Thoughts about App Store ‘Curation’

Last week, Jeff Grubb from VentureBeat emailed me a question for an article he was writing, prompted by Apple's rejection of Endgame: Syria. Sometimes questions like this are good excuses for me to figure out what I really think.

Jeff asked me about this part of the iOS App Store's Developer Terms of Service:

We view Apps 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.

And here is what I said:

I think this is the wrong attitude about games, but look, ultimately it is game developers' fault, not Apple's. Apple is treating games as shallow commercial entertainment experiences because they have been taught by game developers that that is what games are.

If we had built a world where games routinely work with serious issues in ways that people care about, Apple would not be able to take this stance, because it would not make any sense.

Why do they say "If you want to criticize a religion, write a book"? It's because it's obvious that banning books is bad, because there have been a lot of books that people find important (and we have had many cultural cycles involving people attempting to ban books, and culture has worked out ultimately that this is not a good thing). Games do not have this history. Right now Apple thinks a game is Angry Birds or maybe Infinity Blade. So who can blame them?

Apple may be badgered enough to change their policy someday, or they may not. But that doesn't matter very much because really it is just a reflection of the general cultural idea about what games are. The only way that idea will change is if a lot of developers make a lot of serious/deep/honest/touching/intrepid games for a long time. I don't know if that will ever happen. How many games can you think of to which you can seriously apply these adjectives? Certainly to none of the top-selling games on the App Store, and certainly certainly to none of those big free-to-play games that are raking in all the cash.

So, game developers are just sort of reaping what they have sown. What else would you expect?

I have not played Endgame: Syria but maybe it is a step in this direction. But to change these attitudes we need a lot of steps, consistently, not just a token step now and again.


  1. I’m surprised to see you justifying/rationalizing Apple’s policy.

    I think it’s obvious that software is a form of media, and any outlet that censors media should not be tolerated by software developers. From day 1 I’ve been calling for a boycott of Apple until they stop censoring software. It’s sad to me that developers seem to care more about the personal profit they can achieve through Apple than about ensuring that software is a free medium in the future.

    (In fact I think they should not be allowed to censor it for “bugginess” either; they could just put a disclaimer on it and make you click an approval to download apps that they consider to be less than perfect, because allowing them to censor for bugs is a loophole to let them torpedo competition.)

    I also disagree that games don’t have a great history of social commentary. Just because the biggest sellers are totally vapid doesn’t mean anything (the same is true for books and movies). There are lots of games that have important messages. The original Oddworld series is an example of one that had decent sales despite being heavy on political message. I’m playing Okami right now and it’s a wonderful subtle commentary about life and the universe. There have always been lots of fringe games that have deep lessons and commentary (I was really touched by “Balance of Power” and “Three Mile Island” as a child); there’s not a lack of game developers trying to make substantial games.

    With MS also moving towards an App-store like sanitized system on WinRT, we are seeing the end of freedom in computing, and we should all be doing much more to stop it.

    • I’m not justifying their policy. I think it’s the wrong policy, as I say in the very first sentence.

      However, that is obvious to say and a lot of people are saying it, so I am just trying to step beyond it and look at why they are able to have this kind of policy in the first place, when they would simply not be able to have the same policy about books or whatever. That is not an accident.

      I agree that Oddworld games and Okami have actual ideas in them, but the degree to which these ideas inhabit the work is just different. Abe’s Oddyssee is not that much about classism and exploitation or whatever (it has been a long time since I played it); it is mostly about jumping and pulling levers and stuff, with a veneer of these other subjects in the setting and graphical style. I’ll take that, sure, it is way better than nothing, but it’s not the same as (say) a serious issue-oriented novel, where most of the mental energy of the novel goes into the actual subject or things that feed directly into the subject.

      We as game designers have not figured out how to do better than this; maybe it’s just very difficult, maybe it’s not possible, but we don’t know because we are barely trying.

      Since I mostly think about game design, I choose to focus on that aspect of things. The software censorship part is bad, yes, but it’s also obvious and for some reason I feel that it will be resolved (maybe that is naive). Actually, it’s more accurate to say I believe that if designers make enough work that is so strong it can’t be ignored, then hey, Apple (or whoever) just won’t be able to continue their policies, because they will be obviously terrible.

      But, there is no real danger of us game designers doing such a thing any time soon.

      • “it’s not the same as (say) a serious issue-oriented novel, where most of the mental energy of the novel goes into the actual subject or things that feed directly into the subject. […] We as game designers have not figured out how to do better than this;”

        I would say there are games/things-that-could-be-apps where most of the energy of the game goes in to a serious issues-oriented subject. e.g. some of molleindustria’s work (Unmanned), Dys4ia, a bunch of recent twine stuff, etc.

