IPhone users can no longer download a popular epidemic-themed smartphone game in China as the country is fighting the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus.
In a statement, Ndemic Creations, the U.K.-based makers of Plague Inc., said they had been informed that the game "includes content that is illegal in China as determined by the Cyberspace Administration of China." CNBC has confirmed that it is not available for download on the Chinese App Store.
The removal is certain to reignite a debate over whether Apple should remove apps from its App Store on the request of governments around the world. The App Store is the only way for most users to install software on iPhones, and it has become a magnet for criticism that Apple enables countries to remove apps they don't like, effectively censoring free expression.
Plague's creators said in statements that it was the most popular paid game in China for many years and that it was not designed to sensationalize disease outbreaks.
"Plague Inc. stands out as an intelligent and sophisticated simulation that encourages players to think and learn more about serious public health issues," the company said in a statement. "We have a huge amount of respect for our Chinese players and are devastated that they are no longer able to access and play Plague Inc."
Plague is one of the most popular iPhone games, and has been consistently in the top of Apple's App Store charts since it launched in 2012. It's a simulation in which users play as an infectious disease whose goal is to wipe out the world's population.
On Thursday, it was the top paid game in the United States. It has also risen in China, according to estimates from app analytics firm Sensor Tower. It had been downloaded 2.2 million times in China, with about 9% of those downloads since the start of January. It was the No. 3 paid app in China before removal, Sensor Tower said. It was the best-selling app in China at one point in January, according to the BBC.
China is sensitive about apps. Out of a total of 217 apps removed from certain countries or regions in the first half of 2019 due to government requests related to legal violations, 194 were removed from the China mainland App Store, according to a count published by Apple. 94 more apps were removed in China on the government's request for "platform violations," or content that violates Apple's own policies, the majority of which were related to illegal gambling.
During the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last fall, a Hong Kong mapping app was removed from the App Store after Chinese state media criticized the app. The takedown became international news and led to an Apple shareholder proposal critical of the company's app removals, which was rejected at Wednesday's shareholder meeting but garnered support from 40.6% of votes cast by shareholders.
Apple declined to comment. CNBC was unable to reach Ndemic Creations for additional information.
Games are particularly closely regulated in China. In Plague's case, the removal comes shortly after Apple set a deadline for app developers to comply with a 2016 regulation about paid mobile games in the country.
The regulation requires game makers who want to charge for in-app purchases to get a license or approval number from the General Administration of Press and Publication of China. That approval number has to be provided to Apple by June 30, CNBC reported, citing a message to developers.
China is the world's largest mobile games market. The government has signaled for years that it is trying to gain stronger control over concerns such as eye problems, playing time and "loot boxes," or in-app purchases with an element of randomness. In China, video games need to be approved by regulators in order to be released and monetized. In 2018, the Chinese government froze game approvals, and they slowly started to ramp up through 2019, which Apple CEO Tim Cook mentioned on a conference call with analysts in October.
Ndemic Creations' other game, Rebel Inc, is still available in China.