Gaming Services Will Be Apple’s Next App Store Battlefront

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Anybody who has been following Apple for years will not be at all surprised by the fact that the App Store has some of the most restrictive policies of any software marketplace on the globe. Apple’s heavy-handed approach has been the source of much developer ire over the years, and combined with the 30 percent revenue cut that Apple takes, has not become the subject of several big antitrust investigations.

Now it looks like the other large tech companies are finally starting to push back on a longstanding restriction that Apple has had in place for one very specific — and lucrative — category: Cloud-based streaming game services.

Apple has always made it fairly clear that it doesn’t allow these on the App Store, and while some smaller developers have managed to painstakingly work within Apple’s rules, it seems that the biggest players in the game — and the ones with the games that iPhone users are most likely to actually want — have run into the brick wall of Apple’s intransigence time and time again.

Such was the case with Microsoft’s Project xCloud, which offered a glimmer of hope earlier this year in the form of a very limited TestFlight beta of the streaming service — a beta that only offered a single Microsoft-made app in order to play by Apple’s rules — only to find itself basically shut down as it approached the public rollout of the service, which was announced earlier this week for Android devices only.

Meanwhile, Apple continues to enjoy the benefits of its own Apple Arcade service, which directly competes with not only Microsoft’s xCloud but also Google’s Stadia, Nvidia’s GeForce Now, and Facebook’s new gaming platform, among others, and it seems that these companies are no longer willing to take Apple’s closed-door policies lying down.

Apple’s Stance

Following Microsoft’s omission of Project xCloud from iOS, and the end of its TestFlight program, Apple doubled down on its policies that such cloud service apps are a direct violation of App Store Guidelines and will never exist on iOS in their current form.

In a statement to Business Insider, the company offered what seems to be the nut of its objection to cloud-based game streaming services, which is the fact that it’s impossible for games to be individually reviewed by Apple’s App Store team. This, as Apple says, means that it loses the ability for the App Store to be a “trusted place” for its customers, potentially opening the door to apps that violate Apple’s guidelines and could be slipped in under Apple’s radar.

“The App Store was created to be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers. Before they go on our store, all apps are reviewed against the same set of guidelines that are intended to protect customers and provide a fair and level playing field to developers.

Our customers enjoy great apps and games from millions of developers, and 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. In addition to the App Store, developers can choose to reach all iPhone and iPad users over the web through Safari and other browsers on the App Store.”

Technically speaking, Apple does follow this approach with its own Apple Arcade service, since every game still exists on the App Store as its own individually downloadable app, with its own page. In fact, the only real difference between an Apple Arcade game and any other app that’s available on the App Store is that the availability of these is tied to an Apple Arcade subscription, but for subscribers these apps are downloaded and installed in the same way as any other purchased or free game from the App Store.

Further, while the games in Apple Arcade come from a variety of developers, they’re all technically “published” by Apple itself, allowing it to say that it’s also playing within its rules that prohibit third-party apps from being bundled into a single subscription service. In all fairness, another small developer, GameClub, was able to do something similar several years ago by licensing several older games so that it could release them under its own banner and unlock them all with a single monthly subscription that was shared across apps.

Of course, Apple still has a significant home-field advantage with Apple Arcade: It’s built right into the App Store in its own special section, and the subscription system is similarly handled directly by the App Store. By contrast, a third-party developer like GameClub has to make the subscription available within all of its individual apps, and then tie these subscriptions together, and of course there’s no single place on the App Store where customers could easily go to find all of the games that are available.

So if you think this sounds like another area in which Apple is ripe for another antitrust investigation, you’re probably right.

Microsoft Responds

Although Microsoft originally just quietly omitted Apple devices from it’s Project xCloud announcement earlier this week, it’s now spoken up a bit more vociferously, laying the blame entirely at Apple’s feet.

In a statement to The Verge, Microsoft emphasized that Apple “stands alone” in denying the benefits of cloud gaming to consumers, suggesting also that it treats gaming apps differently and with stricter rules than it applies to non-gaming apps.

Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass.

Microsoft

Microsoft emphasizes that it definitely wants to get xCloud and its Xbox Game Pass Ultimate available on iOS devices (and why wouldn’t it?), and even suggested several ways in which Apple could satisfy its requirements for consumer trust, such as using the ESRB video game rating board to determine which cloud gaming apps would be allowed on iOS.

In fact, as Microsoft’s notes, all of its games are already rated by the ESRB (and its equivalents in other countries), and it believes that these ratings should be more than enough for Apple without the need for it to apply its own policies to each individual title.

Here’s Microsoft’s statement in full:

“Our testing period for the Project xCloud preview app for iOS has expired. Unfortunately, we do not have a path to bring our vision of cloud gaming with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate to gamers on iOS via the Apple App Store. Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass. And it consistently treats gaming apps differently, applying more lenient rules to non-gaming apps even when they include interactive content. All games available in the Xbox Game Pass catalog are rated for content by independent industry ratings bodies such as the ESRB and regional equivalents. We are committed to finding a path to bring cloud gaming with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate to the iOS platform. We believe that the customer should be at the heart of the gaming experience and gamers tell us they want to play, connect and share anywhere, no matter where they are. We agree.”

Facebook Joins the Fray

Now, perhaps inspired by Microsoft’s outspokenness, it looks like Facebook is also adding its voice to the chorus of those condemning Apple’s prohibition of game streaming services — and it’s making its point by releasing its new Facebook Gaming app on iOS without actually including any games in it.

Facebook has actually been working on its Facebook Gaming app for at least several months, but on each attempt to push it onto the App Store, it’s been rejected by Apple, time and time again. According to Facebook, Apple has kept citing Section 4.7 of the App Store Review Guidelines as the reason for its rejection, stating that apps cannot run external code, such as HTML5-based games, if that’s the “main purpose of the app” — which according to Apple, is exactly what Facebook Gaming is.

Except that Facebook says it’s not. In fact, it says it shared usage from the Android version of Facebook Gaming that demonstrated that 95 percent of what users are doing in the app is watching streams of other gamers. Apple didn’t agree.

Facebook even tried to take advantage of the new guideline appeal process that Apple announced back in June to proactively head off antitrust investigations after the debacle with the Hey email app, but found itself basically up against a brick wall.

We even appealed the guideline under the new app review process announced at WWDC. We did not receive a response.

Facebook

So, like Microsoft, Facebook was finally forced to throw in the towel in the face of the Apple juggernaut, removing all of the games from its Facebook Gaming app on iOS, leaving it available solely for viewing streams of games, much like Twitch. Meanwhile, Android users are still able to enjoy a number of mini games from Facebook’s Instant Games platform.

Facebook told The Verge that this is simply the latest in a series of struggles with Apple when it comes to in-app gaming, and in fact as Facebook Gaming chief Vivek Sharma explains, they’ve been forced to “bury Instant Games for years” in the main Facebook and Messenger apps in order to avoid App Store rejections.

This is shared pain across the games industry, which ultimately hurts players and devs and severely hamstrings innovation on mobile for other types of formats, like cloud gaming.

Vivek Sharma, head of Facebook Gaming

So far, other major players like Google and Nvidia have been relatively quiet about bringing their own cloud gaming platforms to iOS, but the reality is that both of these companies would face the exact same struggles. It’s not clear whether either of them have actually tried or whether they’ve simply decided that it wasn’t worth the attempt.

With Apple’s App Store now the key target of an ongoing antitrust investigation in Europe and one that’s likely to start up in the U.S. in the coming months, it’s likely that this latest battle with Microsoft and Facebook is just going to heat things up for Apple even further, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see other players voice their opinions as well, especially if they’re called to testify, which will likely echo exactly what we’ve already been hearing. Only time will tell whether it will be enough to force Apple to change its policies, however.

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