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Apple might have scared one of the biggest gaming companies in the world

Roblox no longer uses the term “game” on its platform

a group of dozens of player avatars, the one in front looks like a lego character Image: Roblox
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Roblox, a massively popular platform where people go to play and make video games, no longer wants the public to think of it as a platform where people go to play and make video games. As Roblox now tells it, it’s a place to go and enjoy experiences.

Why does this matter? It all has to do with the ongoing Epic Games’ vs. Apple Computer trial, where the game developer and publisher is suing Apple for allegedly stifling competition on the App Store. During court proceedings on May 6, Epic lawyers brought up the Roblox app as part of a long-winded discussion about what’s allowed on the App Store.

Apple has a certification process to ensure that all of its apps are in compliance with its guidelines. Apple not only treats games differently from apps, it has historically rejected game streaming services, justifying that stance by whether the service’s iOS app can host “a store within a store.”

Roblox, which allows users to spend a virtual currency within player-created games, theoretically could circumvent Apple’s policies on vetting all content, along with its rules about storefronts within apps. Fornite was essentially taken down from the App Store for breaking the same guidelines.

Even Apple acknowledged this when a marketing head, Trystan Kosmynka, expressed “surprise” that Roblox was approved for the App Store in 2017 in an email. Kosmynka then defended this decision during the trial by saying Apple did not consider Roblox to be a place where people go to play games.

“I look at the experiences that are in Roblox similar to the experiences that are in Minecraft,” Kosmynka said. “These are maps. These are worlds. And they have boundaries in terms of what they’re capable of.”

On May 14, within the Roblox platform, all instances of the word “game” disappeared. For example, the “games” tab now reads “discover.” When asked why these changes were implemented, a Roblox representative told Polygon that, “The term ‘experiences’ is consistent with how we’ve evolved our terminology to reflect our realization of the metaverse.”

But the timing strongly suggests that Apple scared one of the biggest gaming companies in the world — more than half of US kids under age 16 logged on to play Roblox in 2020 — into renaming what are, clearly, games as somehow not being games.

While content within Roblox could be construed, technically, as “experiences,” most offerings are also still games. Roblox uses its own coding language and suite of tools to support game creation, allowing entire game studios with roughly 40-person teams to spring up around the platform. These games — which include racing games, pet simulators, 3D platformers, and even first-person shooters — are lucrative enough that in 2020, more than 300 of Roblox’s developers earned around $100,000, a Roblox representative told the Wall Street Journal.

On May 17, muddying things even further during the trial, Apple said it’s okay with games within apps so long as the company behind the app takes responsibility for the content. Phil Schiller, one of the company’s Apple Fellows, further testified that Roblox’s games can stay on the platform since they’re made by “creators” and not formal game “developers.”

Roblox developers, Schiller seemed to argue, are not the same as full-fledged game makers — so it’s OK for Roblox to exist on the platform. (Fortnite, it should be noted, also hosts a variety of player-created levels, games, and maps.) As of this writing, however, copy on some official Roblox content still eschews words like “game.”

Before 2021, Roblox has been coasting on near invisibility — but now, with an IPO under its belt, the platform not only gets mainstream attention, but also the scrutiny that comes with it.

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