Future Tense

iPhone Gamers, Brace Yourselves for the App-ocalypse

Apple’s coming iOS will kill off some beloved games.

An employee plays the game Flappy Bird at a smartphone store in Hanoi on February 10, 2014.
An employee plays Flappy Bird at a smartphone store in Hanoi on Feb. 10, 2014.

Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re an iPhone user still addicted to Flappy Bird, be ready to experience withdrawal symptoms.

When Apple launches iOS 11 in September, the company will drop support for old 32-bit applications—which is most apps released before 2014. Apps that haven’t been updated by their developers to run on the more efficient 64-bit architecture will cease to work. While key products such as Facebook and Twitter were updated long ago, nearly 200,000 apps from designers without the motivation or resources to make the changeover won’t make the cut. The transition offers a great opportunity for Apple to scrub scores of clunky, dated products from its App Store. But it will also hit older games particularly hard. Past gems like Flight Control, Canabalt, Civilization Revolution 2, and cult favorite Flappy Bird—once showcases for the iOS platform—look to be relegated to a dwindling number of dying devices. That is, unless someone steps up to save these treasured apps.

Gamers have already had some portends of the App-ocalypse. Most famously, BioShock, the critically acclaimed game set in a future in which the rich are obsessed with maintaining their wealth (can you imagine?), had but a brief life on iOS. The 2014 release of the high-quality game on a mobile system was a big deal in an age when Angry Birds was one of the better-looking apps around. However, after a single year, Apple released a software update that left BioShock in the dust. Its publisher declined to release a supported version and pulled it from the App Store. Unless you’re preserving it on one of a few old models of iPhones or iPads running an iOS version between 7.1 and 8.4.1, you won’t be playing it again.

But that was just one game. Now the incompatibility problem is poised to expand to a major portion of the App Store. Apple, for its part, has been sending future incompatibility notices to both users and developers since 2014, and their message has been clear: Update or cease to function. It doesn’t matter if a user still enjoys playing Monkey Island, or that he or she paid for their beloved XCOM. When iPhone and iPad users install software updates in September (and please do update), the unsupported apps will be useless.

This situation creates a loss for iOS users—and for the developers who put food on the table with app revenue. Updating these products isn’t as simple as Apple’s pithy notification might suggest. While the company can’t be expected to update non-Apple apps for new operating systems, developers rightly point out that the period of application stability is significantly greater outside the mobile world. Desktop computing apps, for example, are as close to immortal as software gets, lasting more than a decade before becoming incompatible with new software. Nearly all gaming consoles support their apps over the entire life of the device. But with the rate of technological improvement for mobile, the average user replaces his or her smartphone every two years—creating a continuous battle among app developers to keep up with new specs and software. Forced to make a choice, most spend limited resources on new apps, which are usually far more lucrative. The result is a throwaway app culture where neither consumers nor developers expect long-term support.

The Android platform offers one solution. Though most apps for Android are downloaded through the Google Play Store (its App Store equivalent), the iOS competitor has always allowed users to manually install apps not offered in the official store. Users may still run into compatibility issues, but they have the opportunity to try to make any app work. This more open, moderately decentralized system, however, comes with major piracy and security problems. Apple has sound engineering and business reasons to police its apps so strictly.

There are other ways Apple can save beloved old apps without opening up its infamously rigorous developer guidelines. One obvious move: Create an emulator. By creating what amounts to simulators of old iOS versions, Apple could keep its past alive indefinitely. It’s something we saw recently when Nintendo released NES Classic, a replica of its stocky first gaming system loaded with 30 cherished early games. At 2.3 million units sold, it’s a good example of an emulator being used to make a quick buck (or more) on the back of nostalgia. Apple could also make its software open source so volunteers could create emulators themselves. But both of these options seem unlikely. Planned obsolescence is Apple’s modus operandi. It needs to keep customers buying new iPhones with updated specs. It’s unfortunate for consumers, who may have grown attached or even paid for these soon-to-be-defunct apps, and a shame for the creators who may see their work disappear.

Apple is lucky that many developers are independently stepping up to keep classic apps alive. Canadian gaming company Beamdog, for one, has pursued a business model that focuses on updating old favorites for modern gamers. Its work recently included updating smash hits Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II, and Icewind Dale for the coming iOS. It was a “huge piece of technical work given our codebase started all the way back in 1995,” said Philip Daigle, Beamdog’s studio director. The work has been paying off, offering proof that consumers are willing to pay for games that age well.

But it’s not clear that all soon-to-be-defunct iOS games will have a similar savior, regardless of their capacity to entertain. This loss could mean a lot to gamers. Thanks to the creators of DOSBox, I still get to enjoy the MS-DOS games I played 20 years ago that took up big portions of the 40-megabyte hard drive on my old 286 PC. (Compare that to the 128-gigabyte monstrosity I carry in my pocket—3,200 times the capacity of my old PC.)* If I ever get a hankering for some old-school Prince of Persia, I can play it in my browser for free rather than wistfully reconstructing a memory or settling for watching Jake Gyllenhaal at an ostrich race. Same with Oregon Trail, the Apple II computer hit you can still play, again, thanks to emulators.

To those of us who have devoted hours to playing them, these games are pieces of history. And there are pieces we’ll lose if Apple decides to reject its heritage so completely.

*Correction, July 24, 2017: This article originally miscalculated the storage ratio between a 286 PC and an iPhone. The iPhone has 3,200 times the capacity of the 286 PC, not 32 million. (Return.)

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.