The great in-app purchase rip-off

Features Mark Oakley Jan 7, 2013

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Mark Oakley looks at the scandalous business of in-app purchases

This year, I switched to the other side. Yes, I began my inevitable move into all things Apple. Having bought a fourth-gen iPod Touch a couple of years ago, the Apple TV box then found its way into my living room, because I wanted a streaming solution for my multimedia content and, despite there being cheaper options, I succumbed to the lure of the Apple ecosystem.

Perhaps the decision to buy the Apple TV was partly driven by a long-standing wish to snap up an iPad. Initially waiting for the iPad Mini to finally be announced, the lack of a reveal at the firm’s September special event (to come later in October, of course) pushed me towards its fuller, bigger brother.

So, the second-generation iPad was purchased and I began with haste streaming music and other content purchased from that to my Apple TV. Bliss. Of course, the iPad is little more than an expensive paperweight without content, and given that Apple has already taken away some of its finest apps in the form of YouTube and Google Maps with its iOS6 update, the need to hit the App Store was even more of a necessity.

It’s a well-established fact that the App Store contains all manner of cheap and even free apps for your delectation, and I’m happy to say that my new-found tablet is now stocked to the gills with many free apps for me to play around with alongside my stored media content.

So why is it that despite being pleased with my new tablet, delighted with the streaming capabilities and overjoyed that I have climbed, nay jumped, aboard the good ship Apple with both feet, I find myself having to wrestle with this nagging feeling somewhere in my brain of being short-changed? It boils down to one thing: in the world of apps, free doesn’t always mean free.

To be free or not to be free?

Racing games are regularly promoted in Apple’s advertising campaigns for the iPad, so I naturally wanted to see what all the fuss was about in the form of the highly rated CSR Racing, also shown off at one of Apple’s keynote conferences earlier in the year.

Within minutes I’d deleted it from the tablet. The game itself is a classic tablet racer, pitting you on the drag racing circuit, where you must do your utmost to drive your way to the top. It had a pretty steep difficulty curve, without a doubt. I have no problem with that; any game that encourages you to master its subtleties in order to fight your way up the ladder is fine in my book. My issue, however, is that the difficulty in this particular title revolves around amassing virtual coins in order to spend wisely on better cars and upgrades in order to progress in any meaningful manner.

Without these improved cars, you simply cannot progress beyond a certain point, because you’re out-raced in your basic garage models by superior virtual opponents with ease. You can collect coins by winning races but it’s a catch-22 situation, because without the coins to upgrade your vehicle, you can’t win any races in order to win more coins and progress further still.

The reality is that in order to get anywhere with the game and enjoy playing it beyond the 15 minutes of play you can get through initially before the difficulty becomes insurmountable, you will have to buy these virtual coins, with real money. Look for CSR Racing on the App Store and next to the title itself is a list of top in-app purchases (IAPs), including various apps that will provide performance boosts of varying types for £1.99 and £2.99, rising to £6.99 and - no, you’re not reading this incorrectly - £39.99. The best part of £40 relating to a title that purports to be free? No, thank you. As a comment under the most critical comments on CSR Racing reads, “Complete rip-off.”

There is a cynicism at work here too, which leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. You are reminded of the various purchases you can make at all-too regular intervals while playing the game and it’s this method of near-constant pushing of in-app purchases into the consumer which makes for an ultimately hollow experience.

The Android platform took longer to adopt the in-app purchase model, but since Android Market introduced the concept last year, there are now much the same issues with titles such as EA’s Theme Park in line for a typical level of ire from consumers. The game itself looks great and is free to download, but some of the purchases cost staggering amounts.

As one of the comments point out, “Game is great until you want to play it. Then you have to open your wallet and give them oodles of pennies to buy tickets. Allegedly you can get 70 free tickets but seemingly that’s a lie. Avoid!” Another consumer comment at Google Play points to £72 of IAPs, which immediately turned them away.
These titles are far from alone in treating consumers in this way, but how on earth can they get away with it? By all accounts, CSR Racing makes the firm behind it a mammoth $12m a month, so the company is hardly going to apologise for the practice (it is a business, after all), but the prices attached to many of these in-game buys is simply outrageous - predatory, even.

