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Apple Arcade exclusives have to be better than Frogger

Welcome to 2019, Apple.
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Chris Velazco / Engadget

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Let's get one thing clear right away: Some Apple Arcade games will be fine. They'll be good, even. Sayonara Wild Hearts looks like a rapid-fire, neon-streaked music video in game form, while Jenny LeClue is a spooky and dense investigative experience more than five years in the making. Beyond a Steel Sky is the long-awaited sequel to beloved late-90s cyberpunk title Beneath a Steel Sky, and it's coming to Apple Arcade. So is The Pathless, a stylish, mythical adventure from the studio behind Abzu, and Overland, the post-apocalyptic strategy game from indie royalty at Finji.

All of these games are coming to Apple Arcade, but they have another thing in common: They're launching on other platforms, too.

When it comes to exclusives, Apple either isn't ready to advertise its most ambitious titles, or it simply doesn't have them. Apple kicked off today's iPhone event with a demonstration of two Arcade exclusives -- Frogger in Toy Town and Shinsekai: Into the Depths -- and both were well-executed, though underwhelming. These aren't particularly groundbreaking or high-fidelity experiences, and they have a distinctly childish flair.

Shinsekai: Into the Depths

Frogger in Toy Town comes from Konami, while Shinsekai is a Capcom jam -- two publishers that clearly know how to produce a quality game. They've done exactly that with their Apple Arcade exclusives, though these titles aren't pushing the boundaries of design or narrative prowess. Frogger in Toy Town is a simplistic, yet bright and cheery, obstacle-avoidance game, while Capcom producer Peter Fabiano said on-stage that Shinsekai has simple controls. The third game Apple showed off on-stage was Sayonara Wild Hearts, which is also debuting on Switch and other platforms this year.

Apple has other exclusive games for Arcade, though the company isn't making them easy to find. Where Cards Fall is one -- it's poised to be a clever, heartwarming puzzle experience from Los Angeles studio The Game Band, created in partnership with Alto's Odyssey house Snowman. There's also Repair, a mysterious new title from Monument Valley studio UsTwo Games, and Skate City from Snowman. Apple announced a handful of fresh titles after today's iPhone event, including ChuChu Rocket! Universe from Sega, Exit the Gungeon from Devolver, and Rayman Mini from Ubisoft. However, it's unclear which, if any, of these titles are exclusive to Apple Arcade. (Engadget has contacted these studios for clarification and will add their responses in an update at the end of the article).

Apple has plenty of money to throw at subscription video games, and it's reportedly spent $500 million to bring more than 100 titles to the service when it launches on September 19th. The bulk of these games are also coming platforms outside of the Apple ecosystem, and for developers, Arcade inclusion is a matter of building a port, rather than creating something specifically for the service. After all, Apple recently unlocked support for Xbox and PlayStation gamepads across iPhone, iPad and Apple TV.

Sayonara Wild Hearts Chris Velazco / Engadget

Apple is sitting on an unproven marketplace, where it's planning to charge $5 a month for access to a library of more than 100 games on limited platforms. It's unclear what will resonate with this group of players or how the service will hold up in real-world situations. Given enough incentive, any studio could create a game only for Apple Arcade, though it makes sense that right now, many aren't willing to risk unleashing bold new ideas on an untested market. Rather, recent competition among platform holders is driving better deals for developers, and there's simply no reason to risk everything on Apple Arcade.

Exclusivity is a critical facet of the gaming economy. Sony and Microsoft have long battled to own major, genre-defining franchises that push players to buy their hardware specifically. To get players on PlayStation, Sony has Final Fantasy, The Last of Us and God of War. To entice Xbox players, Microsoft has Halo, Gears of War and Forza. Nintendo, of course, has an extensive lineup of proprietary games in the Mario, Zelda and all-things-adorable universes, driving players to its own consoles.

This phenomenon is finally playing out in PC gaming, thanks to the introduction of the Epic Games Store. For more than a decade, Steam had an essential monopoly over the PC gaming ecosystem; "coming to PC" was synonymous with "coming to Steam." Epic launched its own Games Store at the tail end of 2018, and, backed by the financial power of Fortnite, the Unreal Engine and Tencent Games, it started gobbling up timed and full exclusives. Steam has real competition, and Epic is using its position to offer developers a better business deal while pushing for Steam to adopt the same model.

Frogger in Toy Town

Apple has experience with this push-and-pull, considering its history of competition with Android. However, with more platform options than ever before and the steady rise of subscription services like EA's Project Atlas, Microsoft's Project xCloud and Google Stadia, Apple Arcade is going live within a brand new gaming marketplace. It needs exclusive content to be competitive.

Apple Arcade is getting a lot of great games. It's even getting some great-looking exclusive games -- the company just needs to tell everyone about them, if it wants this new subscription service to thrive.

Update 9/10 7:57pm ET: Sega confirmed ChuChu Rocket! Universe is exclusive to Apple Arcade, and Devolver said Exit the Gungeon will "debut" on the service.

Follow all the latest news from Apple's 2019 iPhone event here!

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