        • That is true. But even these things are relatively small works; You could think of Unmanned as being about the size of a short story, rather than a novel. Or something.

          But yeah, having these things around is way better than not.

      • I can think of another game with a “veneer of graphical style” and a lot of “jumping around and pulling levers and stuff” that also might seem not to have a lot of depth at first.
        I don’t think I need to name the game I’m talking about, and my point is that any amount of social commentary is justification enough for the game to be truly artistic and purposeful. Games are allowed to be fun in addition to being meaningful.
        Obviously Braid is a much better game than Oddworld (it really has no comparison), but that does not mean that no other games have high merit.

        • Braid has jumping around and pulling levers, but I assert that it is not *about* jumping around and pulling levers, except insofar as it is necessary to have those things to do the time stuff (which is what the game is focused on, mechanically). Whereas with Abe’s it is pretty much pulling levers and avoiding guards.

          • I think “jumping around and pulling levers” was not meant to be taken literally, its equivalent in Braid would be the “time stuff”. Would you be willing to say that the game is not *about* the time stuff, either? While I don’t think that’s a singular focus of the game, saying that it’s a large enough part of it wouldn’t be all that inaccurate. The game’s “failure to communicate”, as you called it in Indie Game: The Movie, I think, would suggest that it’s a large part of what people perceive the game to be, at least.

  2. I’m curious how much you believe the problem comes from a lack of developers making more serious and meaningful work or is the immediate problem that developers are actively making garbage a lot of the time.

    If there were no games in existence, there would be no negative or positive view of them. However there is an actively negative view that is worse than if people were agnostic. It just seems like there may be a lot of work to do just to get to people to be receptive when more meaningful work emerges in the future. I hope as these kinds of games do come along, they aren’t swept under the rug or dismissed as just some stupid video game.

    • Hollywood makes crap all the time, and it constitutes most of their output, but people still take films pretty seriously, because there is such a thing as serious filmmakers (rare as they may be).

  3. I wonder if this difference is due to historical reasons mostly or if there is something fundamental about games that makes it harder. Maybe historically games became profitable too quickly and the direction they have gone has been overly influenced by money.

    I’m glad you and other developers are leading by example. I think over a long timeline, the potential things have becomes apparent to most people but we can control how long that timeline needs to be.

  4. I think some of the problem is that there actually IS some resolve (attempted) to be made toward games which address more serious things, but they’re usually not “left in the oven”, for long, i.e., an indie developer makes something in a weekend about something important but it’s not good/polished enough to really be considered as a serious work, even if the focus of the work is itself “serious”. In short: make better games.

  5. I think that John has a very good point that few to no games that exist in the larger public eye (you may believe there are exceptions, but they would be just that, exceptions) are really in their core interactions ABOUT relevant, compelling subjects. When we try as a community to counter argue people like Blow with games like Bioshock, do we acknowledge that the core system is still just a vapid shooter. These are not bad games, but we cannot kid ourselves and say that they have brought the medium closer to it’s potential.

    • I disagree, Bioshock indeed does show that a AAA game can pack A level punch. It shows that in the future some games might have the substance of Braid combined with the mainstream appeal, polish, and breadth of a game similar to Bioshock

  6. You’ve changed Jon! When I gave this lecture about why I boycott the app store, I cited you and your colleagues as an inspiration. You saw a problem with slamdance’s stance on one game, and you decided to respond with a boycott. You made a difference, too!

    I don’t think there’s much difference between apple and slamdance. I think you’re just showing your own (understandable) disgust about how slow things are moving forward. If you are disgusted, Apple’s curation seems very natural, a kind of punishment for the games industry.

    You’re right that video games haven’t done too much to deserve respect, but there’s something nasty going on here: the people who ARE trying to move things forward are being affected by the perception linked with the people who AREN’T moving things forward. This punishment is extremely unjust. I don’t think you can use it as an argument in favor of inaction.

    You and I are lucky, Jon: we are able to make games we want to make, and take them seriously, and not expect censorship because there’s nothing in our games (I’m presuming on your part?) that needs censoring. But the people who want to make anti-Bush games, games about sex, about child slaves mining minerals for use in iPhones – they’re not so lucky. We ought to speak out for their sake.

