Apple Changes Course to Allow Streaming Game Services (Sort Of)

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Earlier this year, fans of Microsoft’s Project xCloud received a glimmer of hope that the new game streaming service could be coming to the iOS platform when Microsoft released a limited xCloud TestFlight beta. Sadly, however, Apple appeared to slam the door on xCloud gaining any kind of wider release with its App Store policies that effectively prevent game streaming services.

At the core of the restriction is a clause in Apple’s App Store guidelines that basically prohibits most bundling of apps.

Developers are permitted to share a subscription across multiple apps only if those apps are owned and published by the same developer. They also have to be released as separate and distinct apps on the App Store, each submitted to Apple’s review team individually and hosted on their own App Store pages.

To be fair, this is exactly how Apple’s own gaming subscription service works, although naturally Apple also gives itself a home-field advantage by presenting Apple Arcade as a distinct App Store category. The games themselves, however, are individual titles that are installed in the same way as any other app, with the only difference being that they can only be installed by those who are paying for the Apple Arcade subscription service.

By contrast, Project xCloud and similar game streaming services like it, such as Google’s Stadia and Nvidia’s GeForce Now, are designed in such a way that all of the games are wrapped into a single downloadable app.

For example, Microsoft is expected to launch Project xCloud tomorrow with over 150 games, all of which will be available for a single Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription through a single app — but only for Android users.

Apple’s Rules

Naturally, Apple’s intransigence in this area has generated a lot of opposition from game streaming service developers and users alike. However, Apple claims that its main objection to the presence of game streaming apps is based simply on its inability to vet every game title individually.

In a statement to Business Insider last month, Apple noted that “gaming services can absolutely launch on the App Store as long as they follow the same set of guidelines applicable to all developers, including submitting games individually for review, and appearing in charts and search.”

However, the catch to this statement is that Apple’s App Store rules still required that all of the apps be published by the same developer. Further, “catalog” apps — those that simply exist to serve as an index providing links to other apps – have also long been prohibited on the App Store as well.

A Crack in the Door

It does seem, however, that Apple has decided to open the door to game streaming services, albeit only by a crack.

Last week, Apple published a rare revision to its App Store Guidelines to allow for game streaming services such as Project xCloud or Stadia to exist on the App Store, although they’ll still have to play by a few rules that Apple appears to be unwilling to give any quarter on.

Chief among these rules is the fact that each of the apps that are included in a gaming subscription package will still need to be published on the App Store separately. However, the games can use the same streaming technology that’s incorporated into their Android counterparts; they don’t need to create a full game package that runs on the iPhone or iPad, but merely a wrapper that gets its own App Store review page.

Previously such “thin client” apps were prohibited by Apple’s rules, which insisted that all executable code exist within the app package itself.

The new guidelines will also permit catalog apps to be published that will allow subscribers to find all of the apps that are available on the appropriate service, although the catalogs will still need to link to the appropriate App Store page for the individual apps to be downloaded and installed. This isn’t necessarily as onerous as it sounds, however, since apps have long been able to directly bring up App Store pages and purchase/download links without forcing the user to actually leave the app and visit the App Store, although it’s arguably still messier than the experience offered to Android users, who can just jump straight into an app without having to install anything else.

All of the apps collected within the game streaming service would also be permitted to share a single subscription, and this subscription could be offered in any or all of the individual apps; this would allow users to discover a game that’s available to xCloud or Stadia users without necessarily having to go through the catalog app first. Of course, it goes without saying that Apple would still be collecting its 30 percent cut from this (although like any other subscription service, that would get lowered to 15 percent for users who stay on for more than a year).

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.

4.9.1 Each streaming game must be submitted to the App Store as an individual app so that it has an App Store product page, appears in charts and search, has user ratings and review, can be managed with ScreenTime and other parental control apps, appears on the user’s device, etc.

4.9.2 Streaming game services may offer a catalog app on the App Store to help users sign up for the service and find the games on the App Store, provided that the app adheres to all guidelines, including offering users the option to pay for a subscription with in-app purchase and use Sign in with Apple. All the games included in the catalog app must link to an individual App Store product page.

Microsoft’s Not Impressed

While Google and Nvidia have both remained mum on this new development, Microsoft has come out with a flat rejection of Apple’s proposal, declaring it to be a “bad experience for customers.”

This remains a bad experience for customers. Gamers want to jump directly into a game from their curated catalog within one app just like they do with movies or songs, and not be forced to download over 100 apps to play individual games from the cloud. We’re committed to putting gamers at the center of everything we do, and providing a great experience is core to that mission.

Microsoft’s statement to The Verge

Microsoft’s vision of a game streaming service is that it operates as seamlessly as something like Netflix or Spotify, where users could play games without having to jump through extra hoops.

It’s not an unreasonable perspective of course, but we can also understand the value of each of the games being individually discoverable on the App Store — notwithstanding that Apple’s true motivations for this may not be quite as simple as that.

Unfortunately, this likely means that we still won’t be seeing xCloud arrive on the iPhone and iPad any time soon, and in fact some have suggested that Apple’s changes are nothing more than a token gesture to appear to be welcoming while creating enough obstacles to discourage any actual game streaming services from appearing.

However, even if the big boys like Microsoft, Google, and Nvidia aren’t willing to play along, Apple new policy changes could open the door for a number of smaller streaming services such as GameClub, which did manage to get a few subscription games on the App Store after jumping through lots of hoops to work within Apple’s very strict rules.

Other Changes

The partial concession to streaming services isn’t the only change Apple announced in its guidelines last week, which have also created a couple of new exceptions for where in-app purchases — and their corresponding 30 percent commission — will be required.

For one, the “reader” exemption that caused so much confusion earlier this year with the Hey email app appears to have been expanded to allow “free apps acting as a stand-alone companion to a paid web-based tool,” which would include VoIP apps, cloud storage, email services, and web hosting applications. This exception would presumably have allowed Hey to be included in its original form, and also would have likely avoided the brief confusion with WordPress last month.

Of course, developers are still prevented from offering any kind of purchases within their apps, including any obvious links telling users how to sign up, but at least they’ll now be able to play by the same rules that have long been available to Netflix and Spotify — offering up an iOS app that simply requires the user to sign into an existing account.

Apple has also loosened its restrictions on taking a cut from certain digital fitness and tutoring classes, adding that “one-to-one experiences” don’t have to be billed through the App Store, although online group sessions (“one-to-few or one-to-many services”) will still be subject to Apple’s 30 percent cut.

The move should provide a bit of relief, however, for those smaller businesses who were forced to move their in-person services online in the midst of the ongoing global health crisis; Apple’s policies have never required physical services to go through its own in-app purchasing system, but many of these small providers found themselves suddenly forced to give up an extra 30 percent to Apple after transitioning to digital classes and sessions.

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