When Apple's Guidelines Go Wrong

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5 Times the App Store Messed with Games

iOS App Store

With millions of games available for download on the App Store, it wouldn't be hard to imagine Apple's approval policies putting up about as much fight as a saloon door. But as it turns out, Apple is quite strict about what it allows in the hallowed halls of its storefront. There have been countless stories of apps and games being trapped in approval process hell, with bugs and content often preventing a finished app from reaching its intended audience.

But not every story of App Store rejection comes with a totally reasonable explanation. Apple's rules seem as changeable as the wind, and they're rarely enforced with any sort of consistency. Sometimes this means a major release is stopped only moments before leaving the door. Other times, games that have been around forever are yanked because of changing tides and beliefs. 

This isn't just a problem for games, either. Sometimes Apple changes their policies in a way that can disrupt whole industries, like "free app a day" programs being killed because they violated a rule that had failed to be enforced during their growing success, clause 2.25: "Apps that display Apps other than your own for purchase or promotion in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store will be rejected."

It's this same clause that has seemingly kept sites like TouchArcade from updating their app since late 2013, for fear that an update would fail approval and they'd be removed from the store entirely.

For gamers, strange hiccups in the approval process can keep some excellent games out of their hands, which stinks for everyone involved. What follows are five examples of times that Apple's policies have prevented a game from reaching its audience (even if only temporarily).

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The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

The Binding of Isaac was a hit indie game in 2011 with a somewhat extreme visual approach. The game's creator, Edmund McMillen, had previously seen critical acclaim as one half of the team responsible for Super Meat Boy, a tough-as-nails platformer whose development and release formed the cornerstone of Indie Game: The Movie.

The Binding of Isaac, however, was a much more personal game. On the surface, it was a roguelike action game that mixed inspiration from the dungeons of The Legend of Zelda with the bizarre, dark, yet somewhat comical art style that McMillen was known for. Scratch a little deeper, however, and you'll find that The Binding of Isaac was really an artistic commentary on McMillen's own religious upbringing, and the shame that was thrust upon him as a child as a result. 

"Everybody's going to Hell," McMillen told Eurogamer in 2012, sharing the viewpoint his father's family brought into his life. "I'm going to go to Hell because I'm playing D&D, I'm playing Magic [The Gathering], and you're chastised for every little thing. Which is kind of ironic, because it's coming from these born-again Christians who lived the most horrible sinful lives possible before they became Christians and saved."

It is from this experience that The Binding of Isaac was born, a game about a young boy hiding in the basement to avoid being "sacrificed" by his mother, in a modern-spin on the bible story of Abraham and Isaac.

When it was it rejected: February 2016

Why: Clause 15.2: "Apps that depict violence or abuse of children will be rejected."

Because Isaac is a child and the lead character, horrible things are going to happen to him, and there's really no way to avoid your eventual death. Having said that, aren't there countless games out there that star children in precarious situations? Clementine from The Walking Dead is on the receiving end of violence. The little boy in LIMBO can be impaled on the leg of a giant spider. Pocket Mortys has you collecting and battling clones of your grandson against each other. The list goes on and on.

Can I play it?: Not on the App Store. The Binding of Issac Rebirth (a revised version produced by Nicalis) is available on just about every other platform imaginable, including PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, New Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita.

As of this writing, we're holding out hope that Nicalis and Apple can still find some common ground to get this out of the approval process and on to the App Store.

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Phone Story

Phone Story

Everybody likes the taste of sausage, but nobody wants to know how it's made. The same could of many of life's conveniences - including our personal electronics. Phone Story was a game that tried to break the silence about the smartphone supply chain, but was summarily shut down by Apple.

Had it been released, iOS owners would have experienced a game that educated them on the harsh realities of modern economics, including child slave labor in the Congo to mine coltan, suicides at assembly factories in China, and the exporting of recycled electronics to strip them of their components in ways that harm both individuals and the environment.

The developer behind Phone Story, Italy's Molleindustra, is no stranger to controversial games. The studio is also responsible for such notable social commentaries as McDonald's Videogame and Unmanned, a game about the life of a drone pilot.

When it was it rejected: September 2011

Why: Phone Story was released on the App Store on September 9th, 2011. Only five days later, it was removed by Apple. According to Molleindustria, the following reasons were cited:

  • Clause 15.2 "Apps that depict violence or abuse of children will be rejected" 
  • Clause 16.2 "Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected" 
  • Clause 21.1 "Apps that include the ability to make donations to recognized charitable organizations must be free"
  • Clause 21.2 "The collection of donations must be done via a web site in Safari or an SMS"

While the first two clauses might be seen (somewhat ironically) as Apple treating the smartphone supply chain as too unpleasant for public consumption, the latter two are something of a conundrum. Molleindustria charged a download fee, but pledged to donate all of the money earned to related charities. (In fact, they eventually donated $6000 to a suicide survivor from Foxconn, the Chinese electronics manufacturer with ties to major worldwide brands.) But donations couldn't be made within the app - they were merely pledging to use the profits towards a charitable cause.

Can I play it?: While the game was quickly shut down by Apple, it was permitted on Google Play, meaning Android owners are able to download and experience Molleindustria's mobile manufacturing message without any roadblocks to speak of. The game is also playable in your browser at phonestory.com, where it can also be downloaded free of charge for PC and Mac.

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Civil War 1863

Civil War 1863
HexWar Games

On June 17, 2015, America had one of its darkest days in recent memory. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina found itself under siege from a lone gunman who killed nine parishioners and injured one. The shooter, it would later be learned, had a website. Displayed here, alongside his manifesto, were numerous white power symbols - as well as the Confederate flag.