    • initially i agreed with jon’s post, but after thinking about this more i agree with this comment. i think it’s dangerous that developers who are not part of the problem, who actively trying to contribute some kind of positive and meaningful commentary to games, even if in a very small way, are being barred from the app store. there are only so many outlets that exist for game developers to reach a larger audience, and apple is one of the major ones. when you’re trying to wage a war against the dominant strain of games as disposable entertainment in any way that you can, any little bit of exposure or recognition helps – especially because current PR outlets for games are mostly built against selling them as anything but commercial products directed towards particular consumer groups. having the app store bar socially relevant content may mostly be the fault of the industry’s self-perpetuated image, but developers who played little to no part in the creation of that image end up paying the biggest price for it. and i don’t believe that’s fair.

    • I think there is quite a bit distinction between a festival and a store. Apple is doing what it thinks the customers want, which is to be protected from fringe videogames that push boundaries. They consider videogames to be more a toy than an artform (I know ‘art’ is a touchy word in this arena, but I hope I’m being clear with my meaning).

      My take on this is also that Apple are wrong, but I understand why it’s a culturally acceptable position. Slamdance are just the opposite. They’re not supposed to water everything down so nothing is offensive, that’s what corporations do.

      • Both of them are organizations that have to respond to demand and industrial action. We should not allow either of them to get away with watering things down, even if we expect they will.

  7. Unfortunately, it’s going to be very difficult for games to garner a reputation as serious works while titles are being rejected for being too serious. It’s a bit self-fulfilling.

    If there is any reason for a lack of serious or thought-provoking work in games, I would imagine it’s because games are a new medium that don’t have the benefit of a long history, and all media is moving towards frivolity (IMO) as it becomes more and more about broad appeal. Painting, books, music, and even film have the benefit of having existed before that, and having previously gained reputations as serious art forms. Thus, artists working in those mediums are able to get things made and published. Games have arisen amidst the noise of mass market media, and the developers trying to make important work are being largely ignored, both because there is a perception that their work doesn’t sell (which is often because it’s never marketed), and because industry people like the folks running the App Store are not willing to take them seriously. Which is disappointingly close-minded of them. I guarantee that games which are deep and successful will get made more frequently as soon as publishers and distributors start allowing them to be successful. There is this ridiculous idea that art can’t be both meaningful and entertaining, that it has to choose between the two, and so games get dismissed as entertainment, and people assume they have nothing to say.

    I blame the App Store. Frankly, the crap that shows up on their front page for games makes it obvious what they think of the medium. I’m using “they” a bit unfairly here, but it feels warranted, if they’re going to put ridiculous statements like that in their terms of service.

  8. Very interesting topic. I won’t say much since I’ll probably just babble on meaninglessly, but I’ll say that I’m hopeful that some day games will eventually become as appreciated, and generally important, as books, songs, films, and so on. It’s just that right now they’re too young, and they’ve only really become a regular media in the last 2 decades or so.

    I think if enough developers try, the general public will eventually see games as more than just ways to kill time. I bet that people were the same way about television when it appeared, yet nowadays it’s one of the most important and significant ways of communicating news and knowledge.

  9. You, rightly, argue that most games are not very interested in working with serious issues; they’re just in it to sell a lot of copies.

    However, isn’t that the case with all forms of popular media? There is a lot of crappy and superficial movies, books and music, and only a small number of works that address serious issues in the world. Isn’t the issue rather that Video games haven’t yet built up a significant backlog of “classics” that people remember as affecting them emotionally and getting them to think differently? Music, movies and books have all had at least a century to do this, while video games have bare been around for half of that, and then only in a very rudimentary form.

    • I agree with this assessment for the most part. There’s a lot of detritus in all forms of media, and from the app store onward, it’s generally being frontloaded because it’s presumably what most consumers want. What’s interesting to me about games, as a person with zero development and design knowledge, is the tether they have to ‘play’ and ‘achievement.’ The idea of winning, etc. In that documentary Indie Game, the Movie, there’s is a powerful scene where Jon is being interviewed about the success of Braid, with a cut to Soulja Boy playing this game and all the complicated themes that Jon hoped the user would touch on in that game were so blatantly missed. And yet there was enjoyment–the ‘play’ elements of Braid had achieved some type of success in the world of games. This is a complicated place to be, and I wonder how you move on from it. I’m not sure how many readers here have read Tom Bissell’s Why Videogames Matter, but it also offers a moving portrait of the emotional power of games. Except he’s doing it al the level of the AAA titles, and what I began to sense is that the ’emotional’ ability of games lays less with the designer than with the user. Some of us are more primed to resonate ’emotionally’ with objects, be they books, games or whatever; everyone else is going to move on to the next thing. As an aspiring writer, I’m fascinated by my own POV when I launch a game. My intent is almost always to ‘play,’ and I’m rarely primed to be moved unless I’ve been externally made aware of how it should work: ie some media outlet or interview explains why such and such a title is working in unique ways. The default mode of gamers is to game. Changing this predisposition broadly is going to be quite the task. Granted, we now have an environment where ‘indie’ games can be made my one or two people, small teams, and that ability I would imagine is only going to shrink as the tools needed became more accessible. Anyone can write a book. Pretty soon, anyone will be able to design a game, and maybe, just maybe, that pursuit will be one as noble as it is commercially viable.

