While there’s a lot to pick apart with the Sonic Dream Team announcement, nothing has completely engulfed the discourse quite as much as disbelief, frustration, and misunderstanding with its platform: Apple Arcade. We may not know what Dream Team itself is outside of some form of 3D platformer with multiple characters and Lost World-esque aesthetics, and we may not know if it’s even worth playing yet, but that hasn’t stopped people from obsessing over the Apple part of its release.
So it’s worth actually looking at Apple Arcade as a platform and taking the time to understand what it actually is, what hardware is really required, and why SEGA would opt to release the game on that specific platform.
What is Apple Arcade?
Let’s get this out of the way first: Apple Arcade is not the same thing as the iPhone app store. Apple Arcade is a subscription service for Apple devices acting as an alternative to the free-to-play model that has consumed mobile gaming.
The library is a mix of fully-featured games that you may have seen on other platforms (Stardew Valley, Slay the Spire), versions of existing games without micro-transactions or ads (Jetpack Joyride, Cut the Rope), as well as a number of original games or original versions of existing games (Air Twister, Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On!).
It’s also home to Sonic Dash+, a version of Sonic Dash without ads or micro-transactions, and Sonic Racing, an alternate take on Team Sonic Racing that… feels like it was designed with micro-transactions in mind, but then had them taken out?
What do I need to play Apple Arcade games?
Apple Arcade is available on Apple laptops and PCs, iPhones, iPads, and Apple TV set top boxes running OS 13 or later. For phones this goes roughly as far back as the iPhone 6s, for tablets it’s the iPad Mini 4, and for Apple TV it would be 4th generation or any 4K version.
You will likely want a controller, and while a number of controllers are compatible, a PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Xbox Series controller should work fine.
What’s the cheapest way for me to get access?
The best way to save money will always be to wait for reviews before buying anything. We’ve never had a full 3D platformer like this from SEGA HARDlight before, and it remains a big question mark whether or not the game will be worth dropping $100 or more on hardware and subscriptions to play.
That said, if I’m being realistic, there are fans who will not wait, so for those people… let’s at least try to save you a few bucks.
While you can probably find a variety of used devices on eBay, the current (2022) Apple TV 4K (64GB) is currently available for $130 at most U.S. retailers with slight discounts at Costco and Sam’s Club. However, you can economize even further with a refurbished model direct from Apple for as low as $110.
Because Dream Team is a 3D game, the farther back in time you go, the higher the risk you’ll have with performance limitations, so be wary of aiming for the lowest point of entry possible. If you’re going the Apple TV route, any 4K model should be safe.
Apple Arcade is a subscription service at $7 a month. However, you can get a 1-month free trial for existing hardware or a 3-month trial on new hardware. We don’t know if Dream Team will be released in full or if it will have ongoing content, so there’s no good way to tell if it can be “finished” in a month or not.
Will this come to other platforms later?
Maybe, but right now we don’t have any evidence to suggest it will.
Many games that started out as Apple Arcade exclusives have made it to other platforms, like Assemble with Care, Grindstone, and Exit the Gungeon. However, we don’t have an example of SEGA doing that. In fact, ChuChu Rocket Universe (also developed by HARDlight) was delisted from Apple Arcade last year and was never made available on any other platform.
Why would SEGA make the game exclusive to Apple Arcade, and not platforms like Android?
There are two things that define the modern mobile game landscape: 1. It’s an extremely high risk environment that really only has room for free-to-play software anymore, and 2. Apple app store users statistically spend much more than Google Play users.
Apple Arcade seems to exist in response to this. Consumers (especially parents) who want games without the constant hustle of up-sells, energy timers, and surprise micro-transaction bills can pay a single monthly fee for all games in the library. Developers who Apple chooses to work with get a much more predictable paycheck and don’t have to design their games around elaborate Skinner Boxes to remain profitable.
SEGA has not always had a good grip on what will make money in mobile gaming. Yes, they’ve got Sonic Dash and Sonic Forces: Speed Battle which have been around forever in mobile game years. However they ultimately could not make the economics work for Sonic Runners after only a year of service, and took an absolute bath on an attempted Sakura Wars mobile revival. Even 404 GAME RE:SET, a game that launched this year, is set to shut down in January.
