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“Apple blocked my account and deleted all my other apps. Instantly $3,000 in daily revenue was gone”

Apple is 'famous' for the opaque nature of its App Store regulations. Here developer Viktor Seraleev shares his nightmare app launch story and why he intends to sue Apple
“Apple blocked my account and deleted all my other apps. Instantly $3,000 in daily revenue was gone”
  • Independent developer Viktor Seraleev found success making apps for the App Store and followed this with the creation of a mobile game
  • The game was immediately hit with a rejection, payments were suspended and money was frozen leading to weeks of appeals and his plan to sue Apple

When Apple's App Store came along, it truly changed the face of the mobile gaming landscape. And while times and sentiments change, many developers still regard it as the mobile platform to be seen on. However, as Apple has grown its market dominance and impenetrable policing have come under much scrutiny. 

In this guest post Sarafan Mobile Limited’s founder, Viktor Seraleev, tells all about his battle against Apple after his accounts were frozen, and his daily revenue - totalling some $3,000 - was frozen. It all began when he launched his first game on the App Store…

At the beginning of 2023, my friends told me about a mobile game they loved playing. It's a fun group game where everyone takes turns pulling out cards with questions or tasks, and there’s a punishment if someone refuses to answer.

They had been asking me to develop a version for six months but when I finally agreed and released the game last summer, Apple blocked my account and deleted all my other apps (non-game). Instantly $3,000 in daily revenue was gone.

My apps and the journey to $3k a day

The launch of that game was supposed to be my dream day, not the beginning of a nightmare.

The launch was supposed to be my dream day, not the beginning of a nightmare.

My app's removal was a harsh wake-up call. It's tough to realise how defenceless developers and small studios can be against corporations, especially when we don’t have the power or leverage that big players do.

So, I wanted to share why I think this ban happened, all about my games, and how I created profitable apps. Hopefully, some of this will be useful to you.

Let’s start with my first app development experience.

Four years ago, I left my business partners and started an app development startup. I had about $10,000 and decided to develop an app idea my wife suggested.

The idea was simple - upload two before-and-after images and the app would produce a short video with a slide effect. My wife, a nail tech, wanted to create content for social media to attract clients, and when I didn’t find anything like it in the App Store I had to try it.

A friend and I developed the first version in a couple of months, and the app started bringing in $100-200 a month. My friend thought the idea wasn’t working, so I decided to keep developing it alone. I redesigned it, found a talented freelancer, and we rebuilt the app almost from scratch in 1.5 months (costing $2,000 for the freelancer).

We also added new transitions, animation settings, effects, music, text, stickers, updated the store page, and localised it into all available languages.

This gave a boost to organic downloads. I also hired a marketing specialist for $400 a month, who launched our first ad campaign. We spent $200-300 on ads, and within a month, my credit card was maxed out because all the campaigns paid off. It was a textbook unexpected launch success.

We only used Apple Search Ads and didn’t even know who our target audience was, let alone consider any standard ad networks. While we were planning our roadmap and focusing on the beauty category, an influencer came to us with an idea for a dog grooming contest. That’s when I realised how niche markets capture their audience. People love their dogs and are willing to spend to show them off.

The competition brought in $2,000 net; we doubled our installs for three months in a row and then hit a stable 20-30% growth per month.

Six months after the redesign, the app was making about 200 times more than its original $100-200 - $34,000 a month, mostly on iOS. This app eventually got sold for $410,000 - don’t ask me how. I was inexperienced, and the app was worth more than twice that.

Next steps

My “dream app” was a serious video editor. I hired new developers and spent a year and a half on development. The release was a flop: no organic sales and the user acquisition cost didn’t drop below $10. Competing with free editors was impossible.

The app made nothing, and the money was running out. It became clear that my strength was in niche apps.

The app made nothing, and the money was running out. It became clear that my strength was in niche apps, so I returned to small, specific apps without unnecessary features.

I made an app called Boomerang, which is similar to Instagram’s feature. And yes, it worked. Then came an app for making Reels, one for collages, and so on. Everything went up again. They of these apps are monetised through premium versions without any built-in ads.

Everything was going great until August 20, 2023, when I posted my first game.

The game

Friends had been asking me to develop this game for six months. It also turned out that these kinds of apps could make some money.

The stars aligned, but not in the way one would expect.

Competitor analysis showed that this app could help us develop interface solutions using Swift UI. I had planned to switch to Swift UIKit for a while and thought this was the perfect opportunity. The stars aligned, but not in the way one would expect.