While debate has raged on for years about the true meaning of the Confederate flag and whether or not its use is now tantamount to racism, the tragedy in South Carolina was enough to motivate many companies to remove themselves from the debate entirely. IN response to the shooting, major retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, and Sears now refuse to sell items that bear the image of the Confederate flag. The Dukes of Hazzard, a once-popular television show featuring a car with the flag on its roof, had re-runs pulled from TV Land, and Warner Bros. announced it would no longer be making Confederate-themed merchandise for the series.

What does any of this have to do with the App Store? If you were a developer of mobile strategy war games that faithfully recreated battles from history, the changing tides of history were about to interfere with your daily business. HexWar Games, the creators of Civil War 1863 on the App Store, were a developer that found this out first-hand.

When it was rejected: June 2015

Why: Like the other major retailers mentioned, Apple made the decision to remove content featuring the Confederate flag from the App Store following the tragedy in Charleston. The difference, however, is that unlike a retailer that might sell flags and t-shirts, the App Store is a warehouse for ideas. This means you can sometimes use the flag in a truly innocent fashion; such as an app that teaches history, or recreates a Civil War battle.

Civil War 1863 wasn't alone in its removal. On June 25, 2015, it quickly became apparent that every app on the App Store with any Confederate images revealed in their icon or screenshots were no longer available for download. While Apple normally remains tight-lipped about such decisions, they provided a statement to TouchArcade in an attempt to clarify the situation: "We have removed apps from the App Store that use the Confederate flag in offensive or mean-spirited ways, which is in violation of our guidelines."

Can I play it?: You can! It seems as though Apple's editorial team was a little overzealous in their attempts to remove the Confederate flag from the App Store. In the days that followed the June 25th culling, many of the games -- including Civil War 1863 -- returned to the App Store for purchase. The only difference? The Confederate flag can no longer be displayed in the icon or screenshots shown on the App Store.

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Endgame: Syria

Endgame: Syria
Auroch Digital

Auroch Digital is a company that doesn't just make games; with their GameTheNews initiative, they strive to make important ones. GameTheNews is all about educating through play, informing gamers of important happenings in the world, and offering a better understanding through hands-on experience. It's the sort of thing a quick snippet on cable new can never convey, and a noble project that they should be applauded for.

In late 2012, Auroch Digital had just wrapped production on their latest GameTheNews project, Endgame: Syria. It was a game designed to explore the then early stages of the civil war in Syria, putting players in control of the rebel faction, and seeing what results their choices would have. Each turn would have a political and military phase, and choices in both would affect your support (and the support of the ruling government regime).

It's not that Apple necessarily objects to the idea of news games -- GameTheNews' June 2013 war on drugs release NarcoGuerra was published on the App Store without any sort of a compromise, and met with critical acclaim -- but it turns out the App Store doesn't like it when you calling out real countries or entities.

When it was rejected: January 2013

Why: Clause 15.3: "'Enemies' within the context of a game cannot solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity."

Regardless of whether you feel this rule just or unjust, you have to wonder about how consistently a rule like this is being enforced. And even when it is - Tank Battles 1942 was rejected for portraying the Germans as enemies in World War 2, for example - the decision is often reversed.

Despite repeated attempts to modify the game and resubmit it to the App Store, Endgame: Syria was never going to be a fit for approval. "In the end," said Auroch Digital's Tomas Rawlings, "we found that to get the game passed we’d have to remove any reference not only to real world groups and people, but the the country of Syria itself."

Can I play it?: Kinda. The game is available in its original, undistorted form on Android and in browsers -- but if you want to play it on the App Store, be prepared for some pretty harsh compromises.

The game was eventually released for iOS devices as Endgame: Eurasia, a game with no clear connection to the Syrian Civil War, and therefore no direct educational value. 

In an interview with Gamezebo, Rawlings opined that the real struggle may be the result of how games are treated compared to other forms of media, agreeing that a book on the same subject would be unlikely to see the same struggle with Apple's approval process: "I don’t think games should be judged any differently from other media forms. They have their own intrinsic value as a form and also as part of the mass of human creative content. Any creative project should be judged on its own merit and not over or under-judged (or appreciated) just because of its form. Games are growing up and people need to get used to that!"

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Papers, Please

Papers, Please
Lucas Pope

As a release that swept the Independent Games Festival awards in 2014, Papers, Please was no slouch. The game mixed clever time management gameplay with a dystopian message set against the backdrop of a totalitarian government.

Players took up the role of border guard, determining who would be let into the country and who would be turned away. Each day the rules would change slightly, giving you more to worry about as you tried to juggle all of the governments requests with your ability to make sure you're only letting the right people in (or, if you're soft-hearted, letting the wrong people in because it's the right thing to do regardless of the demerits you'll receive).

Payment is received for your hard work, and it's tied directly to how many people you've processed. With no heat, sick family, and a total lack of food, you'll have to make some tough decisions about who to care for when your pay arrives.

The game is kind of dark, but appropriately so. It's a game about hardship in a Soviet-style nation-state.

When was it rejected: December 2014

Why: In a word, nipples.

Clause 18.1: "Apps containing pornographic material, defined by Webster's Dictionary as 'explicit descriptions or displays of sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings', will be rejected."

As part of the duties of a border guard, players sometimes need to make an entrant go through a scanner that shows their naked body, checking them for weapons or other illegal contraband. This crossed the line for the App Store approval team, and the game was rejected on the grounds that it was pornographic. Developer Lucas Pope slapped some underwear on the characters, resubmitted, and the game was approved.

Can I play it?: Yes, and in all its nude glory. In the days leading up to its release, the censored version of Papers, Please was getting a lot of press. Apple quickly rescinded their decision, inviting Pope to resubmit the game in its original form. This new version was approved, and has been available on the App Store ever since.