      Anyhow, that aside, I have a question: as designers, how important is remuneration? Going back to Indie Game, the Movie, I was struck by how Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes were really defining the success of their enterprise by whether they made their pay day. Phil Fish wasn’t as occupied as this, but it was there. Writers, by contrast, especially those creating ‘literary’ work, are often aware of the financial odds of publication; that is, they most often write and publish for other reasons. Do so called indie designers function similarly?

    • Yes, that is exactly the problem. My point is that such a backlog of classics may be unlikely to happen given the current situation.

  10. Jonathan,

    You should make: “Jonathan Blow’s Game of Sex”

    I’m sure that would be a bestseller on any app store :D

  11. It’s complicated for games I think. Most media consist primarily of shallow and uninteresting work. The work that is really good and serious is never the most popular or successful either. But in games this problem is especially compounded by a number of factors. In my assessment those factors are:

    Games are hard to make. Harder, I think, that most other artforms (requiring as they do good art, writing, sound AND computer programming!).

    Games are young. Every media goes through growing pains. The novel grew out of the tradition of “romances” that could primarily be described as fantasies. You have to read into the subtext to find any serious meaning – much like you have to do now with (most) games. The same thing happened with film and rock and roll. I think on a certain level the medium just needs more time.

    Interactivity. This is a tricky one as interactivity is the heart of the medium but also presents a stumbling block for anyone trying to approach serious subjects. The interactivity afforded the player can be used (abused?) to trivialize absolutely anything. The only sure solution is to remove the interactivity (like in cutscenes obviously but also, just as meaninfully, like in some FPS games where the player’s gun is lowered when you point the reticule at important characters) which seems problematic. I think this can be resolved with enough effort but it’s a true conundrum.

    Lastly I think the term game itself is part of the challenge. Personally I like the term and would be sad to see it go, but I also feel that it confuses the issue when talking to people who are not initiated. “Games are serious people!” Isn’t that statement almost oxymoronic?

  12. Isn’t it because they are called “games” and games are something little kids do for fun? I know that’s not the case, but that is the perception.

  13. Amazing post Mr. Blow

    There’s no need to respect games because they basically never deal with something of importance. There are lots of dumb movies, too, but also lots of dramas and documentaries etc. People actually expect something when they read a book or watch a movie whereas games only need to have good graphics and gameplay to be considered “impressive”.

    Even when you have the rare case of a meaningful game, nobody will care about what it actually tries to say. It’ll just be used as something to point to when games are again (rightfully) ridiculed. It’s always about killing nazis / aliens, women with big breasts and other stuff stupid people enjoy.

    Of course I like video-games, but I like things on different levels.

    The only meaningful game series I know is Metal Gear Solid (I’m surprised nobody has brought it up yet). It’s a complex military-thriller that deals with nuclear weaponry, evolution, genetics, the digital age, environmental issues, patriotism and other deep and meaningful topics. It also features great amounts of dialogue and cutscenes. You spend way more time watching and listening than playing. It’s utterly amazing and by far the greatest work of fiction I have ever seen.

    A week ago I recorded a walkthrough for MGS1&2 and gave them to a friend, not because they are games, but despite of that.

    • You describe yourself why nobody has brought up Metal Gear Solid. You showed your friend IN SPITE of them being games. Virtually all the meaning of the games is conveyed through a completely non-interactive medium (Cutscenes). That’s not a meaningful game, that’s a meaningful film which is broken up into chunks, in between which you have to stealth around and shoot some guys. There is nothing about the gameplay that adds depth to the story of MGS. It could be a film and would be much better off for it. As it is, you either have a game broken up by film segments or a film broken up by game segments, depending on how you look at it.

      Quality of either of its separate elements aside, it’s very much a part of the problem of games not being taken seriously, because it doesn’t take gameplay itself seriously as a method of conveying meaning.

