Microsoft plans to make its Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service available for iOS devices, as well as PCs, offering cloud-based access via web browser in spring 2021.
A blog post published Wednesday from Microsoft’s Jerret West outlines the first official announcement of the initiative.
Back in October, word got around that Microsoft was pursuing alternative methods to bring Game Pass to iOS, after Apple made it logistically impossible for the Game Pass to be offered via the Apple App Store. Microsoft’s Project xCloud gaming service, offered as a part of Game Pass, lets users play supported games via the cloud on their mobile devices, with no need for a local installation.
Apple released a new set of rules for its App Store in September. It would have allowed Microsoft to officially bring an xCloud app to iOS, but only if each game on the service was submitted to Apple as a separate playable app. As there are dozens of games on the Game Pass at any given time and they rotate in and out of the service monthly, this was essentially a case of Apple setting up a series of infeasible hoops for Microsoft to jump through. Naturally, Microsoft opted to decline.
This was the cause of significant controversy earlier this year, as it was one of several cases where Apple appeared to be using inconsistent rules as a tool against its competitors. The new App Store rules set in September seemed to outside observers as a way to make it difficult at best for other gaming subscription services to have a presence on iOS, thus protecting its own service, Apple Arcade. Both Microsoft and Google Stadia have since announced plans to make their cloud-based game services into web apps.
Game Pass Ultimate, as opposed to just the Game Pass, is a full-ride bundle of Microsoft’s current games-related services, which combines access to a monthly library of modern games, the online play of Xbox Live Gold, the option to play compatible games on Microsoft’s cloud servers via Project xCloud, and as of Nov. 10, an attached membership to EA Play, the Game Pass-esque service offered by the third-party mega-publisher Electronic Arts. This adds a number of big mainstream hits to the overall package, including the last four years’ worth of FIFA, Madden, and NHL sports games.
In short, it offers most of the best of what the modern Xbox has going for it, without any need to own a physical Xbox. You’d simply dial into the Game Pass service via your iPhone or iPad’s browser and go to town, playing modern Xbox games via a Bluetooth controller.
“Expanding Xbox to new players is central to our ambition of helping games and developers find an easy path to the world’s 3 billion gamers,” West writes in the blog post. “We are doing this by embracing multiple devices and providing a consistent Xbox experience wherever you log in, whether that’s on your Xbox Series X | S, PC, Xbox One, Android device or – starting in Spring 2021 – your Windows PC and iOS device from the cloud. ”
This also comes hand in hand with expanding Microsoft’s Project xCloud gaming initiative to new international markets, including Australia, Brazil, Japan, and Mexico.
Those international markets are likely to be where the real profit is for any cloud gaming service. The US has notoriously lousy internet access for its size and relative wealth, and playing a modern video game via the cloud is a bandwidth-intensive process that tends to quickly hit any data caps that a user might have. Smaller countries with less restrictive or at least more explicit data caps are more likely to embrace xCloud, particularly in markets with low Xbox hardware penetration like Japan. (Then again, Japan has an almost 20-year history now of disrespecting the Xbox, and it’s not likely to abandon that for the forbidden allure of Halo Infinite we have a smartphone.)
West’s blog post also includes a host of statistics about how the Series X launch went, a big spike in customer engagement for the Xbox Game Pass, and a promise that Microsoft will restock its supplies of the system as quickly as possible.
While the post didn’t disclose any details about the exact numbers moved for the Series X | S so far – we do know it was the largest Xbox launch to date, but not by how much – West did throw out some other interesting data.
For example, the Series S, the smaller all-digital version of the new Xbox, has proven popular among first-time adopters, with more than 40% of new Xbox owners playing one. The Series X | S appears to have been a particular hit in Europe, with the UK, France, and Germany all reporting selling through their stock in record time compared to other markets.
The new console launch caused Xbox user engagement with the Game Pass service to more than double in November, with more than 3,800 different video games played by users in that first month of the new Xbox’s time on the market.
The blog also confirms that Halo Infinite, recently confirmed to be aiming for a fall 2021 release date, will be coming to the Xbox Game Pass, presumably at launch. Other future games that are headed to the Pass include the hotly-anticipated platformer Psychonauts 2; the Windows / Xbox exclusive horror game Dead Static Drive, which its developers describe as “Grand Theft Cthulhu”; and the Seattle-developed indie Skatebird, a Kickstarter-funded skateboarding game that features a tiny bird on a board in equally tiny skate parks. It’s just about as adorable as it sounds.
Games coming to the Xbox in 2021 include Halo Infinite, naturally. Other titles to watch include the League of Legends spin off Ruined King; the latest entry in the popular resident Evil franchise, Town (it’s the eighth game, so the subtitle doubles as a visual pun for “VII”); a new three-player co-op shooter in the Rainbow Six series called Quarantine, which pits counterterrorism operatives against an invasion by alien parasites; and Bright Memory: Infinite, a remake and expansion of a solo Chinese developer’s hit Early Access hack-and-slasher.
What the blog post primarily highlights, though, is that Microsoft remains in uncharted territory here. It’s not selling its games library at this point as much as inexpensive access thereof, placing a surprising emphasis on its services over its brand-new hardware. The hardware isn’t an afterthought, but it’s definitely coming off like it’s playing second fiddle to the Game Pass and its future. This may not end up being as disruptive to the overall industry as Microsoft seems to be hoping it will, since Sony and Nintendo are both doing quite well with the old sales models, but it’s interesting to speculate about the potential outcomes here.