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Q&A: Inside Papers, Please's journey through the Apple approval process

After releasing Papers, Please on iOS, we talk with Lucas Pope about the process of porting, and Apple's issue with the game's nudity.

December 16, 2014

5 Min Read

This week Papers, Please came to iOS amid a flurry of news stories regarding Apple's issues with the game's depiction of full body scanners, which presented the player with nude images of the people going through a border checkpoint. Initially, Apple suggested Lucas Pope, Papers, Please's developer, remove the nudity entirely, but it later rescinded, and now the game has the option, just switched off by default. The subject touched a particular nerve in regards to Apple's handling of apps in the app store, and their handling of anything politically charged in particular. Papers, Please, with its depiction of the fictional state of Arstotzka as a non-too-subtle stand in for any number of Eastern European communist states, seemed set to brush up against Apple's reluctance to put anything political in the app store. I talked with Lucas Pope about the approval process, as well as Apple's treatment of nudity in Papers, Please. When making the initial decision to port Papers, Please to iOS, did you have any concerns, both regarding the technology of a touch interface as well as the audience on those platforms, about how successful Papers, Please would be? My first concern was how the interface would translate. For the original desktop version I made a lot of design decisions that relied on precise mouse input. And even though it's a low-resolution game, it needs a lot of physical real estate. So getting the whole thing translated to a readable, touch-friendly version that didn't make too many sacrifices was my main worry. My backup worry was that Apple would reject the game as being too political. Papers, Please doesn't address any specific real-world groups or injustices so it's not clearly violating any App Store guidelines. But App Store guidelines are pretty nebulous sometimes and I could definitely envision Apple deciding the game was too political for their store. I didn't think about the audience too much. Enough people requested a tablet version that I figured it was worthwhile. In regards to worrying about Apple's reaction, did you ever consider that it would be the nudity of the scanners that would be the problem? Actually, no. When you submit an app to the App Store, you have to choose a rating. It's not just a drop-down box with "4+, 12+, 17+, etc". Instead it's a matrix of radio buttons where you answer questions about the app's content and frequency. "Realistic Violence: None, Infrequent/Mild, Frequent/Intense", like that. I chose "Sexual Content or Nudity: Infrequent/Mild", "Graphic Sexual Content and Nudity: None", and reasonable answers for the rest. The nudity boxes actually put the app at 12+; it was the "Mature/Suggestive Themes: Frequent/Intense" that pushed it to 17+. At any rate I thought ok, all set. It didn't occur to me at all that the nudity would somehow qualify as explicit pornographic material and get it rejected outright. I know that the PC version has the option to turn off the nudity, but by default it's on, which leads to one of the more overtly uncomfortable aspects of the job of border agent. Now that it's off by default on the app store version, do you think any aspect of Papers, Please has been compromised?

"It didn't occur to me at all that the nudity would somehow qualify as explicit pornographic material and get it rejected outright."

Not significantly, no. Mobile games seem to have less leeway for adult content, even at 17+. Setting the default to off is my way of adjusting to that. Adding the option in the first place was a practical move to enable more people to enjoy the game than otherwise. I have friends and family that simply wouldn't play if they had to look at crudely-drawn nude photos. I think there's enough other interesting things about the game that conceding the full nudity isn't unreasonable. From that perspective, defaulting to off felt like a decent compromise on iPad. Anyone who adjusts the settings or pauses the game will see the checkbox staring at them and the people who are totally fine with it will turn it on without a second thought. It's an interesting case, because in the past Apple has explicitly stated that they don't believe apps are a place to make political statements. From what you've said it sounds like that wasn't a concern for them. Do you chalk that up to Papers, Please not being overtly affiliated with any real locations or regimes? It's hard to say. Maybe if I'd gotten a different App Reviewer it would've been fine on the nudes and rejected on the politics. One preemptive strike I tried was to list a bunch of the game's awards in the app description and screenshots, both for a bit of marketing and to hopefully give the reviewer confidence that the content had some merit. And in general, how was the experience of porting the game to iOS, both from a technical and a business standpoint? Do you think, given your experience porting Papers, Please, that Return of Obra Dinn would be a good fit for the platform?

"In 3 days Papers, Please has sold 25,000 copies on iPad so I'm not complaining."

Papers, Please is written in Haxe/OpenFL, which supports multiple platforms out of the box. Targeting the game for iOS was simple; the hard part was all the interface/layout/design changes. Altogether technically it was fairly straightforward and I enjoyed the challenge of making it work well on a tablet. Things are pretty good on the business side too. Cost/expense is always hard for me to calculate since my expenses are near zero and my salary is just whatever. The main cost I can think of is the opportunity cost of taking two months off of Obra Dinn, which will probably come back to bite me later. But in three days Papers, Please has sold 25,000 copies on iPad so I'm not complaining. Obra Dinn on the other hand is a first person game made with Unity 3D so while it can slide right on to most platforms, it may not be well-suited for mobile. We'll see though. I expect a lot less device-specific tuning for Obra Dinn so ports should come much easier technically.

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