      • I beg to differ. There are indeed elements within the games structure that does depth and meaning. Mostly so in MGS2, in which the whole game was designed to deliberately frustrate the player and subtly cause them to look inwards upon themselves.
        Check this VERY good analysis of the subject:

  14. Your are right and i thank god that games like Ico, dear esther, a new beginning or the graveyard exist.

  15. Part of the problem is that we still don’t really know what we can do with games yet – there’s still so much about the craft of game design that we haven’t figured out yet (we got so damn distracted with the graphics card arms race that stuff like AI hasn’t advanced that far in a long long time).

    We’ve been trying to create meaningful experiences through the mechanics of OTHER creative domains – writing story like we would in a novel or comic, creating cinematic moments like we would in a film.

    Very few people are even thinking about how to work with JUST the core elements of system design and semi-conscious decision making – using visual/audio sensory data to support those elements of game design, instead of making it the whole focus of production.

    It seems like most of the industry works in reverse – focused on the sensory data (or on film/book techniques) and leaning on well known, established system mechanics to supply some basic level of interactivity – just enough to call it a game.

    We would need more designers to look past all the “clutter” of what we think a game is, get right down to the mechanics of systems (how things work, what effects them, etc).

    After that, I don’t even know what we do from there. Play I guess! Experiment with how things are put together, interacted with, how they react to player decisions, etc.

    There’s like, a whole freaking universe of systems around us to play with!

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m in the wrong industry :P

  16. I can’t understand the general assumption on this forum that the value of art lies on its social significance, Mr. Blow’s constant references to so called and unnamed “important issues.” Does the developers role fit into that of an artist, or someone running for office? I can’t think of a single artistic philosophy, or nonartistic philosophy for that matter, that claims this besides zeitgeistism. In fact many enlightened artists have stood in direct opposition to this, Joan Miro being the perfect example. I am curious why Mr. Blow puts so much emphasis on on approaching these important issues, I would hope Mr.Blow sees art as something more than simply a vehicle for political change. Perhaps he is a modern Bernard Shaw, combining the role of artist and social reformer, but I still find the assumptions and general direction of this discussion vary distressing.

  17. My mistake, I always saw censorship as a political issue. I must have taken you out of context, I just found the thought very interesting. When I think about it, most things we universally accepted as art have done as you said, addressed issues important to the societies they belong to. But this leads to a certain amount of didacticism (which isn’t always a bad thing), and from my perspective, if all art was that one way (or any other one way for that matter) the art world would be a much more boring place. We wouldn’t have had interesting movements like Dada for instance. I’m not saying this in disagreement, more like a counter point. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this. By the way, sorry for ornateness of my last post, I was a little nervous. I’m a little bit of a Luddite, and don’t post much…

  18. I agree with Jon. What do everyone expect? An easy, honest, intellectual game development environment?

    Here, this is the cruel, dirty history of games:

    In early 80’s, video games perfectly done their purposes. They mostly created to “entertain” people. Atari machines were magical things, much like an illusion show. Kids were freaked and wondered, while adults tried to figure out whats going on.

    At late 90’s financial investors found games are very profitable for many factors:
    1)increasing demand,
    2)applicability of advertisement deals (FIFA, NBA, NFS Porche Edition?),
    3)to make propaganda (patriotic NAM FPS games, oh everybody forget them?),
    4)addictivity for diffident people (Ultima Online and WoW… oh wait! what a coincidence, all teens are diffident),
    5)expanding franchise (how many starwars games still waiting us),
    6)less cencorship and more interactivity to gore and sex (Headshot!, Ultra Kill!, MONSTER KILL?!?).

    At 2001 “video games” became the most alluring sector who want to earn money. Publishers rised and conquered. They created their cash cow IP’s by spending and earning tons of million dollars. AAA squel titles battled each other to declare who are the survivors.

    Meanwhile, at 2008, internet became more avaliable, and a new game genre called “Casual” invented. Many non-gamers became consumers of this sector. Facebook dominated the social network wars by casual gaming and smartphones/tablets are changed direction from being “tools for business men” to “free? to play slot/arcade machines”. New publishers grown up and old publishers bought the new small ones. Nothing changed.

    Since 2011, crowd funding supported celebrity game designers but whole others left outside. It was so close to HIT something, but i guess it missed.

    At the opposite side of the coin, a few indie game developers (the ones which are capable to) try to filter all these decades of gaming to explore the true language of interactivity. In my opinion, this is the only honest thing done by games ever.

    Me, as a younger passionate indie game developer, i try to survive and learn both by the same time, so i guess i have a less chance to survive than Jon. But i try my best!
    Since 1.5 years, i spend my whole life-savings and i am in big debt to create an indie game. Maybe my game won’t even noticed or even can’t make it to Steam. I guess this is the cost of this exploration for everyone…

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