Apple removes Plague Inc. from Chinese app store for ‘illegal’ content

Apple has removed the virus-spreading simulator Plague Inc. from its Chinese App Store at the request of that country’s government. Developer Ndemic Creations notified players of the issue in a blog post today. In that statement, the studio confirms that one of China’s many media ministries made the call.

“We have some very sad news to share with our China-based players,” reads Ndemic’s statement. “We’ve just been informed that Plague Inc. ‘includes content that is illegal in China as determined by the Cyberspace Administration of China’ and has been removed from the China App Store. This situation is completely out of our control.”

Plague Inc. originally debuted for iOS in May 2012. It has players designing viruses with the goal of infecting every person in the world. Over the years, it has found a massive audience of more than 130 million players across PC and mobile.

Ndemic has also seen the game’s popularity spike alongside recent fears of the coronavirus that spreads COVID-19.

“The game originally released about eight years ago and was No. 1 on the iOS App Store in 2014,” Niko Partners analyst Daniel Ahmad wrote on Twitter. “Since COVID-19 [the coronavirus], the game has been topping the iOS game charts in China and around the world.”

But Ndemic has no idea if coronavirus fears are the motivation for China’s Cyberspace Administration.

“It’s not clear to us if this removal is linked to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that China is facing,” reads the Ndemic statement. “However, Plague Inc.’s educational importance has been repeatedly recognized by organizations like the CDC, and we are currently working with major global health organizations to determine how we can best support their efforts to contain and control COVID-19.”

Plague Inc. is still available as normal outside of mainland China.

Plague Inc. is at the whim of China’s oppressive media regulations

The Chinese government exercises full control over how companies sell media. Regulators do not permit games to generate revenue until they get a license. And ministries only approve games in small batches and primarily from domestic publishers like Tencent.

Plague Inc., however, pre-dates many of those regulations. It launched in China before the most recent license system went into effect in late 2018 and early 2019. But the government has mostly grandfathered in games that debuted before its approval program. Plague Inc., for some reason, is different.

“Plague Inc. seems to be the only ‘virus/plague’ related game that been taken down so far,” Ahmad wrote on Twitter. “All other games in this genre are still up, including games developed by Chinese companies and supported by the Chinese government.”

So why did China remove it? It’s a possible overreaction to coronavirus fears. Or maybe the government doesn’t like that the virus in Plague Inc. always starts in China. The game also recently added a “fake news” mode that enables players to create and spread misinformation like a virus.

But whatever the reason, Plague Inc. is still available in China on the Steam PC-gaming store. That makes the ban even more confusing.

Ndemic, meanwhile, says that it is trying to get the game back on iOS in China.

“We are working very hard to try and find a way to get the game back in the hands of Chinese players,” said Ndemic. “We don’t want to give up on you. However, as a tiny independent games studio in the U.K., the odds are stacked against us. Our immediate priority is to try and make contact with the Cyberspace Administration of China to understand their concerns and work with them to find a resolution.”

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