Starting Friday, Facebook is bringing its nascent cloud gaming service to iPhones and iPads through a web app people will be able to add to their homescreens like a native app. The site will let you play simple web games like Solitaire and match-threes and stream more graphically intensive titles like racing games.
But thanks to Apple’s rules, it’s unclear how people will find it, since third-party developers like Facebook are barred from steering their app users to websites featuring purchasing mechanisms that aren’t Apple’s own. It’s a huge point of friction with not just Facebook, but other gaming companies like Epic that have strongly protested Apple’s grip on iOS payments. Facebook’s library of web games, which include HTML5-based ones alongside more advanced titles that stream directly from the cloud, use the social network’s custom payments system called Facebook Pay to accept in-game purchases.
Facebook’s decision to bring its game platform to iOS via the web mimics the approach of Amazon and Microsoft, which have also released Progressive Web Apps, or PWAs, for their respective cloud gaming services to get around the App Store. Last year, Facebook complained loudly when Apple blocked its attempt to put games in a standalone app for iOS and said it would look into alternatives. Shortly after that, Apple changed its rules to allow for cloud-based games as long as they were submitted individually as apps to the App Store for review — a policy that Microsoft and others said didn’t address their desire to release their own gaming storefronts on iOS.
“We’ve come to the same conclusion as others: web apps are the only option for streaming cloud games on iOS at the moment,” Facebook’s vice president of gaming, Vivek Sharma, told The Verge in a statement. “As many have pointed out, Apple’s policy to ‘allow’ cloud games on the App Store doesn’t allow for much at all. Apple’s requirement for each cloud game to have its own page, go through review, and appear in search listings defeats the purpose of cloud gaming. These roadblocks mean players are prevented from discovering new games, playing cross-device, and accessing high-quality games instantly in native iOS apps — even for those who aren’t using the latest and most expensive devices.”
Facebook isn’t a major player in gaming yet, as it has mostly focused on courting streamers to broadcast their gameplay for fans to watch. But last year it acquired a cloud gaming startup and released a handful of free-to-play titles like Asphalt 9. It has since made its service available in more regions, added other titles like Assassin’s Creed: Rebellion, and said 1.5 million people play its cloud games per month.
While Facebook ultimately found a solution for getting its cloud games on iOS, there are still big limitations imposed by Apple’s Safari browser on web games. Sound is turned off by default, games can’t send push notifications, and graphics aren’t as powerful as they can be in native apps. And then there’s the problem of discovery.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on its growth plans for the gaming website, but Apple’s rules say that developers can’t send users from a native app to a website with payments technology other than its own. Developers of the games Facebook features could do their own marketing, but those efforts would pale in comparison to the traffic that the main Facebook app could send.
Facebook’s cloud games are currently available in the US and parts of Canada and Mexico, while HTML games are accessible elsewhere as cloud games are slowly brought to more regions.