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August 22, 2017
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Google and Apple vs. Indie Developers
by Liran Grunhaus on 06/15/17 10:37:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

TL;DR: Tech giants Google and Apple dominate the App Store business- they have virtually no competition. As a result, they give very poor support to indie developers. Your game or app can suddenly be removed with very little you can do to combat the decision. 

Our game Fake Slap! was suspended on Google Play for violating the Violence Policy. We got an automatic email letting us know that the game has been suspended and poof! It was gone. This came as a huge shock to us as the game had already been on Google Play and the App Store for over a month, with no apparent problems. The violence policy states: “We don’t allow apps that depict or facilitate gratuitous violence or other dangerous activities.” They follow with a few examples, such as: promoting self harm, terrorist groups documenting attacks, bomb or weapon making and realistic violence. Our game definitely has NONE of those. Yes, our game is political and POTUS is the star of our game, but it is definitely not violent in that way.

The thing is- suspension of an app is considered a strike against the good standing of your developer account, or as they phrased it: Additional suspensions of any nature may result in the termination of your developer account, and investigation and possible termination of related Google accounts.” You can’t even go back to your game to see what you did wrong- it is completely blocked. Needless to say we were freaking out. Imagine losing not only your developer account, but all of your Google accounts- email, drive, YouTube, everything. Yikes. We rushed home to file our appeal, and we were certain that the game would be reinstalled in no time, as there must have been some mistake. We figured that somebody didn’t like the idea and flagged the game which initiated the whole automatic process. Google will see their mistake and reinstate the app for sure, right?

The automatic reply to the appeal stated that we will get an answer in 72 hours. We stopped everything we were planning for marketing the game and waited. And then waited some more. After 11 nerve-wracking days, we finally got an answer- they did not accept our appeal. We insisted again and again for a couple of weeks, and kept getting automatic replies denying our appeals. At this point we felt pretty hopeless- the process was cold and alienating. It made no sense at all. I started reaching out to reporters with the story- maybe someone will be interested in a story about Google Play suspending a political game. I exchanged a few emails with Colin Campbell from Polygon. I had read his articles in the past and thought that he might be interested. After telling him the story, he reached out to the Google press team for a statement. Approximately 5 hours later we “mysteriously” received an email from Google stating that they are reinstating our game, a month after they originally removed it. Coincidence? I think not.

Our game Fake Slap! was suspended from Google Play for over a month

Our Game Fake Slap! was suspended on Google Play

Getting the game reinstated was good news, of course, but we were left feeling pretty disgusted. Why did we need a reporter asking questions for Google to take us seriously? I started looking for other people that had had similar experiences, and was shocked to find out that this happens a lot. A sizable amount of games and apps are automatically removed/suspended from the app stores (mostly Google Play) without even a warning or a chance to fix the issue. Some developers are lucky, but it seems many of them don’t even get past the automatic messages and get identical emails denying their appeals. It is common knowledge among developers that talking to a human being at Google is virtually impossible. Apple is considered a tough cookie in the initial approval process (many developers don’t even try to publish on the App Store), but if you have a problem afterwards or an update is rejected, there is usually a person to talk to.

There is a wide range of causes for suspensions and removals- from trademark infringement for using words like “Flow” (in the case of Reddit user JakeSteam), “Candy” or “Saga”, to spam, pornography or violence.

In the case of Hau Nguyen, his game Dodge Dodge was originally named “Circles Dodge”. It was on Google Play for six months (with tens of thousands of downloads and hundreds of reviews), and then it was suddenly suspended due to “violation of the spam provision of the Content Policy”. Google rejected Hau’s appeals with automatic emails. He got no answer as to what exactly was considered spam in the game, and after reaching out to fellow developers on Reddit, he decided to publish the same game under a different name- but of course, he lost all of the downloads and reviews he had for the previous version, and was endangering his developer account (2 strikes and you’re out!).

TK-Squared, LLC have had two apps removed- their apps Banger and Tuxedo display websites with streaming radio content (Rock music and Classical music, respectively). The reason for the removals was “violation of the paid and free provision of the Content Policy”- meaning they accused them of trying to charge money through a third party app (not through Google Play), though they weren’t collecting money at all. One of the streaming radio stations that were included in the apps was independently collecting donations for their college radio, but had no connection to TK-Squared whatsoever. In the case of Banger app- after weeks of emailing back and forth trying to prove to Google that they are not charging money, are not a charity and are not in violation of their policy, their appeal was accepted. In the case of Tuxedo- Google stopped replying after two months of emails back and forth. They eventually submitted an update and republished the app. This is how they described their email interactions with Google: “The replies (to the appeals) never once addressed anything we had said in our previous reply, and had no bearing on the discussion that preceded it, which was confounding. We attempted to communicate in this manner or find any other way of responding, for by the time the second month rolled around we were convinced that we were talking with a bot, because nothing we said or did every elicited a meaningful response from Google.”

