While Microsoft continues to work on getting Xbox Game Pass onto iOS devices and others like Google and Nvidia haven’t even made the attempt to deal with Apple’s restrictions on cloud gaming, it seems that Amazon has found a way to avoid the whole debacle with its own newly-launched cloud gaming service.
During its big devices event yesterday, Amazon took the wraps off Luna, a new game streaming service that will naturally be coming to its own Fire TV hardware, but also a complete lineup of desktop and mobile devices — including the iPhone and iPad.
Amazon has managed to accomplish what Microsoft couldn’t by simply taking the path of least resistance: creating Luna so it can be accessed through web apps on platforms that won’t support any kind of a native Luna app.
Although Apple has slightly revised its App Store rules to open the door to game streaming services, it’s still done so in such a way as to make it more complicated for developers. While the new policies now allow for cloud-based streaming apps and game catalogues, each game must still be distributed as an individual app on the App Store, much like how Apple’s own Apple Arcade service handles things.
It’s an approach that goes against the grain of what Microsoft, Google, and Nvidia want to do with game streaming services, presenting them as a “Netflix for games” where customers can just open one app and then jump in and out of the entire collection of games at will without having to go through the extra step of downloading extra pieces.
While Microsoft still seems to be working with Apple to try and bring Xbox Game Pass to the iPhone, it’s certainly not eager to make the compromises that Apple is insisting on.
Luna, on the other hand, doesn’t have to play by any of those rules, since it’s not an app — at least not for iPhone and iPad users. Instead, as Engadget has discovered after taking a closer look, it’s something called a “progressive web application.”
What This Means
At a basic level, this means that Luna will simply run in Safari or whatever other browser you choose to use on your iPhone or iPad.
However, Luna is also a bit more sophisticated than just a web page that you open directly in Safari. As Engadget notes, “it’s actually a browser-based program masquerading as a native iOS app,” and can even have its own icon on your iPhone’s home screen, so for all intents and purposes, it’s going to feel like a native app in many ways.
This actually hearkens back to the days before the App Store, when Apple’s vision for iPhone apps was that they would all be web apps, and to be fair there were some pretty clever ideas and frameworks back then even for the original 2007 iPhone — the only model that existed in the pre-App Store era — so if anything the power of modern iPhones and the technology in Safari’s WebKit engine has opened up even more possibilities since those early days.
To be clear, Amazon isn’t trying to do an end-run around Apple either; there’s every indication that Apple approves of this particular approach, and Luna’s head of engineering and technology, George Tsipolitis, told Engadget that they worked closely with the Safari team in order to develop Luna, so it clearly has Apple’s blessing on at least one level.
In fact, when Apple revised its rules earlier this month, it specifically made mention of this possibility in the new Section 4.9 (emphasis ours):
4.9 Streaming games
Streaming games are permitted so long as they adhere to all guidelines — for example, each game update must be submitted for review, developers must provide appropriate metadata for search, games must use in-app purchase to unlock features or functionality, etc. Of course, there is always the open Internet and web browser apps to reach all users outside of the App Store.
While this may seem strangely prescient, Apple almost certainly had to know that Luna was coming, and likely wanted to make it absolutely clear that such an approach wasn’t going against its rules.
Marc Whitten, Amazon’s Luna chief, hinted that the streaming service could someday arrive on iOS as a native app, but that’s largely up to where Apple ends up on its policies on streaming game services and whether Luna will be able to work within those.
We’ll continue working with Apple. We’d love to do a native experience. They’re evaluating what their policies are there, they keep talking about them. And when we can come up with a good experience there, we’ll ship that one, too.Marc Whitten, Amazon Luna
In fact, Whitten suggests that Apple is still reconsidering its policies internally, meaning that the recent policy shift might only be the first step. If true, this also lends more credence to the recent comments made by Microsoft’s Xbox head Phil Spencer that suggested that Microsoft would also be able to eventually come to some resolution with Apple.
One big limitation of Luna’s current approach, of course, is that you won’t be able to get the game streaming service onto the Apple TV, since of course tvOS doesn’t include a browser. A native app would presumably be able to close that gap.
Exclusively on iOS
What’s also interesting is that among mobile platforms, Luna will be launching exclusively on iOS, although it will also of course be available on Fire TV, PC, and Mac. Mostly it’s Android that’s going to be left out of the party in the short term, however Luna’s executives have made it clear that this doesn’t have anything to do with any of the special deals between Apple and Amazon, nor is it a pushback against Microsoft’s exclusive Android release for Xbox Game Pass.
In fact, Whitten says an Android launch is definitely coming “within weeks” of the early access launch, and it seems most likely that the company is simply working on getting its native Luna Android app ready, since of course game streaming services are fully embraced by that platform.
Luna is available right now as an early access release to users in the U.S., who will be able to sign up for $5.99/month for access to Luna+, the standard channel that is expected to feature a collection of games that will arrive over the coming weeks, including such titles as Resident Evil 7, Control, Tacoma, Overcooked! 2, and more.
Following Amazon’s Prime model, there will also be more channels available as paid add-ons. Most of these details haven’t been announced yet, although we do know that Ubisoft will headline the first curated channel, however, which is expected to include a fairly wide selection of games from its current catalog, along with same-day releases of titles like Far Cry 6, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and Immortals Fenyx Rising.
Amazon is hoping to have about 100 games available during the early access period, although these will be distributed across the different channels; the company says it’s expecting about 50 titles in the standard Luna+ channel and then another 50 in the Ubisoft channel.
Pricing for the additional Ubisoft channel and others hasn’t been announced, and in fact Amazon emphasizes that the current $5.99/month price for Luna+ is only for an early access subscription, so it’s likely to change when the service fully launches.