Microsoft pushed Apple for compromise to get Game Pass on the App Store

Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

Last year, Apple rolled out a set of onerous guidelines that required streaming game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass to package each available title as a separate app in the iOS App Store. At the time, Microsoft said this solution “remains a bad experience for customers. 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.”

However, new emails revealed as part of the Epic v. Apple trial (and unearthed by The Verge) show how seriously Microsoft was considering working within these guidelines. The emails show that Microsoft engaged Apple in detailed negotiations about how individual xCloud streaming apps could work as a technical matter and even dangled the possibility of streaming “exclusive AAA titles” from outside of Game Pass to help broker a compromise position.

Splitting the baby

In the emails, sent between February and April of 2020, Microsoft Xbox head of business development Lori Wright laid out some concerns about the idea of packaging each Xbox streaming game as an individual iOS app. For users, such a system would lead to cluttered home screens and the potential for “orphaned” app icons when games were removed from Game Pass, Wright wrote. For Microsoft and Apple, the system would also lead to lots of extra overhead in terms of app store metadata management and app review time, she wrote.

More significantly, though, packaging each streaming game as its own app would require sending out countless app updates whenever the core “streaming stack” was updated. “As we’ve run our Preview testing with hundreds of thousands of customers, our data shows that large parts of the audience play upwards of 10+ titles per month, or over 100 in the course of a year,” Wright wrote. “When we update all of the binaries at the same time, this will result in huge batches of app updates.”

To get around this problem, Wright proposed a “middle ground” option where individual streaming game apps “would effectively be a ‘shortcut’ or ‘bookmark’ to the streaming application.” The idea, as Wright laid it out, would be to have a single Xbox “streaming stack” app weighing in at roughly 150MB, alongside individual 30MB “shortcut” downloads for each available game, which would then launch inside the main xCloud streaming app.

This would be a major improvement over a system in which each Game Pass title needed to be its own 150MB download with a full copy of the streaming stack included, Wright wrote. Under this compromise system, users would “get smaller game downloads, each game will have to be installed only once, and it never requires an update for changes to the streaming stack. It also creates one single network connection per device instead of a network connection per app.”

Did someone say exclusives?

Wright’s emails also refer to discussions about “bringing Xbox exclusive games, specifically those not in Game Pass, to iOS” by allowing users to either purchase or rent streaming versions that could run on iOS. Wright sold this to Apple as “an incredibly exciting opportunity for iOS users to get access to these exclusive AAA titles in addition to the Game Pass games.” But such a setup would require splitting the core streaming tech as a separate app “to deliver the right experience,” Wright wrote.

Speaking to The Verge, Xbox Cloud Gaming CVP Kareem Choudhry said that “our proposal for bringing games through individual apps was designed to comply with App Store policies… Forcing each game to include our streaming tech stack proved to be unrealistic from a support and engineering perspective and would create an incredibly negative experience for customers.”

The Verge also cited potential Apple complaints about in-app purchases available through Game Pass games and technical issues with how Apple would take its share of any such purchases. But Choudry said those concerns were not central to scuttling the partnership, saying, “We currently provide Xbox Cloud Gaming through a singular Xbox Game Pass app in the Google Play Store without IAP enabled… and we would do the same through the App Store if allowed.”

Eventually, all these negotiations became moot, of course, and Microsoft simply rolled out iOS Game Pass streaming as a web app earlier this year to get around the issue. But these new internal emails show just how seriously Microsoft was taking the possibility of jumping through Apple’s hoops to get its streaming games listed on the App Store’s important digital real estate.