What Apple Arcade needs to learn from Xbox Game Pass

Apple Arcade
(Image credit: Apple)

Fantasian got people hyped for Apple Arcade like we haven’t seen since it went live in September 2019, which is wild considering the service has tripled its launch catalog of 60 games to over 180 today. If Apple wants its game service’s userbase to grow, it should learn a lesson from another gaming service that has only grown in subscriptions and hype: Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass.

It’s crucial to lay out how Apple Arcade was pitched: a service with no microtransactions or ads interrupting play of a curated selection of games guaranteed to delight, not offend. Developers got a good deal, too, with a (still undisclosed) amount of financial support to make the games they want without needing to shoehorn in revenue-generating mechanics.

There are particular gamers to whom Apple Arcade obviously appealed: casual mobile game fans, microtransaction-jaded players who just wanted distraction-free experiences, parents who didn’t want to worry about what their kids were playing. But at launch in September 2019, it was unclear how Apple Arcade would appeal to more players – a question persisting today as the service goes full steam ahead quietly adding games that, for the most part, aren’t hyped ahead of time.

Perhaps Apple is fine with taking up little space in the gaming world; Apple Arcade immediately rose in value last September when it was rolled into the Apple One bundle alongside services like Apple TV Plus, Apple Music, and Apple Fitness Plus. But Fantasian is the exception that proves Apple Arcade could be so much more if it just played ball with the gaming hype cycle like Microsoft does with Xbox Game Pass.

Best Xbox Game Pass games

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Game Pass: embracing the hype

 While Xbox Game Pass started with a foundation of Microsoft-owned titles – the Halo, Forza, Gears of War, and Minecraft titles that formed the foundation of first-party releases on Xbox consoles – the service has grown into the biggest value in gaming over the last couple years through its timely additions of wanted titles. And Microsoft has not been shy about promoting which games are coming to Game Pass.

It’s how we discovered that the service was getting Square Enix’s third-person looter shooter Outriders on launch day, hyping up the game a month before its release in a way that drew more interest to an unknown IP.  

The team running Game Pass leans into its role in the hype cycle, teasing new additions by publishing ‘emails’ from the fictional and ridiculous Melissa McGamepass, Executive Senior VP Lieutenant of General Video Game Communications. It’s mad corny, but adds a little levity that tames some of the intense energy surrounding game reveals, like this one ‘leaking’ Outriders coming to the service before a more buttoned-up official blog post confirmed the news.

Game Pass, and the Xbox blog, regularly communicate which games are coming to the service, and give ample notice – even for games coming this year that don’t even have a release date yet.

That’s how we found out that, of the many games announced at the March ID@Xbox online showcase, around 20 would be coming to Game Pass, per an official blog post. They included games like the lovely date-your-weapons Boyfriend Dungeon and the Moebius-styled Sable that wowed crowds at E3 2018, both of which we’d known about before and were more excited to see coming to the service.

We knew about the games because they, like Outriders, had followed traditional gaming hype channels – debut trailers, tease gameplay, announce for multiple platforms – and connected with fans who loved their premises. That hype only increased when we found out they’d be coming to a service we’re already subscribed to.

That’s why, when we saw Apple start talking openly and early about or Fantasian, we were surprised – Apple doesn’t really do advanced press for games. And we wondered how it would change the service if Apple could work with the gaming hype cycle as it exists today, openly adopting far more titles already generating interest instead of cultivating their development under a cloud of secrecy.

Rising hype tide raises all boats

To be clear, Apple does engage in some publicity efforts, often reaching out to press and even connecting media to developers; this is how TechRadar spoke with the folks behind new games that followed up on the well-known Oxenfree and No Man’s Sky as well as those working on licensed games based on Game of Thrones and Star Trek. But these interviews were embargoed until the games went live on Apple Arcade – without giving players and potential subscribers time to get excited. 

And yet, Apple gave TechRadar and other publications advanced access to Fantasian lead and Final Fantasy co-creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to talk about the game, and it felt oddly normal – like how buzz is usually built before a game comes out. It put Apple Arcade on the lips of games journalists and atop headlines that weren’t just surprise announcements of a few new games coming to the catalog.

Not every game Apple signs to its service will generate the buzz of a Final Fantasy creator’s next project, but some should. More headline-worthy additions raise the quality and desirability of the service, generating more appreciation and interest in the smaller titles that get added to the catalog. 

Apple shouldn’t stop adding the lovely, oddball games that may not have existed without the patronage of its undisclosed financial support – Outlanders, Takeshi and Hiroshi, Inmost, Nuts, Cozy Grove – but they, and the service itself, could get a boost if Apple Arcade started including more already-visible games and actively promoted their acquisitions. Apple should harness games that have generated buzz to shed light on the service’s games that go unseen.

David Lumb

David is now a mobile reporter at Cnet. Formerly Mobile Editor, US for TechRadar, he covered phones, tablets, and wearables. He still thinks the iPhone 4 is the best-looking smartphone ever made. He's most interested in technology, gaming and culture – and where they overlap and change our lives. His current beat explores how our on-the-go existence is affected by new gadgets, carrier coverage expansions, and corporate strategy shifts.