving 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 shift gears and focus on their core products at some point. Also, given the plethora of subscription services for pretty much everything, I’m sure most people aren’t keen on adding a few more to the pile.
But things are looking good for now and for the foreseeable future. Arcade added new titles of varying quality weekly, and Netflix announced upcoming releases from the creators of Monument Valley and Alto’s adventures. Just today I installed a narrative adventure from Netflix that you control by blinking. We’re not quite back to the glory days of early iPhone gaming, but we’re getting pretty close – while it lasts.