Rules for game developers in China could see tens of thousands of games removed from the iOS App Store, according to a new report. 

Apple recently started requiring game developers to submit game licenses for titles in the App Store in China, where games have to be approved by a state authority. With the June 30 deadline only three months away, app intelligence firm AppInChina expects more than one third of paid games to be removed.

Citing government data, AppInChina said that China has issued a total of 43,104 game licenses. Even if all of these licenses were issued to mobile games, that would leave more than 21,500 App Store titles without a license, as data compiled by Qimai Data shows that there were 64,667 paid games on the App Store in China as of March 6.

Hit mobile games like Tencent’s Game for Peace already have licenses, but indie developers are likely to be affected. (Picture: Tencent)

While Chinese iOS users could lose access to thousands of games, the biggest titles like local versions of Tencent hits Arena of Valor and PUBG Mobile are already covered.

“Most of those high-grossing games already have a game license, so are unlikely to be affected by this change,” AppInChina CEO Rich Bishop told us.

Bishop said the gaming industry is top-heavy, meaning that a large share of the revenue is being generated by a relatively small number of blockbuster games. But he stressed that the license check could be a death sentence for certain medium- and small-scale mobile games, many of which generate revenue in China without a local partner.

Mobile games in China have technically required a license since 2016, which has been enforced by China’s various Android app stores since the law was passed. Apple seems to have been able to avoid strictly enforcing the rule until last month. At the end of February, Apple told developers of paid games or those using in-app purchases that they must submit their licenses by the end of June to remain in the Chinese App Store.

AppInChina expects the change to be a blow to revenue for both game developers and Apple, even though the most lucrative games will remain. Apple takes a 30% cut of all app sales and in-app purchases on iOS. And according to data by App Annie, gross revenue from the Chinese iOS App Store reached US$8.8 billion in 2019.

Apple declined to comment for this story.

Plague Inc. is from a small developer in the UK. The game about developing a virus that wipes out humanity became popular in China after the coronavirus outbreak. (Picture: Ndemic Creations/App Annie)

Apple’s new rules mean that indie games like the viral hit Plague Inc. won’t be able to sell directly to consumers in China if they can’t get a license. Plague Inc. recently saw a surge in popularity in China because of the coronavirus epidemic, briefly becoming the top paid app in China’s App Store. The game was later pulled from the App Store in China and then from Steam because it contained “content illegal in China.”

Even if small game developers are willing to share revenue with a local partner, though, it will still be difficult to secure a license by June, Bishop said. China has recently been limiting the number of game licenses it grants, going as far as freezing licenses for nine months in 2018.

“It takes four to eight months to get a game license, and [the government] issued a total of just 1,572 game licenses in 2019,” Bishop said. “This means that the vast majority of the 21,563 paid games or games with in-app purchases on the Apple App Store [in] China won’t be able to get a game license for several years, let alone by June 30th, 2020.”

Update: Story updated to better reflect that Apple is enforcing government rules in place since 2016.