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If you were hoping that Microsoft’s Project xCloud game streaming service might actually arrive on the iPhone this fall, you may need to readjust your expectations, as it looks like Apple isn’t actually willing to loosen the reins, even despite Microsoft’s valiant attempts to stay within the lines.
To be clear, Apple has never really allowed online gaming services in the App Store — with the obvious exception of its own Apple Arcade service, of course. Online games aren’t a problem, but cloud-based services like Google’s Stadia and Nvidia’s GeForce Now that rely on streaming a collection of games through a single app have always been “appsona non grata” by Apple’s App Store rules, which basically prohibit any apps from offering subscription services that extend to other third-party apps.
In other words, it’s okay for developers to charge subscription fees for access to their own games, or simply bundle them all in a single paid app — in fact, Atari did this back in 2012 when it released a 100-game pack of “Atari’s Greatest Hits” and Apple didn’t even bat an eye, since these were all classic games originally published by a single developer.
Another smaller developer, GameClub also managed to skirt Apple’s rules, getting its gaming subscription service approved after a staggering 127 rejections by Apple. In the end, GameClub’s solution was to license the games that it wanted to offer directly so that it could release them on the App Store under its own developer account as individual apps that could all be unlocked with the same subscription — a process that GameClub’s head of business development, Eli Hodapp, called a “huge undertaking.”
Meanwhile, the only other game streaming apps that have really made it onto iOS as those that simply act as remote screens, mirroring games that are actually running on a PC via Steam Link or PS4 via Remote Play on the same home Wi-Fi network, and even then Valve had quite a challenge getting Apple to approve Steam Link.
Game Cloud Streaming
On the other hand, however, what Microsoft, Google, and Nvidia are trying to do is create their own app marketplaces, and while most aren’t even bothering to go up against Apple’s intransigent App Store policies, Microsoft at least appeared to be willing to make an attempt, resulting in a glimmer of hope when an iOS beta of Project xCloud opened up earlier this year.
However, the restrictions that Microsoft had to bake into the Project xCloud iOS app — even as a TestFlight beta — were beyond anything that we would have imagined. While Microsoft was able to offer 90 games on Android, the iOS version included only one: Halo: The Master Chief Collection, since it was one of the only games on xCloud published and owned directly by Microsoft.
Then on top of that there’s the App Store rule that says that each game has to be an individual download from the App Store, which is of course nothing new — Apple doesn’t want developers to create “app-within-an-app” designs since it wants to ensure that each app goes through the App Store review process separately and gets its own App Store page and ranking. Exceptions to this have been few, such as the aforementioned Atari Greatest Hits app, but this was a long time ago and also involved a collection of games that were arguably too simple to justify being released as individual apps.
So Long xCloud, We Hardly Knew Ye
It’s not entirely clear what hopes Microsoft had held out for the future of xCloud on iOS — perhaps the beta was just a case of the company testing the waters and hoping that Apple would allow for further expansion — but either way it looks like Microsoft is throwing in the towel.
This week Microsoft announced that Project xCloud will launch to the public in 22 countries on September 15th — but only on Android devices. Mention of iOS was conspicuously missing, and when asked, Microsoft told The Verge that Apple’s App Store policies made it too restrictive to proceed at this time, and in fact Microsoft will also be shuttering the TestFlight beta of xCloud on iOS entirely shortly before the public Android-only release.
Our Project xCloud preview TestFlight period has ended on iOS and we are focused on delivering cloud gaming as part of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate to Android customers beginning September 15.Microsoft
However, this may not be the last word for xCloud on iOS, since Microsoft has stated that it would still like to “scale cloud gaming through Xbox Game Pass available on all devices,” but at this point the ball is most likely in Apple’s court.