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Xbox hoping to launch mobile game store as early as next year

Phil Spencer says Activision Blizzard deal is ‘critically important’ to this strategy, but is it really?

An iPhone user scrolls through the Xbox Game Pass Cloud Gaming library on a phone Image: Microsoft
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s head of gaming, has told the Financial Times Microsoft would like to launch Xbox-branded mobile gaming app stores on both Android and iOS — ideally as soon as next year.

Until now, such stores have been disallowed by Google and Apple, but incoming European Union legislation is set to change that. The Digital Markets Act, expected to come into force in March 2024, will require the mobile tech giants to open up their platforms to app stores from other companies. “I think it’s a huge opportunity,” Spencer told the FT.

“We want to be in a position to offer Xbox and content from both us and our third-party partners across any screen where somebody would want to play,” Spencer said, reiterating the line on platform-agnostic gaming he has consistently held for some years now. “Today, we can’t do that on mobile devices, but we want to build towards a world that we think will be coming where those devices are opened up.”

Spencer said he couldn’t predict when such a store might go live; it’s possible Apple and Google can delay the European legislation by filing appeals against it. But he suggested Microsoft would be able to spin up such a store pretty quickly once the rules allowed it. The company already publishes Xbox and Game Pass apps that would be “pretty trivial” to adapt into storefronts, Spencer said.

Spencer spoke about the importance of Microsoft’s proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard to his ambition to build app stores. Acknowledging mobile games as an “obvious hole in our capability,” he cited Candy Crush, Call of Duty Mobile and Diablo Immortal as games that would be “critically important” to the success of this strategy.

Certainly the acquisition would bring Microsoft some hit mobile games, but these are games that already flourish within the iOS and Android ecosystems. Microsoft’s own rationale is that it wouldn’t make business sense for it to withdraw Call of Duty games from PlayStation, and surely the same applies here.

Instead, Spencer is most likely spinning a regulator-friendly argument in favour of the Activision Blizzard deal. Google and Apple’s “duopoly” in this space has long been an irritant to antitrust regulators, and Spencer is positioning Microsoft as being on their side in this instance — helping to increase competition in the mobile gaming space rather than stifle it. There’s a suggestion that, should the deal not be allowed to close, Microsoft might not feel motivated to push on with its own app store.

While Spencer has a point, he’s being somewhat disingenuous. If Google and Apple are forced to open up their platforms, the real prize for Microsoft isn’t an app store where it can sell Candy Crush directly, but turning phones into portals for its Game Pass subscription and Cloud Gaming service.

Android allows Xbox Cloud Gaming through an app, but on iOS, it can only be done rather inelegantly through a browser. Apple says it allows cloud gaming in theory, but blocks it through a technicality where every game available must be listed separately on its own app store. Microsoft is certain to want to put its entire Game Pass catalog easily in the palm of your hand — whether it is allowed to complete its deal or not.

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