HOT MESS: Pixelated Kisses vs. Apple's Censors
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HOT MESS was rejected twice by Apple, un-rejected once, and then featured. This is my blind-man-making-inferences-about-an-elephant story of how it all went down.
CYBERSLED + IGNITION FACTOR + THE KOOL-AID MAN
HOT MESS was conceived in the middle of our collective's last game, COOL PIZZA. Narratively, it was a game about out-of-control firefighting robots bursting into socially accepted spaces of sexual expression and souring the mood. Mechanically, it was a game of two players moving Battlezone-style individualized tread sliders and a Scorched Earth-style turret angle slider while chasing NPCs through two-space. Now, the game's development process was a bit of a roller coaster (all game names should mean at least three things) since we lost COOL PIZZA designer Matt Marchini to the maw of art school, and the next few months were filled with control experiments, art direction guesses ("Victoria's Secret meets Jeff Minter" was my favorite) and the standard game design frenzy of add-some-rules remove-some-rules.
Though all this experimentation though, the fires-of-the-heart premise remained. Partially because it so easily elicited interest, partially because the premise of the game was more engaging than anything we had constructed out of rules. In retrospect, this should have been a big red flag. Designing a game around a premise rather than a mechanic is a pretty good way to convince yourself that you have designed a game when you haven't. I would make the same mistake again personally, but readers beware!
REJECTED, THEN REJECTED
After describing the game as a fast-action arcade firefighting game we sent it out over TestFlight. At this point we had switched to accelerometer-based movement and Daytona USA-style checkpoint racing. Two game designers we really admire, Ben Ruiz and Ryan Burke, came back with an almost unisonous "not very good, and also kind of ugly". Naturally, we gave up and started designing a bus-chasing game using Atlanta's public transit feed. After realizing that the city doesn't design GPS feeds with videogames in mind we returned to HOT MESS with the reality-ignoring will to make it work. After meeting artist Michael Stanley at GDC we remade the visuals, found a core mechanic that felt pretty warm, kept the premise and worked like Roombas.
After getting a premise-praising but otherwise lukewarm rejection (notice a trend) from our Indiecade submission we thought we were in a good place to finally release the game. Wanting to keep the idea of extinguishing lovers a secret only to be discovered by players, we wrote an intentionally misleading App Store description about a run-of-the-mill firefighting robot fighting run-of-the-mill fires. We were careful to ensure our screenshots didn't contain any spoilers either, and our video
was less than informative. Believe it or not we felt good about all of this and were ready to roll.
REJECTED, THEN REJECTED PART TWO
Anybody who has ever sold a game on the App Store knows it takes about seven days between submission and approval. Seven days after sending off our game we received a notice in the "Resolution Center" that our game had been rejected for breaching rule 16.1:
Now I don't know how gameplay can contain images, but that's probably my design brain being over-analytical. "Fair enough," we thought about the nudity concern, and within about 270 seconds had crudely drawn white pixels over everything and resubmitted. Days pass.
Something funny about the "Resolution Center" from Apple -- it shares the ephemerality of Snapchat while simultaneously delivering project-crushing messages. While researching this article, I noticed that all the communications from Apple had disappeared. The editorial feedback on your game is in no way ever stored or recorded, it simply appears upon rejection and disappears upon approval. This is actually cohesive with the rest of the experience, in that you never know the name of whom you are speaking to (either via signature or profile name) nor do you see anything of them but an iconic medium-grey male bust.
But I'm jumping ahead of myself! So seven days after Operation: Resentful Underwear we got our second rejection, this one with the priceless words:
"Specifically, we noticed your app displays a barely dressed couple kissing".
