By Pei Li and Brenda Goh
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The video game “Plague Inc”, which has surged in popularity amid the coronavirus epidemic, has been removed from Apple’s China app store after regulators said it contained illegal content, its developer said.
The strategy game, where players create a pathogen to destroy the world, soared to the top of the China app store charts in January as consumers turned to virus-related games and films as a coping mechanism. It has also jumped in app rankings for other countries.
“This situation is completely out of our control,” UK-based developer and publisher Ndemic Creations said in a statement, adding its immediate priority was to make contact with the Cyberspace Administration of China to understand its concerns and work towards a resolution.
The regulator did not respond to Reuters phone calls and faxes requesting comment on the matter. Apple Inc and Ndemic did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.
China has stringent rules on content from video games to movies to music and censors anything it believes violates core socialist values. Gaming companies must also seek licenses for the games they want to publish.
Although there was a brief window when public criticism of authorities’ handling of the outbreak was allowed, censors have tightened their grip in recent weeks. WeChat groups and podcasts have been shut down while social media posts and articles have been deleted.
“The game may have simply been taken down due to sensitivities around the topic and gameplay of the title given the recent COVID-19 outbreak,” said Daniel Ahmad, an analyst with gaming research firm Niko Partners.
He added that it might be related to a new feature in the game which allows players to create “fake news” stories about the virus, noting other epidemic-related games albeit ones with some educational content were still available in China.
He said he didn’t think the game’s removal was related to an update Apple made this week that requires developers of revenue-generating mobile games on its Chinese site to obtain a license from the Chinese government as other unlicensed games had not been affected. Apple, which has lagged other app stores in enforcing this rule, has set a June deadline.
The game has been installed by about 2.2 million Apple iOS users in China since its introduction in 2012 of which 9% have occurred since January, according to gaming data tracking firm Sensor Tower.
(Reporting by Brenda Goh and Pei Li; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Edwina Gibbs)