Comment & Opinion

Mavens debate eternal support versus abandonware for App Store games

50 shades of grey

Mavens debate eternal support versus abandonware for App Store games

A couple of weeks ago, there was a a disturbance in the force, with the news that Apple had changed its App Store policy in terms of the availability of legacy games.

As confirmed at the time by an Apple UK spokesperson, the platform had separated the live App Store (available to all) from an individual's purchase history (available to the individual).

Hence, an app or game purchased or downloaded by a user, once removed by the developer from the App Store, would no longer be available for that user if they had deleted the app due to space considerations or because they were upgrading their device.

Cue much online debate...

What happened next?

Except it seems that the Apple spokesperson was as confused as the rest of us.

As it transpired, nothing had changed.

The fluid situation made that week's Mavens discussion feel rather confused as well. Hence our decision to hold it back.

So given that cavet, the question was:

  • Is this just a logical outworking of how digital media is evolving or something that raises serious issues in terms of consumer rights?
  • Will Apple have to rethink its policy?


William D. Volk Chief Futurist Forward Reality

One thought. Apple would have to maintain the data for games that were removed from the App Store, if they wanted to allow users to re-access it from Purchase History AFTER users deleted it.

Doesn't seem worth it for them to do that.

Lesson: Don't delete an app you want to keep.

Better question: what happens to apps you DIDN'T delete, but were removed from the App Store, if you get a new device?

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

Like most things, this is probably a much more complex situation than it looks at first glance.

The most common scenario that people are talking about is one where a publisher removes a legitimate app because of compatibility issues with newer hardware and users that have older compatible hardware are left out in the cold if they accidently delete their app.

Of course this stinks, but there are other considerations to this decision.

The App Store - written in stone or a dynamic retail environment?

What if the deleted app has some kind of copyright issue? Let’s say someone cloned your app. Do you want users to be able to continue playing that game instead of buying your original?

What if the app has malware, like the recently released games that were build using the infected XcodeGhost IDE?

My guess is that these recent changes were made because of the XcodeGhost issue and that they needed to get a fix out quickly, which prohibited them from finding a solution that gives them the ability to decide whether to purge an app that has been removed from the store vs just disable it for new hardware/os until a fix is submitted vs remove it from the App Store for everyone but keep it available in the purchase history.

Whether or not they decide to implement this complexity is another matter but Apple typically likes to keep things simple.

Tony Gowland CEO Ant Workshop

Tony’s career has covered the whole spectrum from AAA console to handheld, mobile and flash titles, working on huge franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, and Call of Duty.

In 2015 he founded Ant Workshop to develop his own titles and to offer his experience as a design consultant.

Well, if you're doing cloud syncing to clone your old phone on to your new one you'd be screwed - because the backup just stores the apps you had, and re-downloads them.

Who is responsible for maintaining backwards compatibility of software?
Tony Gowland

If you'd backed up to iTunes you'd be ok (assuming you'd downloaded those games on to your computer).

I think there's an interesting question in who is responsible for maintaining backwards compatibility of software?

I couldn't see a PlayStation system update rendering a game from earlier in the cycle completely unplayable, for example (though no doubt someone's going to give an example now! ;)

Should Apple be making sure their new iOS versions don't screw things up? With a library the size of the App Store that seems utterly unworkable.

But from what I remember in UK law, your purchase contract is with the store, not the manufacturer, and it's up to them to make good.

I suspect Apple and the devs in question are weighing up the benefits of not having to support legacy games vs. the potential customer backlash and figuring that not enough people will care to make it an issue.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

I just took 5 minutes to find an alternate explanation to why this policy exists.

The fact of the matter is that there are issues that they consider that we aren't privy to that would put this in a whole new light. I doubt Apple would go out of the way to make a decision that is bad for the user unless there was a larger issue at play, like legality or security.

As far as backward compatibility goes. iOS and PlayStation are two totally different platforms. One gets highly iterated every year, the other basically stays the same for 10 years with the exception of minor improvements.