Now unlike the first rejection, which was both easy to solve and didn't feel worth fighting for this one hit hard. How on earth would we replace our kissing lovers (by this point they were in a love motel loosely inspired by the Clermont Lounge in Atlanta) with… non-kissing… friends? It wasn't just that animating a hug at 16x16 seemed ridiculous, it also seemed wrong. The entire point of the game, in my estimation, was being vetoed. Furthermore, what exactly was "objectionable" about kissing? Was it the fact they emanated hearts? Haven't people been kissing in Disney movies since the Lady and the Tramp? Granted, our environment art was a bit seedier than that spaghetti-filled back alley, but still. My first reaction was incredulity and my second was resignation. Although this game took a year on-and-off to make, I would rather not release it than change our visual metaphors. I complained on twitter then went for a walk.
PRESS, THEN UNREJECTED
A few hours later I was contacted by Mark Brown from Pocket Gamer asking about the situation. That story got picked up by Eurogamer, then Escapist then Kotaku. Great! We're a bunch of losers who can't release their game but at least it's absurd enough for others to laugh with. I was still unsure about what to do -- did we need to remedy the fact that they were partially clothed while they were kissing or was the problem that they were kissing while they were partially clothed? -- but any possible further communication was still days away. I tried to forget about all this nonsense and went to the movies with my grandma.
Upon returning, I noticed the game was out on the App Store. Whoooops? What on earth happened in this mysterious "Resolution Center"? Oh wait, it's not there anymore. Where do I find a reason for this unexpected reversal of policy? The answer, of course, is nowhere. As strange and out-of-the-blue it felt to be rejected for kissing, it felt equally out-of-the-blue to be unrejected with no further explanation. The closest reason I could imagine was that some human person in Cupertino saw the funny articles about an 8-bit kissing game and relented, but I'll never know. The reality of it is that I don't have friends at Apple. There's nobody I call up and talk to when I'm about to release a game, or when I have questions about the hardware. Reflecting about it now, I guess I am as anonymous to them as they are anonymous to me.
FEATURED, THEN DEJECTED
As mentioned earlier, the whole notion of hosing down lovers was supposed to be a micro-twist in the first few minutes of the game. The fact that there was a news story on the front page of Kotaku kind of sunk that battleship! Slightly dejected, I decided not to promote the game. Now when I say "promote the game" I really only mean ask reviewers to review it. But still, I was a bit glum that our twist was spoiled and that one piece of our game had gotten microscoped out of all proportion. Furthermore, Chris Charlton had turned me on to "In a Permanent Save State" which was similarly censored, but in my estimation for much more noble intentions. I became a bit ashamed for harboring righteous indignation for pixel smooch censorship, like some iOS Larry Flynt. Jokingly, I hope, friends asked me how my "pornographic game" was doing. The truth was simply that we had put our heart into the game, I thought it spoke to something real and was proud of it (all games should mean at least three things). That's why it would have been okay with me if it never came out. But alas, there were other people that worked on this game so that decision was not entirely mine to make.
As if things couldn't get any more unpredictable, Apple then promoted us on the App Store. At this point nothing made sense to me and I went up to Practice at NYU to learn how to make games that were more game and less premise.
"VIDEOGAMES IS OUR BUSINESS HERE. TRUTH UP TO A CERTAIN POINT, BUT NO FURTHER"
Drawing a lesson from this experience is a bit like trying to figure out the moral of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. There is no resolution, and searching for one will make it so you can't get to sleep. I'm going to make things up now, but they are either so true as to be trivial or so wild as to describe an elephant as an eight-trunked hose monster.
* If you work with a publishing partner of any kind, you aren't 100% in control of your publishing
* The more powerful the publishing partner's voice, the less powerful your voice
* Complaining loudly might work
* The more representational the visuals, the quicker your game can be summarily assessed
Overall, I'm happy that we finally got released but it's disheartening to know that so much of this was the result of real people making real decisions hidden behind opaque administration and bullet-listed rules. Also, check out "In a Permanent Save State" and "Phone Story". Here we are in Atlanta in November 2013, and Apple's policy remains:
"We view apps [as] different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store."