It was a card game for groups, written natively for iOS and not using Unity or any standard game engines. Having never made a game before, this was my reason for switching to a new tool.

In the game, you draw a virtual card with a question or task. For example, “Have you ever sung in the shower?” or “Have you ever run a marathon?” If you haven’t, you perform a pre-agreed task, like doing ten push-ups, drinking a shot, or kissing the person next to you. Points are counted, and then you pass the phone to the next player.

The key was to make the design appealing. I designed the interface in one night without using any references - the market simply didn’t have anything interesting to offer - and came up with some vivid, eye-catching visuals. We added animations, and it was all very cute because we wanted to work out the implementation of interfaces in Swift, and it worked out well.

We still needed to design the cards so the illustrations matched the questions. And that’s where AI came in handy.

I asked ChatGPT to help create prompts for Stable Diffusion based on the card topics and used Stable Diffusion to generate the final images.

The entire development took exactly two weeks, working in hackathon mode. For regular apps, we already had a developed workflow, but this was my first time working with content.

The cards had categories like romantic, sports, 18+, and so on. The topics had to be varied and fun for an IRL group and developing this was very different from my usual work.

With photo and video editors, there’s a clear strategy - I guide the user step by step to get a good video. But here, there could be different numbers of users, different content for different groups, and different scenarios. Working on content was the most challenging and unusual part for me.

The game's release… 

Finally the game was ready, and I decided to publish it on my old account, which I still had after selling my first app for $410,000. I continued to pay $99 a year for that account because it meant a lot to me; it’s where it all started. And yes, having multiple accounts isn’t prohibited. Many people do it.

Why didn’t I post it with my other apps on my main account? To avoid confusing users.

On September 20, my apps got over $3,000 in revenue in one day for the first time, and on September 21, all accounts were banned.

All my six apps are related to video and photo editing. Users come to make a collage, like the app and explore my account to see what other related apps might be useful. This strategy really boosted sales of my other products; about 3% of users bought 2-3 apps from me because they were of good quality and covered their content creation needs. So, the game didn’t fit this strategy.

And losing everything

So I published the game and it immediately got hit with a rejection upon upload, along with an automated message demanding I fix violations (without specifying which ones). I thought it was a bug, sent appeals, and continued working on new versions.

On September 20, my apps got over $3,000 in revenue in one day for the first time, and on September 21, all my accounts were banned.

The saddest part is that I didn’t even have time to break any rules. We got a notification about a supposed violation of auto-renewable subscriptions, though the game didn’t even make it to the App Store, not even for a minute.

Eight weeks of silence and another rejection - imagine what this means for an independent developer.

Payments were suspended, and $110,000 was frozen in my account. The first appeal was rejected without details. I immediately submitted a second appeal.

Eight weeks of silence were followed by another rejection. Imagine what this means for an independent developer. I sent all my documents, screenshots, and everything about myself, the company, development, and my apps, but Apple remained silent.

I created a petition and shared my story in a tweet, and it went viral, ranking number one on Hacker News. Even Tim Sweeney himself tweeted and expressed his public support.

Only then did Apple send an explanation.

The reason

They said my account was frozen “for association with a previously closed fraudulent account.” Of course, I had no connection with any fraudulent accounts.

The initial thought was that they mistook my old account for a “fraudulent” account, which was where my first app was published and where I wanted to release my game.

But then we found new information. My lawyer and I discovered a third company with an identical name, founded by my former partners. Apparently, Apple linked me to this company, which I didn’t even know existed.

But we can’t be sure because there’s no feedback from Apple. Any letters with arguments and documents are ignored. Now I’m awaiting a trial, hoping for some response.

I hope this experience helps someone at least think about diversification in advance.

Fighting back

As a result, currently, my apps are on Google Play only, and the income doesn’t allow me to support my team. I literally lost everything due to the bureaucracy of a large corporation that ignores the individual developers who built the community, supported the ecosystem, and created the apps that attracted many users to iOS in the first place. It’s sad, but true.

I hope this experience helps someone at least think about diversification in advance. My advice to you is that if you do end up in a situation like this, don’t waste time thinking that the mistake will fix itself. You don't have to fight alone against a huge corporation, automated responses, and an army of lawyers. And there are ways to bring attention and get a resolution.

In part two I'll explain what I did and what happened next…

We've reached out to Apple for comment.

                                                                           Edited by Paige Cook