I would actually say that Apple does a pretty good job when it comes to backward compatibility. It's very rare that I have to update my projects when a new version of Xcode comes out.
Dave Castelnuovo

If iOS was developed like PS, it would be dead in the water.

From the development side, you need regard for keeping development complexity in check because things get much harder if you try to iterate and focus on big change while at the same time maintain compatibility with 1.5 million apps that have been developed over the last 7 years.

Compared with 259 games on the PS3, Sony has the easiest job in the world. This is one of the reasons why iOS is so competitive in the market.

I would actually say that Apple does a pretty good job when it comes to backward compatibility. It's very rare that I have to update my projects when a new version of Xcode comes out.

Compare that with Unity where even minor revisions require recoding and break a ton of libraries. In fact, I don't know of many SDKs that don't horribly break things when new versions are released.

The iOS 9 beta was around for a while before it was released. Any publisher could have tested their games and made sure they were compatible but most didn't.

I would say it's the publisher's responsibility to either make sure their games are compatible with future hardware and OS revisions or decide to take the heat for not updating, which is a valid decision.

Most games built by publishers are developed by third party teams. Teams which are paid for the initial release but are not usually on the hook for an infinite number of compatibility updates.

The publisher is left with some difficult decisions, should they pay someone to update it considering sales are waning? Should they pull the team off another important project to make the update? Is the team even available and if not, do they want to pay even more money to have another team get up to speed and make the required changes?

So while "We want our games!" consider there are bigger forces at work that you just not getting what you want.

John Ozimek Co-founder Big Games Machine

John is co-founder of PR and marketing company Big Ideas Machine. Also an all-round nice guy...

Thinking about this from a consumer perspective, my first question would be how many apps are we talking about?

It would seem common sense that an app that continues to get use would be worth the effort to update, so it would seem to me that apps that are removed from the store as they are not compatible with new devices are the same apps that have not found enough of an audience to be viable.

If I delete an app it's because I don't want it anymore.
John Ozimek

I'm also not convinced that more than a minority of consumers have the expectation that an app they download will still be available to them for evermore with no additional cost - particularly since so many apps became freemium.

From personal experience, if I delete an app it's because I don't want it anymore. I have no expectation that in 2 years time I can somehow get it back for free (along with any updates and new content that has happened in the meantime).

Once again, this is linked to the somewhat unreal expectation of what you are entitled to for 99p.

Obviously, the waters are more muddled when it comes to a high value premium app, or a freemium game where you've invested a lot of IAP.

But at the end of the day, if supporting an old app isn't viable for the developer, that's natural selection at work.

Marcelo Careaga Head of Production Miniclip

Even if it seems that the policy is not as clear as previously thought, I'd like to comment something about this hypothetical change. Even if it makes sense from the cost point of view on Apple's side, this is a very bad precedent for the platform as a whole.

First, it validates the idea that updates on the OS can always break backwards compatibility and that there's nothing the user can do, short of jailbreaking and downgrading... and having the apps safe on a backup.

Second, it pushes into people's minds the idea that their purchases of premium apps are not permanent anymore.

When you buy IAP, do you think that's a permanent purchase?

It was difficult already for people to understand the idea that F2P games or multiplayer ones can disappear when they aren't financially viable to the company.

This can have an impact on how consumers perceive premium apps and hurt indie devs that are the ones that will be seen as more "risky". Partially this is because, even if it's an Apple policy, the onus will be on the developers.

Third, and this may seem like a non-issue for many, but I feel strongly about it: Something like this basically establishes games on iOS as disposable, transient things.

It would make archiving nearly impossible, it would make keeping a historical record of our art form very, very difficult.

Jani Kahrama Founder Secret Exit

For me, the games I purchase on the App Store are a _collection_ much like my Steam Library.

They are purchases that I look to return to for fun, nostalgia and reference. I wouldn't stand for Apple suddenly removing music from my iTunes library, so why should apps be any different?

