For the past five years, one company has dominated the handheld games market. Sure, its major competitor fights a good fight, but there’s no doubting who’s boss.
I’m not talking about Sony and Nintendo, by the way. No: the real fight is between Apple and Google.
Gaming revenue on Apple’s app store in the fourth quarter of 2014 was twice that of the entire market of dedicated handheld consoles (which is dominated by Nintendo’s 3DS console). Two-thirds of the top hundred grossing apps on the app store, and nine of the top 10, are games. Apple has opened up gaming to a whole new audience, and is in charge of the biggest video-game platform the world has ever seen.
So why is it so embarrassed by games?
The company’s sneering attitude to the field it dominates was expressed again on Thursday, when it removed a group of war games from the App Store for what it described as “offensive or mean-spirited” use of the Confederate flag. The games, which are largely dry military re-enactments, use the Confederate flag to represent the southern armies, and the Stars and Stripes to represent the northern.
Some have argued that the removal was “an understandable, if clunky, reaction to a symbol that has specific connotations”, others that it’s “an ultra-rare case of political correctness actually genuinely gone mad”.
But regardless of whether Apple, which did not respond to a request for comment for this article, was oversensitive or not, what stands out is how games, uniquely, were censored. The company still sells all seven seasons of Dukes of Hazzard, with its confederate flag-decked General Lee. It also sells the albums Give Out But Don’t Give Up by Primal Scream and Legend by Lynyrd Skynyrd, both of which prominently display the flag as part of their cover art. If the flag should go, it should surely go everywhere.
Apple, however, disagrees. To the company’s credit, it’s uncharacteristically verbose about its feelings: the review guidelines for its app store open with the admission that “we view Apps different than books or songs”.
“If you want to criticise a religion, write a book,” the company instructs would-be developers. “If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical App.”
Of course, when there’s money to be made, Apple is happy to pretend that it agrees with the bulk of gamers who view the medium as a flourishing artform, capable of greatness equal to – if necessarily different from – books or music. In May, the company ran a promotion on the app store highlighting visually stunning games with the tagline “games are art. Here is the proof”.
Thankfully, none of those games decided to be art in the way Ronald Maxwell’s Gettysburg is, or they would have been removed as part of the sweep of the app store as well.
The problem with Apple’s attitude to games isn’t just that it treats them differently to books and music, though. After all, there are undeniable differences between them: no book can hack your device, no song can download pirated content, and no movie can abuse in-app payments.
All of those factors necessitate some sort of review process above and beyond what legacy media needs. And once that hurdle is introduced, maybe Apple could even argue for a stricter control on content. After all, it’s their store, and they can sell what they want (although that logic falls down somewhat when that store controls access to a significant proportion of the market single-handedly).
But even within games, the company has made clear that it holds the market with a fair degree of contempt. This week, it removed “Kill the plumber” from the app store, for including “content or features that resemble a well-known third-party material, Super Mario Bros”. The game, which lets you play as a series of monsters attempting to kill a, yes, blue-and-red garbed plumber, is a deliberate parody of the Mario formula. But even if the entire theme was redesigned, Apple still wouldn’t be happy: the company required an overhaul of the functionality of the game, to boot.
And yet, when it comes to home-grown games, the company couldn’t care less about barefaced ripoffs. A search for “Threes Free” – a bestselling critically acclaimed hit from 2014 – puts the real game in second place behind a copy with the same gameplay and name. And that’s not even taking into account the success of Threes clone 2048.
The list goes on. Migration game Papers, Please was forced to remove scenes in a full body scanner over “pornographic content”. Syria: Endgame, which looks at the civil war in that country, was removed for its political content. In A Permanent Save State, which attacks Apple over worker suicides at its manufacturing company Foxconn, was removed for – well, take a guess.
But the oddest thing is that someone in Apple clearly does care. Way back in 2010, the company announced Game Center, its take on Xbox Live and other services that let gamers co-ordinate and play together, before letting it languish with barely any further support. Then, in 2014, it launched Metal, a graphics API squarely aimed at making high-fidelity games on iOS. That’s been front and centre at multiple Apple keynotes, and is getting ported on to OS X in September. There are games demoed at nearly every product launch, and, of course, there’s the money the company makes.
Perhaps all the company needs is an executive visibly appointed as head of games, to steer the way and turn the sleeping giant of the games world into an active player. Or maybe the company will continue to tell people interested in games as an artform to “write a book”, all while carrying its bags of money to the bank.