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Apple vs. video games: an explainer of its many showdowns

The App Store’s treatment of Fortnite mirrors problems Microsoft, Valve, and Facebook have all had

close-up of an Xbox controller connected to a mobile phone playing Forza Horizon 4
Microsoft’s Project xCloud in action on a mobile device back in March 2019.
Image: Xbox/YouTube
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Apple and Epic Games’ tiff over Fortnite’s in-game currency culminated in the removal of Fortnite from the App Store on Thursday, making it probably the biggest game ever to get Apple’s boot. But it’s really just one more case of a game or a gaming app running into problems with Apple and its control over everything in the App Store’s walled garden of 1.5 billion customers.

In more than a decade of operation, the App Store for iPhones, iPads, and Macs has disallowed or removed several popular games for questionable reasons or vague infractions. Epic Games’ kind of fight is in a different class, joining scrapes major players like Google, Microsoft, and Valve Corp. have had when their apps launched, or tried to launch, in the iOS ecosystem.

artwork for Project xCloud featuring the Xbox logo and Xbox controllers Image: Microsoft

Project xCloud

You don’t have to go back very far to find Apple’s most recent problem with a major company’s gaming app. Project xCloud, Microsoft’s service that allows Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers to play their games on mobile devices, will only be available for Android phones and tablets when it goes live on Sept. 15.

The reason: Apple says xCloud violates the company’s App Store policies, although its many official statements to this end have never specified which policy, only that Microsoft is not playing by the rules expected of other developers. One can reasonably infer that this has to do with money, the same reason that brought Epic to file a lawsuit against Apple on Thursday.

Project xCloud is a perk of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, and Microsoft sells and operates that away from the App Store, meaning Apple doesn’t get any cut of the action. Neither does Google for allowing xCloud functionality on Android devices, but Google evidently has no problem with that.

Apple’s official statement on the matter last week appealed to the ideal that the App Store is “a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps.” The company added that “gaming services can absolutely launch on the App Store as long as they follow the same set of guidelines applicable to all developers.”

Microsoft shot back that whatever Apple’s problem is with xCloud, Apple is the only company to have one.

“Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass,” a Microsoft spokesperson told The Verge. “And it consistently treats gaming apps differently, applying more lenient rules to non-gaming apps even when they include interactive content.”

That last portion of Microsoft’s statement mirrors a complaint Epic Games made in an FAQ about its V-Bucks price drop, which precipitated Thursday’s legal hostilities: “Thousands of apps on the App Store approved by Apple accept direct payments, including commonly used apps like Amazon, Grubhub, Nike SNKRS, Best Buy, DoorDash, Fandango, McDonald’s, Uber, Lyft, and StubHub.”

Epic, however, then came straight out to say Apple makes a bogus claim that its tight control is to ensure safe and secure transactions. “In operating Fortnite on open platforms and operating the Epic Games Store, Epic has processed over $1.6 billion of direct payments successfully, and uses industry trusted encryption and security measures to protect customer transactions.”

For now, Microsoft says “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.” The company says it is still “committed to finding a path,” though.

“We believe that customer should be at the heart of the gaming experience,” Microsoft added, “and gamers tell us they want to play, connect, and share anywhere, no matter where they are. We agree.”

Phil Harrison presents the Google Stadia Controller
Google’s Phil Harrison announcing Stadia at Game Developers Conference 2019.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Google Stadia

Google hasn’t managed to get its streaming service — again, for which its customers pay — onto iOS devices, either. Apple’s statement last week also applied to Stadia, when Apple implied that the problem with it and xCloud is because both of them violate App Store rules, “including submitting games individually for review, and appearing in charts and search.”

To put a finer point on the money/control issue, a cloud-based service like Stadia means Apple users might be playing games that haven’t gotten Apple’s scrutiny and seal of approval. Which more or less means, games that aren’t sold by Apple and generating a cut for Apple.

The last line of Apple’s section on “Remote Desktop Clients” nearly rules out cloud gaming services by name, too: “Thin clients for cloud-based apps are not appropriate for the App Store.” We say “nearly” because Apple’s choice of language leaves open the possibility that an “inappropriate” app might be approved anyway. Again, Apple makes the rules.

The Verge pointed out that a cloud gaming service called Shadow operates on iOS devices, after making changes that made the app more like a remote desktop mirror, and by renting cloud server access to its users, which technically answers Apple’s insistence that a copy of these games be on a drive that the user owns. And that brings us to ...

Steam Link

Valve’s streaming service has zip to do with the cloud or subscriptions. It allows users to stream games from their Steam PC onto a tablet or phone. When Valve announced the launch date for its mobile client, it did so expecting an iOS launch would be kosher, too. Apple, after all, approved the Steam Link app on May 7, 2018.

And then, it was un-approved. Three weeks later, Valve gave a statement explaining that Steam Link would not launch for iOS, and that Apple rejected it “citing business conflicts with app guidelines that had allegedly not been realized by the original review team.”

Valve appealed to Apple on the grounds that Steam Link was no different than “numerous remote desktop applications already available on the app store.” But that appeal was denied. It came out, well after the fact, that Apple’s big problem with Steam Link was apparently the ability for users to buy video games through it.

Steam Link ultimately did launch for iOS — with the games purchasing feature stripped out. More than a year after the fact. And after Valve had discontinued the manufacture and sale of the Steam Link box, a less-used option to stream games to a television. (Steam Link does not need a special device to stream to a mobile phone or tablet.)

Astute readers might recall that Sony’s PlayStation 4 Remote Play app launched in March 2019, and that users may also purchase games from the PlayStation Store with it. Why is that OK, but Steam Link wasn’t? Who knows.

Facebook Gaming

If Apple is putting its foot down with the likes of Google and Microsoft, what’s a little company like Facebook, after all? The New York Times reported in June that, over the preceding four months, Apple had slammed the App Store door on Facebook Gaming five times.

The Times quoted insiders saying Facebook Gaming ran afoul of Apple rules against apps whose “main purpose” was to distribute casual games. But it also doesn’t help that Facebook Gaming appeared to compete directly with Apple’s own video game sales, including Apple Arcade, the company’s $4.99 subscription service entitling users to a library of high-quality mobile titles.

But last week, Facebook Gaming did launch for iOS — you just can’t play any games with it. Facebook couldn’t get Apple to return its calls about an appeal until the company submitted the app with the “play now” feature removed. The Kafkaesque launch of Facebook Gaming without any gaming clearly frustrated Facebook and its most senior executives. The platform’s official Twitter feed also weighed in with a none-too-subtle visual explanation of what one can and cannot do on Facebook Gaming.

Vivek Sharma, Facebook’s vice president for gaming, charged that Apple had caused “shared pain across the games industry, which ultimately hurts players and developers and severely hamstrings innovation on mobile for other types of formats like cloud gaming.”

Facebook Gaming’s beef with Apple isn’t just a Silicon Valley rivalry; it’s gotten the attention of an antitrust inquiry into Apple’s practices that the European Union launched back in June.

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