"You've listened to this album for two years already so it's fine we take it away now" doesn't make any sense.

This debacle has not been about random no-name releases rotting their way to bit heaven after a decade, this is about premium showcase titles being pulled roughly a year after their release. (And some a couple of years...)

BioShock is one high profile game to be removed from the App Store

If I ever had hopes of viewing iOS as a platform for conveniently playing games like BioShock, Ghost Trick, Dead Space, Mass Effect etc. on my tablet, that trust is no longer there.

I am concerned about the levity with which Apple treats backward compatibility.
Jani Kahrama

Why on earth should I invest any money on an iOS release that may no longer be available to me in a matter of weeks, depending on when the next iOS update is coming?

As a developer, I am concerned about the levity with which Apple treats backward compatibility on iOS. If a game no longer generates revenue, it's unlikely to be updated.

On Windows this usually means the game will continue working as it always has, on iOS, this means the game is a time bomb waiting to die because of whatever Apple decides to change under the hood.

It's probably true that many games break because developers don't stick to Apple's implementation guidelines.

However, I'd still point the finger at Apple to improve the situation by checking that these guidelines are followed in App Store submissions. If it means longer approval times, so be it, it'll still be worth it in the long run for developers, Apple, and most of all, customers. It's about trust.

John Ozimek Co-founder Big Games Machine

John is co-founder of PR and marketing company Big Ideas Machine. Also an all-round nice guy...

Whilst I don't disagree with what you say, when I buy an app, nowhere is there an agreement that that app gets free support for life.

If I purchase a console game, it is understood that that game will be playable on that console - but not preceding or subsequent ones.

It's perfectly reasonable for an iOS 8 game to still function on iOS9. But are you saying that a game created for the first iPhone - so it would almost certainly have been a premium app costing 99p or £1.99 - still be supported now, regardless of technical or financial considerations?

I don't believe that there is a real expectation from consumers of this to be the case, and if there is a financial incentive to continue to support an app, then I believe that the developer will do it anyway. The store needs fewer apps anyway, so there needs to be a mechanism to let old ones die out - this sounds like a good way to do so.

As for archiving games - this has always been a problem, and that's what emulators are for :-)

Marcelo Careaga Head of Production Miniclip

With all due respect, I think the absence of an specific agreement is not a valid reason to dismiss what I'd say are basic consumer rights. Said in another way, not because it's legal to do it we can expect players to accept it without backlash.

I get what you mean about consoles. And yes, there's a certain risk of obsolescence with the platform, but we are talking about vastly different timeframes here.

We are basically condemning mobile games to be ephemeral.
Marcelo Careaga

Console life cycles are measured in years (or decades), while mobile life cycles are measured in months.

In this particular debate, we are not talking about apps for the first iPhone being retired, we are talking about apps that came out to the market a mere year ago. If that's the timeframe we are admitting, we are basically condemning mobile games to be ephemeral, which can act against us in the long term.

Moreover, in the consoles it's always a hardware change what prompts the game obsolescence. In mobile what we are seeing is a software change creating the same effect, on the same hardware.

I worry that this would be sending the wrong message to consumers, and that it can affect especially the most vulnerable developers.

Last, but not least, just wanted to point out that emulation is not synonymous with archiving :-P

Jani Kahrama Founder Secret Exit

Expecting a game to work is different from expecting it to be supported by the developer. The former is mostly the responsibility of the platform holder, and this is something Microsoft has taken seriously on Windows.

I personally gave up on consoles and took my gaming to Steam after a PS3 game library worth thousands of euros of turned obsolete with the PS4.

This wasn't because of disappointment or outrage for lack of PS3 compatibility in PS4, but simply looking at a shelf full of games that served no purpose after the device under the TV had been replaced with a new one, and asking what's the point?

It made no sense to rebuild a library of games for every generation of OS or hardware.

