Streaming Is the Only Way AAA Games Make Sense on iPhone
Apple's renewed investment in gaming has introduced a problem only game streaming can solve.
Apple has been trying to push back into gaming for a while. The App Store has always been home to popular mobile games and the occasional premium-priced console port, but it’s never seemed like a priority. Apple Arcade, however, along with proper controller support, and the major advancements Apple made in designing its own custom silicon chips, has fundamentally changed that.
A laptop, tablet, or phone running an M1 chip or newer, or an A17 Pro, is now more than capable of playing flagship AAA games like the Resident Evil 4 remake or Death Stranding: Director’s Cut. Apple’s devices are able to reproduce the lush graphics and smooth performance of a PS5 or Xbox Series X in a way its older smartphones or Intel-powered computers never could.
So, Apple devices make pretty compelling game consoles. Besides processing power, they’ve got beautiful vibrant screens, and are relatively portable. Their real problem is the limits of their storage size. A high-quality console game takes up far more space than photos or videos, and Apple is notoriously stingy with built-in hard drive space. But what if you didn’t have to store your games locally? Game streaming could very well solve all of the local storage problems of the iPhone, and Apple, in a surprise move, has decided to finally support it, potentially changing the equation for mobile gamers.
Games Are Only Getting Bigger
It’s worthwhile to put the storage problems of Apple’s devices in perspective. Beyond the increasingly large jumps in price you get taking a base 128GB iPhone 15 Pro to 1TB (an additional $100 to get 256GB, $300 to get 512GB, and $500 to get 1TB), games are just large. Some of the most popular games on the App Store carve out a good portion of your phone’s built-in storage if you play them with any regularity.
Honkai: Star Rail starts as a 3.5GB download but can expand up to 10GB with all of the necessary files you need to actually play it. Diablo Immortal can similarly balloon in size to close to 20GB as you download new sections of the game's map or whole new character classes and mechanics. Genshin Impact, with its open world and dozens of playable characters, can grow as large as 46GB. We think of these as “mobile” games, but they’re increasingly just as demanding in terms of graphical performance and storage space as something you’d play on your gaming PC or console.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that AAA console ports are even larger. Resident Evil 4 remake takes up 70GB, according to its App Store page. Death Stranding: Director’s Cut is 77GB. That’s more than half of your phone's storage if you’re using a 128GB iPhone 15 Pro, but it's still smaller than the game would be if you were playing it on a console.
Higher and higher quality game assets and more dynamic, and mechanically complex game worlds are the natural contributors to this problem, and it’s been an issue for your home consoles before it was for your smartphones. We think of the Blu-ray discs that modern consoles use as holding the entirety of a game, but the reality is it likely doesn’t even have most of the game on it. A traditional Blu-ray holds 25GB of data. You could create a dual-layer disc that holds 50GB, or write to even more layers and get to 100GB, but in a world where the new Call of Duty is 100GB or more, when all is said and done, a single game disc isn’t going to cut it. There’s just no room.
Streaming Is Back, Sort Of
A game streaming service like Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming seems like a natural solution to this problem. All you need is a nice screen and the ability to stream video over an internet connection and you have everything you need to play a game, no storage or discs necessary. Game streaming services never fully went away (well, Stadia did), but they have been severely limited on Apple’s mobile devices because of the company’s App Store rules. Until very recently, Apple didn’t allow a game streaming service to offer an app unless all of the games the service is able to stream were also available as separate downloads on the App Store. A ridiculous way for Apple to make extra money that companies like Microsoft got around by creating a version of Xbox Cloud Gaming that can run in Safari.
Now, Apple is letting these game streaming apps exist as they do on their home consoles, provided companies make sure each game adheres to Apple’s App Store Guidelines and that the streaming app maintains “an age rating of the highest age-rated content included in the app.” The change was announced alongside Apple’s long list of changes coming in iOS 17.4 in response to the European Commission’s Digital Markets Act.
Apple’s primarily been forced to loosen its control on apps and browsers, allowing for third-party browsers with new browser engines, alternative app stores, and even whole other payment systems. The company hasn’t made the process easy and still has ways to make money on these workarounds, but the streaming change seems like equal parts a preemptive move and an admission that it might as well accept a cut of subscriptions than nothing at all.
So far, Xbox Cloud Gaming hasn’t budged. And a comment from Xbox President Sarah Bond on X (formerly Twitter) seems to suggest Microsoft would prefer to see even more changes to what Apple’s proposing, at least when it comes to alternative app marketplaces.
In a repost of criticism of Apple’s announcement from the CEO of Spotify, Daniel Ek, Bond wrote:
We believe constructive conversations drive change and progress towards open platforms and greater competition. Apple's new policy is a step in the wrong direction. We hope they listen to feedback on their proposed plan and work towards a more inclusive future for all.
This makes sense. Microsoft wants to open an Xbox app store, and it claims its decision to buy Activision Blizzard was partially about acquiring a mobile games business in the form of King, the creators of Candy Crush. The rules now make it possible, but not necessarily profitable, open, or easy in the way Microsoft believes it could be. We’ve reached out to Xbox for comment on the streaming rule change, but for now, it seems like Apple’s performing for an audience of no one.
More Than Just Mobile Games
The iPhone might not ever compete with a handheld like the Nintendo Switch or the Steam Deck. I don’t necessarily believe that streaming should become the default way people game, even if it might make playing the flashiest titles easier. Owning the things you play, at least as close as we can get to that in 2024, is important. But there is a certain logic to game streaming on the iPhone, that, intentional or not, Apple’s announcement plays into.
Maybe that’s because, as 9to5Mac speculates, Apple Arcade could become a streaming service of its own. The game subscription continues to steadily rotate in new titles to its library, but nothing as interesting as it released in its first year, and few things as high-profile as Netflix has added to its competing service. Streaming games could open up what’s possible and make what’s currently offered even more valuable. But more than likely, Apple just wants the kind of mutually beneficial relationship with subscription sellers that it used to have. Something that might not exist in the same way now that we have handhelds, traditional mobile games we enjoy, and other ways to stream our favorite games.
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