On the other hand, SEGA seems to have a solid relationship with Apple, and especially Apple Arcade, considering that Dream Team will be their seventh title on the platform and that Apple themselves seem to have a hand in its production. It allows SEGA to have known income rather than risk the fickleness of the market, and personally I hope it means that the game will have a more traditional structure instead of other mobile Sonic games’ ad-filled, shop-pushing, card collecting, timer waiting format that gets under my skin every time I load up Speed Battle.
I don’t want to get Apple hardware or Apple Arcade.
One of the loudest, angriest sentiments I’ve heard coming from this game’s announcement is “Does SEGA expect me to buy an iPhone just to play this game?” I think that is a misinterpretation of what the product actually is.
Come December, you will not be able to buy Sonic Dream Team. It’s not an independent piece of software that SEGA can sell you, because they didn’t make it for you. They made it for Apple. Apple then wants to bundle it with a hundred other games, inside of a subscription, because their business model is built around maintaining an ecosystem for their hardware customers. If you are not and will not be an Apple hardware customer, then Apple really doesn’t care if you’re a Sonic fan or not. But if you do own or could be convinced to own Apple hardware, then Apple hopes that games like Sonic Dream Team will convince you to join or maintain an Arcade subscription.
It’s no different than Sonic Prime on Netflix. Netflix doesn’t buy licensing for Sonic because they care deeply about the Sonic fanbase. They do it because it might convince some of that fanbase to have and actively use a Netflix subscription. Because that is their entire business.
From SEGA Sammy Holding's 2023 annual investor relations report
As for SEGA’s place in this, SEGA does care if you’re a Sonic fan, but they don’t care where you are a Sonic fan. If you discover an enjoyment of Sonic through Apple Arcade or through console games or comics or Paramount films or Roblox, they benefit from all of that. Their goal is to have Sonic reach as many people as possible, especially children. It’s the same philosophy that brings us platform exclusive Sonic games on the DS, PSP, Wii, Kinect, Neo Geo Pocket Color, and even the Game.com. SEGA is not worried that everyone will have access to every Sonic game or even this specific Sonic game. They care that everyone has access to a Sonic game.
The people who suffer in this arrangement, and the ones who most vocally oppose Dream Team’s platform, are the Sonic completionists, the sub-section of fans who treat experiencing every part of the series, not as a fun goal, but as an obligation to FOMO. Knowing that there might be an entry in the series that you can’t play sucks. It does, I am keenly aware. But when the franchise is simply this sprawling, the task of keeping up with everything is going to be very resource intensive, leaving most of us to pick and choose what we want out of it and how much we’re willing to pay. Everything has rarely been an option throughout Sonic’s history, nor is it a guaranteed option today.
The angle I’m more sympathetic to is game preservation. As mentioned earlier, ChuChu Rocket Universe launched with Apple Arcade and was delisted last year with no clear reason why and no indication that it will appear anywhere else. Explicitly, this is bad historical preservation, and we need to push for both the legal and technical capacity to preserve games. But this is a whole-industry issue far beyond the scope of one Sonic spin-off title.
So then what do I do?
Well, first and foremost, I can’t recommend buying any sort of subscription or hardware until the game actually has some reviews out. Ideally, don’t buy into the hardware and/or subscription unless you know there are other things in it that you want to play. If you're buying in regardless, maybe check out Air Twister, Fantasian, Manifold Garden, What the Golf, or Reigns: Beyond. There’s some decent games on Arcade, so why not branch out if you’ve got the subscription anyway?
If you don’t want to engage with Apple at all, then don’t. This year alone we’ve got Final Horizons, Sonic Superstars, The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog, and a bunch of cool game experiences from SAGE and Sonic Hacking Contest. And there will assuredly be more Sonic throughout the foreseeable future if you’re willing to wait for it. Perhaps after this game releases, if it still looks like something you would want to play, let SEGA know that you would want to see the game released on consoles or PC.
Just… you know. Don’t make the internet a less hospitable place because you might not get to play one specific game.