Steam takes a more permanent approach to digital content

iOS seemed to show an interest in backward compatibility when iPad came out and ran iPhone games in scaled modes. That built confidence in iOS as a platform where game investments are "protected", and felt like a place where gems like old adventure games could be bought that one final time and played on the go.

Given the latest developments, this is apparently not the case, and it's bad news for the already struggling premium games.

Let's not forget that updating old apps is made more costly by Apple's growing list of rules and requirements.

Even if an issue in an old game might be quickly fixed by the developer, you can't just submit and be done with it. New requirements like mandatory 64-bit support is not necessarily a trivial flip of the switch for older source code.

Patrick Liu Senior Product Owner, Spotify

I might have missed something here, but I'm thinking of a different analogy.

Assuming as long as you still have the game on your device the game can be accessed and played freely. If you delete it, or throw your phone away (with the game on it), you can't get the game again from App Store.

Say that you have an old game disc in your console, but then for some reason you lose the disc, or you lose the console with the disc in it. Then it's not a common expectation that the store where you bought it will have it in store indefinitely for you to buy again, or get back for free even.

I know it's not completely fair comparison, but with that angle I think it's reasonable for old apps to stop being available. It's not that they actively delete the existing app from your phone.

Jani Kahrama Founder Secret Exit

That's not a valid comparison for all cases because:

  1. you do need to swap games in and out depending on the storage capacity of your device
  2. restoring a game to your device from an iTunes backup will not make it work again if the game uses IAP for premium unlocking and the game has been removed from the purchase history (for example, Ghost Trick)

Jas Purewal Lawyer & Partner Purewal & Partners

From a legal perspective, this is fairly straightforward (at least currently).

It's well established industry practice that digital games are licensed not sold and thus far the law has pretty much gone along with that. Platforms retain the right to terminate a license for various reasons including illegal or IP infringing content or if it breaches platform rules or even just *because*.

There is no clear legal principle yet definitively established which says that when a game is taken down or becomes outdated etc, existing purchasers must be able to re-download it in the future.

Digital games are licensed not sold and thus far the law has pretty much gone along with that.
Jas Purewal

There has been some general online talk about consumer rights being hurt by these kinds of policies, but unfortunately there are no clear consumer laws to point to.

Neither the US nor the EU strongly support specific digital consumer rights in this area, even after the EU just updated its consumer rights system last year. No country has yet enacted software archiving rights for consumers, either.

Now whether that is a *good* legal position, or whether it will remain the case in the future, are different questions.

Some platforms argue hard to retain the redownload ability for purchasers unless there are serious legal issues.

Consumers are becoming more aware of the importance of these issues. Software archiving and abandonware type matters, traditionally a niche discussion point, are rising up government agendas (slowly). Maybe we'll see change – just not yet.

Oscar Clark Chief Strategy Officer Fundamentally Games

Oscar Clark has been a pioneer in online, mobile, and console social games services since 1998. He is also author of the book, Games As A Service – How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games.

I'm sure Jas is right about the legal position, but I know that it's not a comfortable thing. I don't know where Bruce Willis has managed to get regards his ability to bequeath his iTunes collection to his kids after his death. Not far I suspect.

It doesn't make me feel good about the experience.
Oscar Clark

However, I wonder if this is less about the consumer aspects and more about the practical management and enforcement process. Holding onto legacy content which has been removed is problematic for numerous reasons as have been said already.

However, I have to be honest, it doesn't make me feel good about the experience. Especially were it to be a game I'd invested lots of money. I would expect a refund in some cases.

This isn't a new problem as usual. It's something we debated forwards and back during the PlayStation Home era. The team, esp. Japan, were determined never to remove content, or even edit it once it was purchased and that significantly hurt our ability to update the platform.

In the end that kind of backend issue might be affecting Apple. I don't know that's the case, but if the price of a sustainable ecosystem was the demise of some apps occasionally (with suitable notice), well I suspect we would all accept that was inevitable.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.