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Apple opens iOS to game streaming, but with major hurdles for Stadia and xCloud

Apple wants every game offered by Game Pass to be downloadable through its store

a customer plays Xbox One games on a mobile device at the xCloud display in the London Microsoft Store.
Microsoft’s xCloud in action — on an Android device.
Photo: Peter Summers/Getty Images
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Apple’s newly revised App Store guidelines, issued Friday, technically pave the way for cloud-based gaming services like Microsoft’s xCloud and Google Stadia to launch on iOS. But the new rules, which include a requirement that individual games be offered as stand-alone apps in the store, still seem onerous enough that Microsoft and Google won’t want to jump through Apple’s hoops.

The guidelines would mean that Microsoft, which is launching its Xbox streaming service xCloud on Sept. 15 on Android but not iOS, could offer a “catalog app” listing all the games users can play. However, each game must still be available as an individual app downloaded from the App Store; the catalog app could only link out to them.

“All the games included in the catalog app must link to an individual App Store product page,” the guidelines say. Stadia and xCloud would also have to let users sign in with their Apple ID, and allow customers to pay for their subscription through an in-app purchase — which, of course, generates a cut for Apple, typically 30%.

Polygon reached out to Microsoft and Google to ask for their reaction to the revisions, and whether they find them feasible. A Google Stadia spokesperson declined to comment; a Microsoft representative said they were looking into the issue. Apple made the changes in advance of the release of iOS 14, which is expected later in September.

In early August, Microsoft had strong words for Apple in discussing the company’s previous position forbidding cloud services like xCloud and Stadia from Apple devices. “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 at the time.

xCloud will be included as part of Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate program. The cloud-based service allows players to stream games from Game Pass’ library to devices such as smartphones and tablets. Stadia, which launched at the end of 2019, works on a variety of devices, including phones with the Android 10 operating system or later, but is not compatible with iOS devices.

CNBC, in reporting on the App Store revision Friday, noted that each of the 251 games currently available to subscribers of Xbox Game Pass would need to have some functionality when downloaded from the App Store, and that each game would require its own developer relationship with Apple.

The lockout of Stadia and xCloud, and Apple’s insistence on control that other platform holders don’t expect — oversight that the company doesn’t require for nongaming services, such as Netflix — is somewhat related to the company’s row with Epic Games. In both cases, Apple is requiring any transaction to be processed through its systems.

Apple says it does this to ensure that the App Store is “a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps.” Epic Games belittled that argument, saying it processes millions of transactions through Fortnite securely on other platforms. In August, Epic began offering a payment option for Fortnite’s premium currency that circumvented Apple’s in-app payment requirements. That led to the game’s removal from the App Store, and the lawsuit that Epic immediately filed in response.

With regard to Stadia and xCloud, Apple has pointed to its prerogative to curate and approve every game available to App Store customers, effectively giving users an endorsement that the product works and is trustworthy. Critics say that’s another self-serving variation covering the real motive — again, a 30% cut of revenue, in exchange for access to a marketplace of more than 1.4 billion iOS devices worldwide.

There have been exceptions to Apple’s proscription on streaming services to its devices. The PlayStation 4 Remote Play app, which launched in March 2019, and Valve’s Steam Link, neither of which involve subscriptions or extra purchases, work on iOS devices. But Steam Link originally launched in 2018 without Apple support, over a vague conflict with Apple rules at the time.

But the total control Apple expects has long rankled its colleagues in Silicon Valley and other industries. The European Commission opened four antitrust probes into Apple back in June, and the restrictions Apple places on access to its App Store are part of the inquiry.

Update: Microsoft responded with a strongly worded dismissal of Apple’s new conditions, saying that the rules still stick Apple’s (and Microsoft’s) users with a bad deal.

“This remains a bad experience for customers,” a spokesperson told Polygon in an emailed statement. “Gamers want to jump directly into a game from their curated catalog within one app just like they do with movies or songs, and not be forced to download over 100 apps to play individual games from the cloud. We’re committed to putting gamers at the center of everything we do, and providing a great experience is core to that mission.”

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