A mobile gaming subscription war looms as Netflix sets its sights on Apple Arcade

Apple Arcade game promo
(Image credit: Apple)

Microsoft and Netflix are ready to take on Apple in the mobile gaming space — and the first shots have already been fired.

Apple has long been the master of its kingdom, calling the App Store shots and controlling what is and isn't allowed onto the iPhone and iPad. But that could be about to change and even if it isn't, trouble is brewing. If Apple really does, contrary to popular opinion, get games, now is the time to prove it.

Following the news that Microsoft is planning its own games store for iOS and Netflix is taking Apple Arcade's crown jewels, now isn't the time for Apple to sit by.

The Microsoft problem

Headlines today have Microsoft already making noises about launching its own mobile gaming app store outside of Apple's walled garden. That isn't possible today. But tomorrow?

“We want to be in a position to offer Xbox and content from both us and our third-party partners across any screen where somebody would want to play,” Phil Spencer, CEO of Microsoft Gaming, reportedly said ahead of the Game Developers Conference next week. “Today, we can’t do that on mobile devices but we want to build towards a world that we think will be coming where those devices are opened up.”

Spencer is talking about the EU's Digital Markets Act (DMA) which comes into effect in March 2024 and could force Apple to allow sideloading of apps and/or app stores on iPhones and iPads. There's still some debate about how that act will actually play out, but Microsoft is already lining things up ahead of time.

Today, Xbox Cloud Gaming allows iPhone and iPad gamers to play Xbox games from Microsoft's servers without the need to install apps. But that all functions via a web app because Apple's App Store rules got in the way. That would all change under the DMA. At least, in theory. And if it does, Apple's App Store immediately has stiff competition from real AAA titles the likes of which the App Store might struggle to compete with.

The Netflix Problem

Things are just as complicated over in Netflix land. The company already streams movies, TV shows, and documentaries via its app on iPhones and iPads. Recently it started releasing games via standalone apps as well, all of which go via the App Store review system. Soon, that system will see a familiar name.

The Verge reports that Netflix has signed a deal to bring Monument Valley to its stable of games starting in 2024.

If that name rings a bell, it should. Monument Valley was huge on Apple's platforms. So huge that it then found a home in the Apple Arcade subscription offering. As did its sequel, the imaginatively named Monument Valley 2.

Part of the Apple Arcade story is that games available there are mobile exclusives. You can't play them on Android, and you can't get them via any other subscription service. Netflix's 2024 announcement suggests that Monument Valley is going to be leaving the App Store before that point. Is their a contract about to end? Apple Arcade lost 15 titles after similar contracts expired last year, too.

It's becoming increasingly clear that Netflix isn't playing around with gaming if you pardon the pun. It's gunning for Apple.

The Apple problem

And then, there's Apple.

Apple has been accused of simply not getting games plenty of times over the years. Some argue today that it still hasn't fully grokked the way the games industry works or what kinds of games people want to play.

Perhaps even more worrying is Apple's ability to just lose interest in things. The iTunes Ping! debacle is one example that just won't go away, but there have been others. The expiry of Apple Arcade contracts shouldn't be a sign of that happening with Apple Arcade of course, but Monument Valley? That's a biggie, perhaps more for the signal it sends than anything else.

Some already look at Apple Arcade and wonder about the number of new titles compared to the volume of so-called "+" titles that are remakes of games already available in the App Store. That again might not be a sign of Apple losing interest.

But it could be another sign that Apple still struggles with gaming. Death by a thousand papercuts and all that, and Apple's best iPhones and iPads need the industry's best games.

It's too early to say in the case of Netflix, of course. But Microsoft?

Microsoft gets gaming.

Oliver Haslam

Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. At iMore, Oliver is involved in daily news coverage and, not being short of opinions, has been known to 'explain' those thoughts in more detail, too. Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back. Since then he's seen the growth of the smartphone world, backed by iPhone, and new product categories come and go. Current expertise includes iOS, macOS, streaming services, and pretty much anything that has a battery or plugs into a wall. Oliver also covers mobile gaming for iMore, with Apple Arcade a particular focus. He's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days and still struggles to comprehend the fact he can play console quality titles on his pocket computer.