One developer's view on Apple's App Store policies, and why he feels they are unfair on small studios

Courting controversy: Releasing Underworld: Drug Lords on mobile

Developer A-Steroids courted controversy in 2008 when it submitted its mobile game Drug Lords, which centred on drug dealing, to the App Store. Having spent some three months reviewing the game, Apple ultimately rejected the game.

At the time of intended release, the App Store was just four months old. The team had hoped to release the title on the store with a 17+ rating, but quickly found themselves at the brunt of a media backlash for the game’s themes.

“UK tabloids picked up the story and the whole outrage began, even though the game hadn’t even hit the store,” A-Steroids CEO Andrey Podoprigora tells Develop.

“Reaction of the press was mixed. While some of them called for a ban, some chose another angle, addressing the fact that there are a lot of movies, books and even other games where the theme of drugs and crime were just a part of the medium.”

The studio decided to re-develop the game with the omission of drugs, eventually releasing Underworld: SweetDeal on the App Store in April 2009, and replacing drugs with candy.

Now, six years after first submitting the game to the Apple App Store, A-Steroids has released Underworld: Drug Lords, a follow-up to the original. This time however, the title was accepted, but for release on Google Play. A candy-themed version of the game, Underworld: Sugar Wars has been submitted to Apple.

“As a studio, we have come a long way since 2008 and accumulated a lot of experience in mobile game development,” says Podoprigora.

“One of our biggest titles to date, Clash of the Damned, has almost two million downloads, and by the way, it has nothing to do with drugs.

“So when the opportunity of creating a sequel for Underworld presented itself, it was no-brainer. The idea was to redo the key mechanics, add lots of new content and polish the game experience while keeping the addictiveness and simplicity of the original.”

Apparently a different set of rules are applied to different products, which clearly lack transparency and are plain confusing.

Andrey Podoprigora, A-Steroids

Podoprigora says the team has been able to release the game on Android as Google does moderate titles beforehand, but instead relies on user reports. He insists that during what he calls “media outrage” in 2008, many commenters on those articles “supported its right to appear on the stores as any other product in a criminal setting”.

“Now that Underworld is published in the Google Play, we see the same reaction,” he explains.

“Per 100k downloads that we got in the first month after launch, we’ve received a few hate reviews. You will receive them anyway even if your game is an online pancakes puzzler. But most players take the game for a spin and decide whether they like it or not based on its gameplay.”

Apple has long been known for rejecting and removing games that tackle controversial subjects, sometimes in an equally controversial way. Examples include Endgame: Syria, a game that was based on the Syrian civil war, and Sweatshop, which covered issues such as child labour and poor working conditions in a clothing factory.

In regards to games that deal with subjects such as drugs, the App Store review guidelines state that “apps that solicit, promote, or encourage criminal or clearly reckless behaviour will be rejected”.

Despite this, Podoprigora says he was surprised that Drug Lords was turned down in 2008, as Apple has allowed other games about drug smuggling to be released on the store since, perhaps causing confusion on its policies. A quick look on the App Store reveals games such as Drug Wars!, which states players must “spam the streets with drugs”.

“And don’t even get me started on the GTA or Scarface-themed titles,” he says.

“All of these products have 17+ maturity rating, which totally makes sense and which we did as well. But apparently a different set of rules are applied to different products, which clearly lack transparency and are plain confusing.”

When asked if it is in Apple’s best interests not to court controversy and build a name as a family friendly store, Podoprigora says the 17+ rating acknowledges that the title is not for everyone, much like in film.

“The 17+ rating also means you will get less downloads, so choosing that road is a significant business decision and a serious commitment on the developer’s side,” he says.

“I strongly believe that ‘family friendly store’ does not mean only games about ponies, candies and happy farm animals. It’s about diversity and about everyone being able to find a game for their taste, be it a child, adult or senior.”

Despite previous difficulties with Apple, Podoprigora says the studio never considered developing Drug Lords for other platforms, such as PC, as he’s not a fan of the “produce once, release everywhere” approach, particularly on mobile.

“The best mobile games will always stay on mobile,” he states. “Because their gameplay flow is really tailored to enhance the mobile experience: short one-to-three minute sessions up to 20 times per day, rather than one long session, typical for PC and consoles.

“Nevertheless we do think about the opportunity of bringing Underworld to the social games market and allowing cross-play between platforms. Sending runners to handle a deal on mobile, then collecting the delivered cash and items on Facebook, I can totally see our players enjoying that. But at the moment we’re fully focused on improving the existing game and rolling out new features, such delivery jobs, police chases and drug cartels.”

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