It’s a tale as old as time: “Bring quality exclusives and the people will follow.” There are other factors play into how well a platform does, of course, but offering enticing games that can’t be found anywhere else has always been part of the equation.
Apple’s new gaming subscription service, Apple Arcade, had one of the most impressive launches for a gaming subscription service in years. Not only did it come out of the gate with 100 or so games available across iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV, but many of those are exclusives funded by Apple.
The lineup is stacked with premium titles that shrug off the typical freemium mobile game stigma; in actuality, many of the games on offer are just as impressive as high-quality indie titles found on PC and console. For $5 per month, anyone with a modern Apple device (excluding the Apple Watch) will be able to access an ever-growing suite of handpicked indie experiences.
As someone outside of the Apple ecosystem, I was incredibly excited when Google officially announced a competing service within a week of Apple Arcade’s launch. The Android user base is substantially larger than the iPhone’s, and Google certainly has the capital to pursue a similar funding model. Just as the phones from both parties have become exponentially more polished over the years, the fruits of competition between Apple and Google on the gaming front had all the potential in the world.
Unfortunately, the Google Play Pass ends up feeling like a lesser service right out of the gate. Unlike Apple’s games-focused service, Play Pass offers both games and apps. Its launch includes a staggering library of 350+ options including fan-favorites like Stardew Valley, Reigns, and AccuWeather. However, none of the games or apps are Android-exclusive; all three of the above are readily available on the App Store. Worse yet, a significant number of games and apps on offer are already free across both storefronts–they simply don’t have any ads or in-app purchases in Play Pass.
What results is a service that doesn’t feel worth its $60 per year price tag compared to the competition. Google likely recognized this themselves, as they’re promoting a special introductory discount price of $2 per month, making the service just $24 for the first year for those who sign up before October 10th.
Even at $24 for a year, however, Play Pass has little to offer those looking for a games-first service. There are great games here, to be sure; Bridge Constructor Portal, Game Dev Tycoon, Terraria, Thimbleweed Park and more are all high-quality mobile ports. But chances are, you likely either have these games or had the chance to get them for cheap before, be it via a Steam sale, Twitch Prime, Xbox Game Pass, or a similar service.
Apple Arcade, meanwhile, is launching with new games, some of which had been highly anticipated for months before release (Shantae and the Seven Sirens, Overland, Sayonara Wild Hearts, Oceanhorn 2: Knights of the Lost Realm, and so on). Despite having a launch library that’s more than triple the size of Apple Arcade, Google Play Pass can’t hope to compete by simply bundling games (and apps) that people have already had the chance to buy for years now.
How Google Play Pass Can Actually Start Competing
All of that said, Play Pass isn’t dead in the water—far from it. There are a few routes Google could take to make this service more appealing to gamers, those with a passing interest in gaming, and everyone in between.
1. Invest in Exclusive Software
The App Store has long been recognized as the preferred mobile gaming storefront for one key reason: despite the smaller install base, most of the top mobile developers seem to prioritize it. Seeing as most of these games were probably going to launch first on iOS anyway, Apple played it smart and funded them for exclusivity, making it a win for all involved.
Assuming deals aren’t already underway, Google needs to start doing this for Play Pass’ second year. Even at less than half the price, the service is currently only appealing to a sliver of Android users: gamers that haven’t played (or had the option to play) most of these games, and casual users who are willing to pay for a premium gaming/app subscription service.
Does Re-Logic want to make a Terraria follow-up? If so, Google should lock it down. Are there new projects brewing from the creators behind top-notch games like Hidden Folks, Lumino City, or Old Man’s Journey? Google should help bring their visions to life. If the company truly wants to get the attention of those who would pay to play games on mobile, it needs to invest in spectacular experiences that players can’t get anywhere else in the space.
2. Don’t Raise the Price…Yet
Google launched Play Pass the week of September 23rd and is ending its $2 per month offer on October 10th. This near two-week window for users to jump on the introductory offer is completely baffling, especially in the face of Apple’s month-long free trial. It’s as if Google is hoping users will rush to join just so they don’t miss the low-cost boat.
Instead of creating this false sense of value, it would make more sense for Google to extend the $2 per month price until it actually has enough software to warrant competing with Apple Arcade. If nothing else, these at least have to be the promise of exclusive/original content coming in the future. Otherwise, once that introductory offer is gone, savvy Android users will compare the two services and balk at the value disparity.
3. Split the Service in Two
Google Play Pass is trying to wear too many hats. It’s attempting to cater to more “hardcore” gamers with titles like Limbo, This is the Police, and Thimbleweed Park, but also has its eyes locked on everyday phone users with apps like Daylio, Moon+ Reader Pro, and Photo Studio Pro. Instead of bundling all of these together, it’d make more sense to split them into two separate subscriptions positioned towards different audiences.
Not only would this make for clearer messaging, but it’d also allow Google to lessen the price and make each subscription more attractive. Instead of casual users having to pay more for games they don’t care about, getting premium or ad-free versions of their favorite apps for $2-3 per month would be a no-brainer. Meanwhile, those only interested in top-tier Play Pass gaming content wouldn’t have to pay for apps they’ll never use.
This move would be huge in keeping Google’s service competitive with Apple Arcade from a pricing standpoint. Just as Nintendo Online is positioned next to Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, sometimes a low price really is enough for people to overlook glaring flaws in a service.
For as disappointing as Google Play Pass is, these are still early days for what could become the future of mobile gaming for both tech juggernauts. Apple Arcade might’ve come out swinging, but as long as Google isn’t afraid to throw some of its money around and narrow down who its service is actually for, Play Pass could come back this time next year holding all the cards.