Subscriptions have made iPhone gaming 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 time when app stores felt like the new frontier, and game developers happily experimented with a little touchscreen rectangle they always had in their pocket. Then the economy changed. The games slowly became cheaper before eventually becoming completely free. New releases had to choose between a shrinking audience for premium games or burdening the game with in-app purchases. Things got awful. But lately, I’ve been having fun with my phone again—and it’s almost entirely due to subscription services.

I came to this realization recently when I switched from Android to iPhone and started loading up my new gadget with games (it’s always the first order of business for any machine I acquire). 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’ve been meaning to try. Subscriptions, even on mobile devices, aren’t exactly a new phenomenon. Arcade was launched back in 2019. But now they have matured to the point where I feel it’s the best way to play on the iPhone.

Let’s start with Arcade, which is probably the best deal in gaming that people never talk about. It launched with a huge range of games, things went quiet for a while, and then in 2021 it got a huge boost with the introduction of classic games. There’s a good mix between the typical mobile time wasters (I play a lot at the moment A grindstone, Good sudokuand Skate City) and larger experiences like the old RPG Fantasy or Yu Suzuki’s wonderfully weird rail shooting Air Twister.

Netflix, on the other hand, got off to a much quieter start. There wasn’t much to play for when mobile games were first added to the service. But that is slowly changing. I really started to notice with the release of the In Proloma, an amazing mech vs. strategy game. kaiju, which originally launched on PC in 2018, but came to mobile devices via Netflix earlier this month. It’s perfect for your phone, and while digging through Netflix’s limited game library, I found a few titles that I really like. They range from the colorful climbing game Poinpee (from the creator of the excellent falling game Downwell) to the dungeon crawler simulator / item shop Moonlighter to the very fun arcade shooting game Relic hunters.

Moonlighter.

I wouldn’t recommend subscribing to Netflix just for games at this point; the library is too small and limited. But as an addition to the service and a compliment to the Arcade it’s great. Games on these services are also completely devoid of the heavy-handed microtransactions that so often plague mobile games these days. (That’s part of what makes them perfect for families.)

That’s not to say these are the only gaming options on the phone – far from it. I also play few games without subscription like knot words, Pikmin Bloom, Super Mario Runand the recently launched backstory of Octopath Traveler. My finger hovers over the download button for Genshin Impact, scared what would happen to my free time if I touched. But most 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 relatively modern phenomenon for games, and it’s unclear how they will affect the developer economy in the coming years. We’re already seeing games leave Arcade as the service changes its tactics to focus more on engagement. And given that 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 abundance of subscription services for just about everything, I’m sure most people don’t want to add a few more to the pile.

But right now and for the foreseeable future, things are looking good. Arcade adds new titles of varying quality on a weekly basis, and Netflix announces upcoming releases from the creators of The Valley of the Monuments and Alto’s Adventure. 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 that is.