Apple revises App Store rules to permit game streaming apps, clarify in-app purchases and more

Apple today is releasing updated App Store Guidelines with the goal of clarifying how it will approach new technologies, like game streaming services, App Clips and widgets, in addition to better detailing its stance over how and when it will collect in-app purchases from certain categories of apps. The changes arrive at a time when Apple is battling in court with Epic over its requirements regarding the use of in-app purchases. The company is also seeing its App Store business scrutinized by regulators over monopolistic practices in the  U.S., E.U. and Australia, and elsewhere.

Some of the updates simply put to writing how Apple’s rules apply to technologies it’s introducing with its new mobile operating system, iOS 14, due out later this fall.

The revised guidelines (2.5.16) cover new iOS features, specifically App Clips (slimmed down versions of an app with limited functionality), widgets, extensions and notifications. The guidelines require that the content in all of those formats be related to the content and functionality of the main app — so it can’t just be random additional features. Also, they have to be included in the main binary (the main executable file) and cannot include advertising. 

One key change in the new guidelines (3.1.2 a) explains how Apple will approach game streaming apps, like Microsoft xCloud and Google Stadia. The rules now say Apple will allow these services to operate on its App Store, so long as each individual game title offered by the service is submitted individually to Apple’s App Review for vetting and has its own App Store listing.

Separately, the game streaming service will be able to offer a “catalog app” where customers are able to subscribe to the service itself. This catalog app will link out to the individual gaming titles its subscription offers, and this can now include games from multiple publishers. This is a similar model to the one that Apple already approved for the third-party app catalog, GameClub. Though not a streaming gaming service, GameClub is a subscription-based service for classic games where each game has its own separate listing.

Apple says the reason it wants to have individual game listings is so it can review them for meeting its content guidelines and terms, and for rating purposes. In addition, this model allows customers to rate and review each individual title, too.

In practice, this change means customers will need to subscribe to the game streaming service through in-app purchases within the service’s “catalog app” in order to play the associated gaming titles that are linked under that subscription. However, if the customer had already subscribed to the service on a different platform, Apple will allow the customer to log in without having to pay twice.

Apple’s rules also specify that the game services can’t disadvantage non-subscribers. In other words, a customer should be able to download any of the individual games in the game streaming service to their device and begin playing instantly, even if they haven’t subscribed. But Apple says this can be an introductory experience, not the full game. For example, a customer could play a level or two and then get pitched the upsell to buy the full subscription.

There are a number of updates to the App Store rules beyond game streaming, too.

One change applies to apps like Kindle and Netflix, which have been able to get around Apple’s App Store fees by offering a limited “reader” experience — in other words, users create an account and pay elsewhere, but they can log into the iOS app to read e-books or watch movies included in their subscription.

Under the new guidelines, these reader apps will also offer account creation within iOS, as long as it’s for the free tier of the product. They can also include “account management functionality.”

Apple also clarifies its rules around “enterprise apps,” meaning those where a developer sells to organizations or groups for employee or student use. These apps, which could include something like Slack, are allowed to use alternative purchase methods in addition to in-app purchases to collect payments.

In addition, Apple has also introduced a rule that seems tied to its recent dispute with Basecamp, developers of the Hey email app. It’s now allowing developers to offer free standalone apps (a separate category from reader apps) that offer services like VOIP calling, storage or email. These apps, which are basically app companions to web apps, don’t support in-app purchases and the resulting Apple fees — as long as there are no purchases in the app, and no calls to action for purchasing elsewhere. This allows apps, like Hey, to charge users elsewhere as long as it doesn’t call to action within the app.

It also addresses issues like the one that just cropped up with WordPress. Apple had temporarily blocked WordPress from updates as a web view directed users to a payment page within its app. Apple had apologized over this issue, but it also required WordPress to ensure that app users could not get to its pricing page.

Apps that offer person-to-person experiences, like tutoring or telehealth, can also use alternative methods of payment beyond in-app purchases. The clarification is that these can only be between two individuals. If it’s a one-to-many service, it must use in-app purchases instead.

One more change impacts all personal and loan apps, requiring them to clearly disclose all loan terms, including, but not limited to, equivalent maximum annual percentage rates and payment due dates. These apps may not charge a maximum APR higher than 36%, including costs or fees and fees, or require payment in full in 60 days or less. This, Apple says, is designed to protect consumers.

The updates now state that music and video subscriptions, with Apple’s approval, can be bundled into carriers’ data plans and offered in cellular carrier apps. The guidelines also introduce the new, previously announced policy that says Apple will not delay bug fixes even when an app has been rejected for violations.

Developers will receive a few more clarifications, too, around what not to do, like hiding features, or not being clear about an app’s functionality. One of the more interesting tweaks is that Apple says developers have to actually say what an app update includes, as it will reject generic descriptions in the Notes for Review section of App Store Connect. No more “bug fixes and performance improvements,” it seems.