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It’s been a pretty bumpy road for Microsoft in its attempts to get its Xbox Game Pass onto Apple’s mobile devices, but it looks like the time has finally come as Microsoft announced this week that it’s almost ready to fully welcome iPhone users into the fold.
The news comes from a general update release by Xbox Wire Editor-in-Chief Will Tuttle, who shares several details on Microsoft’s cloud gaming service. While Tuttle deftly avoids any specific mention of the iPhone or iPad, he does share that it’s its browser-based cloud gaming service will be publicly released “in the next few weeks.”
This will open the door to over 300 cloud-streamed games, but of course, it’s still not going to be the “Project xCloud” that many hoped would arrive when Microsoft teased us with a native iOS beta last year.
Although the original beta of Project xCloud definitely got our hopes up, it also showed the limitations of Apple’s intransigent policies when it comes to game streaming services. The first version of the app contained only one game, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which technically means it wasn’t really a game streaming service, but just Halo by another name. By comparison, the Android beta released around the same time offered access to 90 games.
Further, unlike most of the games on Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft owns all the rights to Halo, so it was easy to include it. However, the cloud gaming company hit a solid brick wall last summer when it tried to get the final version of its Xbox Game Pass onto the App Store.
After Apple’s refusal, Microsoft forged ahead with releasing its game streaming service to Android users, and set about finding another way to bring it to the iPhone and iPad.
Although Apple’s policies refuse to allow native game streaming apps on the App Store, it can’t really block companies from creating browser-based solutions that run in Safari. Perhaps to Apple’s small credit, not only has it told developers that this a perfectly acceptable way to release game streaming services, but it even helped Amazon’s engineers build its Luna gaming service last fall.
By last December, Microsoft had figured this out as well, and announced that Xbox Game Pass would come to iOS in early 2021. While it appears to be a bit behind schedule, it did release a limited beta back in April, which offered around 100 titles. However, when the full version of Xbox Game Pass shows up in the coming weeks, subscribers will have access to the full catalog of around 300 titles.
Gaming in the Browser?
While the idea of gaming through Safari may sound unappealing, the advances made in WebKit and web technologies over the past few years means that these are not the cheesy Adobe Flash games of yesteryear.
While it’s not going to be quite the same as a native experience, just about every other game streaming service has already proven it can be done quite effectively, including Amazon’s Luna, Google’s Stadia, and Nvidia’s GeForce Now. If anything, Microsoft is late to the party here.
The secret is something called “progressive web apps,” which are basically browser-based programs that masquerade as native iOS apps. They can have their own icon on your iPhone’s Home screen, making them feel like a native app, and still take advantage of the graphics and rendering power of the iPhone’s A-series CPU.
What browser-based apps generally can’t do is get direct access to most iPhone hardware. Apple has made allowances for game controllers, so you will be able to pair up something like an Xbox Elite 2 and play using that, and it’s fair to say that most games won’t need direct hardware access to anything else — and arguably it’s not a bad thing that they don’t have it.
The other downside is that you won’t be able to access Xbox Game Pass on your Apple TV, since that doesn’t have a browser. However, we don’t imagine Microsoft is losing much sleep over that particular limitation, since they’d much rather you just go out and buy an Xbox.