The App Store Game Subscription Plan That Wasn’t

Yesterday, Bloomberg published a story stating that Apple had made a major (and, frankly, somewhat surprising) change to its App Store policies: it was going to begin allowing game publishers to sell bundles of games as monthly subscriptions, as opposed to a la carte. Historically all games on the App Store have been sold as one-off purchases (or for free), and they can generate further revenue by offering in-app goods and services.

But last week, game developer Big Fish Games introduced an app with a different model. Gamers would purchase the app, and, for $6.99 a month, they’d have access to “dozens” of games within that application (in other words, each game would not require a separate download).

Such a model could potentially be a big deal for other gaming companies like Zynga, which could establish ‘hub’ apps rather than having to launch a new app for each game.

As it turns out, that doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon.

Apple didn’t comment for yesterday’s Bloomberg report, but the article treated the fact that Big Fish’s app was accepted as indicative of a broader policy change — especially because the two companies had apparently been in negotiations over the launch. According to the original article, Big Fish founder Paul Thelen said, “It took longer than usual to be approved… They needed to be convinced there’s a reason to charge customers every month.” And it wouldn’t have been the first time for Apple to enact an App Store policy change without officially announcing it.

Still, the fact that Big Fish was the only app to launch with the feature was a bit strange — you’d think Apple would have wanted other partners onboard as well. So what was going on?

Today, we have our answer: Bloomberg has written a followup story stating that Apple has removed the subscription plan option. Or, more specifically, Big Fish Games’s app has been removed from the App Store, and Apple isn’t commenting. Big Fish is predictably (and understandably) upset:

“We were notified that the app was removed,” said Paul Thelen, founder of Big Fish, a game publisher in Seattle. The app had been available since Nov. 18, he said. “We’re trying to follow up with Apple to try to figure out what happened.”

Thelen said he was surprised by the move because Big Fish had worked with Apple for several weeks to ensure that it met the requirements for recurring monthly charges made through the App Store, a method most commonly used by magazines and newspaper publishers.

“It was officially approved,” Thelen said. Apple had even seen the app’s press release before it went out earlier today, he said.

So what happened? My hunch (and I’m not alone) is that one or more of the reviewers at Apple mistakenly accepted the application, and that there was no intentional policy change. Applications that were in violation of Apple’s terms have slipped through the cracks before. And while Big Fish did obviously interact with someone at Apple during the process, the reviewer may not have realized that accepting the app would have broader repercussions.