Microsoft’s xCloud Is Coming to iOS (But Not in the Way You Think)

“We absolutely will end up on iOS”
Xbox controller iPhone gaming Credit: DJFeeLOfficial / YouTube
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We already know that Apple’s relationship with cloud gaming services is a bit weird, to say the least. They’ve been for all intents and purposes prohibited on the App Store for years, and while some developers have made attempts to get game subscription services onto the iPhone and iPad, they’ve repeatedly encountered the brick wall of Apple’s App Store policies.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than with Microsoft’s Project xCloud, now officially known as Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.

While it’s been generally known in the Apple community that game streaming services aren’t permitted under the App Store Guidelines, this didn’t stop Microsoft from testing the waters earlier this year with a TestFlight beta of a very limited version of its Project xCloud app.

Microsoft’s attempt to bring Project xCloud to the iPhone raised a glimmer of hope for gaming fans, but the extremely limited nature of the TestFlight app should have served as a harbinger of what was to come. After all, the preview included only one game: Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which essentially meant that it wasn’t technically a subscription service for multiple games.

The optimistic viewpoint was that this was just the start, and that Microsoft would soon expand it to add more games, however not surprisingly by the time that actual launch of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate came around last month, Microsoft shuttered the TestFlight beta entirely, announcing that the service would be launching only on Android.

In the process, Microsoft issued a statement laying the blame entirely at Apple’s feet as a result of its intransigence when it comes to game streaming services, and even though Apple has since loosened its policies slightly, Microsoft has remained generally unimpressed with the changes, which would still require every single game in the Xbox Game Pass subscription to be distributed as a standalone entry on the App Store, similar to how Apple Arcade is setup, rather than the “Netflix for Games” that Microsoft envisions.

To be fair, Microsoft has been the only major streaming service in recent years to even attempt to go head-to-head with Apple on this policy; competing services such as Google’s Stadia and NVidia’s GeForce Now haven’t even made the attempt — at least not publicly. Another high profile gaming service (at the time), known as OnLive, made an attempt in the early days of the App Store, back in 2011, and it didn’t go so well for them, and since then the only subscription gaming service to manage to navigate its way through the minefield of Apple’s App Store policies has been a small developer called GameClub, which described the process as a huge undertaking.

Despite this, however, Microsoft continued to forge ahead, finally releasing local game streaming from a users’ own Xbox console — something that’s also part of its Xbox Game Pass service that’s completely permissible under Apple’s rules. In fact, Sony has been offering it to PS4 gamers since last year. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Xbox head Phil Spencer insisted that it was still a priority for the company to get Xbox Game Pass onto the iPhone, saying that they were committed to continuing to work with Apple to figure out a way to make it happen.

A Crack in the Garden Wall

After Apple slightly relaxed its policies last month, however, it also subtly pointed the way to how it really expected game subscription services to operate, in a new section 4.9 entry on “Streaming games” that draw the line in the sand for native game streaming services, but also ended with the note that “Of course, there is always the open Internet and web browser apps to reach all users outside of the App Store.”

Amazon seems to have been the first to pick up on this hint, debuting a new Luna gaming service late last month as quite possibly the first major gaming service that will appear on Apple’s devices — other than Apple Arcade, of course.

Amazon’s trick here has been to build its entire gaming service to work as a “progressive web application” so that it can run on iOS devices without the need to install any kind of app whatsoever, and therefore no need to submit to Apple’s App Store rules.

Now it looks like Microsoft has conceded that it will need to take the same approach if it ever wants to get Xbox Game Pass onto iOS devices.

A ‘Direct Browser-Based Solution’

While Microsoft has yet to speak publicly of any plans, according to Business Insider, Spencer held an internal all-hands meeting last week where he told employees that Game Pass will be coming to the iPhone and iPad as a “direct browser-based solution” sometime next year.

We absolutely will end up on iOS

Phil Spencer , Executive VP of Gaming at Microsoft

It also appears that Apple wasn’t just blowing smoke when it referred to using web browsers as an alternative; in the case of Luna, Amazon’s engineering team worked closely with Apple’s Safari team in order to develop the new platform. Presumably, Microsoft will be able to get the same level of cooperation for Xbox Game Pass.

Amazon has said that it would prefer to see a “native experience” for Luna users on the iPhone and iPad, of course, and no doubt Microsoft also feels the same way, but at least for now, this means that Apple users won’t be left out in the cold from the biggest game streaming services.

We also shouldn’t yet give up hope that the situation could improve in the future. Amazon’s Luna chief, Marc Whitten, has suggested that Apple doesn’t consider its current policies to be completely carved in stone, stating that Apple is still “evaluating what their policies are” and have kept “talking about them.”

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