Apple Almost Let Microsoft Put Xbox Games in the App Store

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You didn’t know it at the time, but we were surprisingly close to playing exclusive Xbox games on the iPhone last year. Microsoft and Apple engaged in a back and forth about how xCloud games could run on iDevices, and both parties nearly came to an agreement. The companies were close to hammering out all the business aspects, but the deal hinged on a technical requirement on which Apple would not budge. We only know how close we got thanks to a trove of documents from the Apple-Epic trial, seen by The Verge

As Microsoft prepared to launch Xbox Cloud Gaming (née xCloud), Apple was openly skeptical of integrating cloud games into the App Store. This wasn’t just a problem for Microsoft — Google also struggled to find a way to get Stadia on the iPhone. In the end, both companies decided to use a web workaround, in part because Apple demanded distinct and individually managed listings for each and every game. Microsoft scoffed at that, but the internal email exchanges paint a different picture. 

Microsoft was willing to alter its xCloud strategy in order to get into the App Store. Rather than attaching all its games to a subscription, it would list each streaming title on its own with a single price. So, you could pick up Gears 5 on the iPhone for $20 flat and play it forever. Apple even seemed poised to allow Microsoft to bypass the App Store’s in-app purchase mechanism, provided the Xbox maker settled up with Apple on a monthly basis to pay the App Store cut. 

In the end, Microsoft’s technical concerns and Apple’s strict interpretation of App Store rules scuttled the negotiations. Apple insisted that each game in the App Store include the full streaming stack, but Microsoft wanted to bundle that in a single streaming tech app. Doing so would make each game about 30MB and eliminate the need to update them for each streaming tech change. To comply with Apple’s requirement, Microsoft would need to update every game when it made changes to the streaming tech. In addition, the games would have been several times larger, wasting a ton of storage and development hours with redundant code. 

Apple’s intransigence, while frustrating for users, has served it well over the years. The walls enclosing the App Store garden have never been higher than they are now following Apple’s legal victory over Epic. It has even gotten an injunction to save it from adding third-party payments to the App Store. When you have a company worth $3 trillion, you tend to get your way. Who’d have thought?

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