When most people think of Apple, video games aren’t the first thing to come to mind. Photo- or video-editing, of course, or some other type of creative work, but not gaming. That’s because of the way Apple designs and markets its products.
We’ve had the ability to play games on macOS and iOS for a long time, but until Apple Arcade debuted last year, macOS and iOS were simply platforms that developers designed their games to be played on. In the last year, we’ve begun to see how Apple’s exclusionary practices play out when it comes to what games and gaming platforms it will and won’t give access to its users. (This applies to non-gaming apps, too!) The gaming industry overall is slowing starting to move away from platform exclusivity, and yet Apple insists on keeping its walled garden too high to climb for even some of the biggest tech companies, firmly setting the course for an antitrust disaster.
Apple and Microsoft both started as computer companies, but the two tech giants took very different paths as they expanded and evolved over the decades. At the turn of the millennium, Microsoft jumped into the gaming arena when it released its Xbox in 2001, competing with consoles from Nintendo, Sony’s Playstation, and even the Sega Dreamcast, after the company already had a good hold on the PC gaming market. Apple went a different route, most notably with the iPhone in 2007. It wasn’t the first touchscreen phone ever (that honor goes to the LG Prada), but it paved the way for the mobile gaming boom. The iPhone and Android phones continue to be an integral part of the gaming landscape today, and companies like Microsoft and Google are braving new territory with cloud gaming. But Apple refuses to further its own legacy as we enter a new era of mobile gaming.
Regardless of how you feel about cloud gaming and its inherent limitations, being able to play a graphically demanding game like Metro Exodus on your phone is impressive. Through a mobile data connection or wifi, you connect to a remote data center where the game is stored. The game is streamed to your phone, your inputs are then sent back to the data center, and then whatever you told the game to do now appears on your screen. With a good connection, the lag is minimal, which means no more being limited to games like Candy Crush or other simple puzzle games you play with your fingertips. Gamers don’t need to own a PC, laptop, or even a console to play Cyberpunk 2077 when it comes out, thanks to Microsoft’s cloud gaming service Project xCloud.
But Apple’s own App Store rules prevent iOS users from being able to play games like that on their iPhones or iPads. Apple will only approve a cloud gaming service for the App Store if the app connects to a “user-owned host device that is a personal computer or dedicated game console owned by the user, and both the host device and client must be connected on a local and LAN-based network.”
Google Stadia, Nvidia’s GeForce Now, and Microsoft’s xCloud all require their users to connect remotely to their servers, which are not user-owned, and all three of those platforms let their users play games over a mobile network. Google had to deactivate the ability for users to connect to Stadia’s servers so the app could be offered in the App Store. Nvidia and Microsoft just said, screw it—what’s the point of offering an iOS app if people can’t use it to play games on iOS?
Interestingly, Stadia and GeForce Now are compatible with macOS. Users just need the Chrome browser installed to play games via Stadia, and GeForce Now has its own macOS version of its launcher. So why all this hostility toward gaming on iOS? We can look toward Apple Arcade for some answers: It seems like Apple is keeping all major gaming competitors away from iOS because it wants to funnel users to its own gaming service. It’s about as logical as my parents refusing to let me watch The Simpsons as a kid, but allowing me to watch Ren and Stimpy. That’s the kind of move you take with children, not paying customers.
Apple Arcade is technically a digital storefront, but instead of buying games individually like you would on Steam, Epic, or Microsoft’s Xbox website, users pay $5 a month for access to 100+ games. They don’t own any of the games they play, so as long as they keep an active subscription they can continue to play them. (It’s sort of like renting games from Gamefly.) The problem with this model is that most gamers want to own the games thet play, not rent them, especially when it comes to bigger titles like Skyrim, Fallout 4, and Red Dead Redemption 2. They have a lot of replay value because of how much content is in them. To date I’ve put in nearly 200 hours into Skyrim, and that’s on the low end compared to others.
A lot of Apple Arcade games are available individually on Steam and Epic, but unless you own an Apple device, you won’t know which ones those are—unless you want to watch the thumbnail scroll on the website and jot down any title that looks interesting based on the art. But if you have an Apple device, take a look at all the games that are offered. A lot of them look geared toward children or are casual puzzle games. There are a few adventure games, like Beyond a Steel Sky, that seem more adult-oriented, but the vibe of the games offered is totally different than what Stadia or Microsoft offers. It seems like Apple wants to carefully curate its brand image in all aspects, even when it comes to the games or gaming services it offers in the App Store.
Apple has come under fire recently for the 30% revenue-share it requires of developers who offer premium apps or in-app purchases in the App Store. That includes games. But with xCloud and GeForce now, Apple can’t take a cut from the games available on those services because users purchase their games from Steam, Epic, or elsewhere. Microsoft, Google and Nvidia have made their xCloud, Stadia and GeForce Now apps available for free, with free tiers to play on the latter two—no way would iOS users pay for a game that Android and other device users can get for free.
It’s likely that Apple is taking a cut from Google, because iOS users can make in-app purchases from the Stadia app. Apple’s guidelines do allow for in-app purchases, but if the gaming service can be used across multiple devices, the same way Apple Arcade can, the developer must “not directly or indirectly target iOS users to use a purchasing method other than in-app purchase,” according to the guidelines. Stadia does not do that, but because of Apple’s rules on remote desktop clients, that excluded Stadia from being able to allow its users to play games on their iOS devices...but the app needs to be on the App Store because there is no other way for Stadia users to wirelessly sync the Stadia controller with their computer or Google Chromecast.
Convoluted revenue models aside, Apple doesn’t understand the gaming landscape, or the flexibility and accessibility that gamers want to have to play the latest and greatest. Apple sold 41 million iPhones worldwide in the first quarter of 2020, despite a global pandemic. That’s a lot of people who could be playing Stadia or Xbox games on their phone alongside Apple Arcade games.
When it comes to cross-platform interoperability, Microsoft and Google have always been more free than Apple. What works on a Samsung will work on an LG, and what works on an Asus will work on a Dell. That’s why they’re popular with gamers. Allowing cloud gaming services to offer streaming games on iOS would give Apple a chance to become more relevant in the gaming world, beyond the self-contained walls of Apple Arcade. Gaming has become more accessible than ever before, and Apple played a huge role in that with mobile gaming on the iPhone. Now it’s time to cut down the walled garden—or maybe just prune it a little bit—to give people even more options.