Many of my co-workers were glowing about Apple Arcade when it came out - we gave it four stars in the official TechRadar review and have published multiple excited editorials about the games subscription service since.
However, I always found the service rather disappointing, and I think I’ve finally figured out why - I’m an iPad user.
In short, Apple Arcade seems designed for iPhones, and when you view it through that lens, lots of the issues with the service make a lot of sense. I believe Apple’s missing a trick by not focusing on games with tablets in mind, and I'd like to see more focus on such titles.
iPads aren’t big iPhones, after all. They're powerhouses that trump their smartphone counterparts in everything from screen quality and audio output, to processing and battery life.
They’re much, much better for playing games on (not just Apple Arcade titles), and for the games service to be the ubiquitous mobile gaming platform Apple likely wants it to be (and a solid competitor for the Google Games Pass when that rolls out worldwide), the company needs to remember about its tablets.
Some Apple Arcade games 'force' portrait orientation
You’re very likely to play games on your iPhone in portrait - that’s the natural way of holding a phone - but iPads are usually used in landscape.
It seems iPads were designed to be used that way too. iPadOS generally works better in landscape, and Apple’s keyboard peripherals are all designed to hold the iPad that way around.
In fact, most people seem to set their tablets down, using cases as stands to hold them upright like laptops. It’s a little baffling, then, that some Apple Arcade games lock you into a portrait orientation.
If you’re playing them on a massive iPad Pro 12.9 like I do, holding the slate at such an unwieldy angle becomes more of a workout than a way to unwind with a relaxing mobile game.
This can be a chore, and it has put me off playing some games that are locked into portrait. That's especially the case since it rules out holding the tablet in its case or stand.
Apple should encourage developers to make titles that offer landscape orientation options too, to make them easier to play for people on tablets. At the moment it isn’t the case, which just makes non-Apple Arcade games, with landscape modes, much more tempting.
This isn't an issue which affects all games, I know. But it does apply for enough that I've found it an irritating part of the experience.
No long-play-period or in-depth games
Most of the Apple Arcade games feel pretty similar too - a good portion of them sport a similar art style, and many can be broken up into a few limited genres like platformer or puzzle game. The few games which do feel ‘unique’ also usually feel curiously similar to other games.
Take for example, Lego Brawls - it's similar to Super Smash Brothers, while Outlanders feels imitative of the superior PC game Banished.
These games feel designed for phones, but not just in terms of the layout of controls - they’re broken up into short levels, likely so that you can pick up the device and quickly play through a few minutes before putting your iPhone back down. There’s not much depth to them as a result, as it’s assumed you’ll never be playing for more than a few minutes at a time.
An iPad is like a computer when it comes to gaming. Since you don’t have to hold them and they sport superior screens and audio quality, it’s much easier to settle down for long periods of gaming.
I would be happy to have a more in-depth game that I can play for longer periods of time, and iPads are great for mobile ports of popular games like Rome: Total War, XCOM: Enemy Within and Tropico for this exact reason.
Here’s an example - you might play Overland, an okay Apple Arcade survival strategy game mired by a few big issues, for a few minutes. The levels are all rather simplistic, and there’s no character or item management, so there’s little to keep your attention in the long term. Bear in mind Overland is on our list of the best Apple Arcade games, despite its flaws.
Then take XCOM: Enemy Within as a counterpoint; another squad-based strategy game that launched first on consoles and PC, then on mobiles and tablets a few years ago. The base management section of that game is as time-consuming as the whole of Overland, and that’s not counting the battles that can take up to half an hour for the harder matches.
XCOM: Enemy Within assumes its players will have a fair amount of time, so its wide range of mechanics and features all work in harmony. Overland feels like it was clipped at the wings to facilitate short play periods, and so it’s a less enjoyable experience to play on iPad.
So iPad users like me may love a few games that allow you to play for long amounts of time, let you grow in skill and awareness of the game as you play.
Currently, there are no Apple Arcade games that are as in-depth or full of interwoven mechanics and features as other games you’d find on the App Store, making it a less preferable option for iPad owners looking for more complex games they can play for longer.
There are better iPad games on the App Store
As I just touched on, Apple Arcade has some fierce competition from other mobile games, and I’d argue it’s far better value to pay for bigger, individual games to engage you for a long time if you're after an in-depth iPad title.
Generally, a big mobile game will cost you the same as a month of Apple Arcade, give or take depending on where you live. That’s what Tropico, XCOM and Rome: Total War all cost, and those are huge games that’ll easily last you more than a month of play.
Then there are the slew of good, free games with microtransactions that’ll take your time. Call of Duty: Mobile, PUBG Mobile and Fortnite Mobile are the big titles here, but I’ve been playing plenty of Old School Runescape and Elder Scrolls Blades, which are thoroughly engrossing too.
As well as being better value than Apple Arcade, these games will give you a more enjoyable experience on iPad as they work really well on slates.
In fact, many of them actually work better on tablets than phones. For example, Fortnite has a 120Hz mode on iPad Pro.
I’m just mentioning the tip of the iceberg here, based on my last month of play. We’ve got lists of the best iPad games and best iPhone games that you can check out for more recommendations, but suffice to say, the best games for iPad aren’t on Apple Arcade.
Few of these games need much processing power either, as they're all available on Android as well where phones have a much bigger range of chipsets, so the excuse that iPhones aren't as powerful as iPads is a moot point because games can work on both.
iPad owners are paying for games they won’t use
How could Apple solve this? If Apple ever does start an iPad-friendly expansion for Apple Arcade, it’d really be worth it creating a separate subscription for these curated iPad games, to save tablet gamers paying for loads they won’t ever be using.
I find Apple Arcade a little on the pricey side for what it is - that’s why I stopped subscribing, as although I was playing some of the games now and then, I really didn’t feel like they were the sort of titles I wanted to play on iPad.
But if I’d been paying less, to match the relatively small amount of games that worked well on iPad, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so disappointed.