John (he asked that I don’t mention his name as big brother (a.k.a Google) is watching), a senior app developer from the US, had his entire developer account removed. Google removed three different apps he was developing for clients for violation of the impersonation policy and the pornography policy (which he stated were not occurring). After that his entire account was suspended, with over 120 apps on it. It took him three months of appealing to get his account back, and months after that to resubmit all of the apps that were there. Now Google automatically rejects any app he submits without a pre-authorized contract between himself and his clients- on the grounds of impersonating those businesses. He says that he can wait weeks to get Google’s OK. In his words: “it’s like proving I have permission to sell apples from the apple grower each time I sell an apple!”

Exp3D- suspended after 3 years on the store

Adrian Courréges had his open-source game Exp3D suspended after being on Google Play for 3 (!!) years for Metadata policy violation. He was relatively lucky, as after appealing his suspension was “downgraded” to removal, and he could resubmit without losing all of his downloads/reviews/users.

Reddit user wrayjustin had his Reddit-widget app suspended for impersonation/deceptive behavior after un-publishing it. It had been on the store since 2010 with no updates or changes and he removed it because he had heard of the aggressive policy strikes. Then it got suspended.

As I mentioned before, Apple seems to have fewer rejection stories out there. Apple is known to have “particular” standards for the content published on the App Store. So most game or app rejections happen up front. There were various headlines in the past year or so about rejected political games – such as the Palestinian political platformer Liyla and the Shadows of War, political satire games by Everyday Arcade, and more. Many developers complain at their steep $100-a-year developer fee, and the fact that they obligate developing service-providers to open a developer account for every client (at $100 a pop).

Ascella Mobile Inc. did have an update for their game Pixel Arena Online rejected due to trademark infringement. A character they had had in the game for months suddenly seemed to resemble Sheriff Woody (the in-game character is a voxel cowboy that looks like… any cowboy…). They had to remove him and all of the marketing material connected to him.

Pixel Arena Online- Tiggy looked too much like Woody?

Gereon Steffens has an accessory app for the game "Android: Netrunner". Obviously the description has to have the word “Android” in it, with no connection to the operating system. It has been rejected multiple times for containing that word. His appeals are always accepted, luckily, but that doesn’t stop them from rejecting updates once in a while.

These types of stories have been going around for years. A quick search in the Reddit development groups can give you a glimpse of just how many there are out there. The majority of removals and suspensions are probably justified and are in clear violation of the policies, ridiculous and vague as they may seem. But a large number of the cases don’t seem justified at all, and indie developers and small businesses are virtually helpless against the suspensions- and most importantly, don’t really understand the reasons for them in many cases and have nobody to talk to in order to avoid such problems in the future. Furthermore, many developers believe that companies are specifically abusing the system to block competition as well, and small businesses can’t afford to lawyer up. If you are a small business depending on the income from your apps, this is very troubling.

But why are the tech giants giving such poor support to developers and content providers? Game and app developers are having a hard enough time as it is with discovery in such an over-saturated market, so why are the app store giants making it even harder for app developers in the process? And charging them 30% of their earnings in the process? The answer is because they can.

Both Google (or Alphabet, the parent company) and Apple are indeed private companies that can decide what they allow on their stores, but there are growing claims that they have monopolies in their corresponding sectors. Which basically means that they can enforce their “my way or the highway” type attitude towards developers (or anyone, for that matter). Editorials in the New York Times and Business Insider have recently called for anti-trust legislation against the tech giants, stating that they are crushing competition and hampering innovation and personal freedom. Both Google and Apple completely dominate the App Store market- 76% of all apps are published on their stores (as of March 2017, according to statista.com). The Windows and Amazon stores lag far far behind them and do not offer real competition to either of the giants. The AT&T and Time-Warner merger has drawn much more public scrutiny over a smaller percentage of the market, so why isn’t anything being done about the tech giants and the clear abuse of their power? That is exactly what anti-trust laws are for- and how Google came to be in the first place (in the 90s, a suit against Microsoft allowed a startup named Google to offer an innovative search engine). Google has come a far way from the days of their motto “Don’t Do Evil”.

Number of apps available in leading app stores as of March 2017 (Statista)

In January, Reuters reported that a court in the US ruled that iPhone App users can sue Apple for monopolizing the iPhone App Market- leading to higher prices and lower discovery. This is big news for consumers and developers- but will iPhone users actually sue Apple? Will there be similar legislation for Android users? I doubt it. It seems to me the change will only come from government intervention or public pressure on the tech giants. What is clear is that there is dire need for change in the way the app store giants deal with their content creators- by breaking up the monopolies and opening up the markets to fair competition to give small developers (and other app stores) a real chance.


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