In the wrong hands

Perhaps it’s because I’m a father, but I have an added perspective on in-app purchases. My young daughter is a huge fan of my iPad. She loves the flashing lights, the colourful images and the unbridled fun that so many of my downloaded titles provide her with. She also likes switching the thing on and off and then on again, and before I know it, she’s on that drag racing track. She’s also just a few misplaced touches away from having purchased that £40 in-app help and I’m a whisker away from tearing my hair out.

Now, you could argue that I’d only have myself to blame for letting a three-year-old anywhere near it in the first place, and perhaps you’d be right. Think about the teenage gamer who gets a brand new iPad for Christmas, though. The account will invariably be tied up to mum or dad’s credit card and you have the potential for financial disaster.

You can school your kids in the importance of spending money all you like, but think of the situation of said teenager playing a game that all his or her mates do, wanting to gain bragging rights. How tempting would it be to click ‘Buy Now’ when that in-app message crops up, offering you the answer to all your in-game problems. We all know how games suck you in, take up all your free time, and, in the case of many so-called free apps, actively encourage you to spend, spend, spend to go that little bit further. To any avid gamer, particularly younger gamers, the temptation will be great.

What of the more vulnerable gamers too, for whom addiction means that spending can all too easily get out of control. Bombarding them with messages that actively encourage them to spend their salary on a round-the-clock basis is aggressive and irresponsible. In this respect, are in-app purchases immoral?

Child’s play

The freemium model has also disturbingly wormed its way into children’s apps. Take Sesame Street Workshops Elmo Calls as an example. On paper, this is an app that allows your kids to take a call from the little red furry fella himself, call him up and generally interact with every child’s favourite puppet. For any young child, this is the stuff of dreams.

Delve a little deeper and it transpires that there are all sorts of other call packs that you can buy to enhance the game further. Introduce a child to an app like this and you’re asking for trouble. Many parents would find it difficult to turn their little boy or girl down when they say “Daddy, I want to listen to Elmo sing the ABCs to me. It’s only 69p.” In itself, this isn’t a lot of money, but the very principle of designing an app that actively encourages children to want to listen to more paid-for content makes me feel rather ill. Then consider that many of the purchases within the game cost the same as, and in many cases far more than, the core app itself.

Apps like Disney’s Spotlight Karaoke are much the same, offering a free app in the first place and all manners of songs to sing at cost. At 69p a song, you can see how costs can easily rocket.

Targeting adult gamers is one thing, encouraging younger gamers is quite another.

Limited appeal

The game developers might choose to argue that gamers can still play a title without making those in-app purchases, but that’s utter codswallop.

The sad reality is that some titles are nigh-on unplayable without the in-game content. In the end, I would far rather spend £2.99 on a game that allows me to progress while still presenting me with a challenge, than become disenchanted with a game that doesn’t allow me to progress without regularly spending more money.

Take Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 for the iPad. This is a cracking-looking free title, which plays well and allows anyone a simple way in. However, after having completed my first tournament, I was immediately encouraged by the game itself to purchase virtual cash to enter further tournaments. Without this virtual cash, I literally was not allowed to play in any other tournament, regardless of how well I had just performed in the current one. Again, I was forced to delete a title I liked, because I couldn’t go any further.

I’m sure that this approach is making EA Sports a lot of money and that there are plenty of consumers happy to pay up to progress, but this is a con, pure and simple. Paying for boosts and tools in order to improve your game skills is one thing, forcing you to pay for these things in order to continue playing a game is quite another.

Warning, warning

One of the great issues I and many others have with in-app purchases is that titles being advertised as free are, in the end, anything but. I would argue that there ought to be clear warning signs surrounding any game that includes them. Why not simply have in place a small icon noting that any such title includes in-app purchases?

Personally, I’d like to see this idea taken a step further, with some form of ratings system warning consumers on the extent a game relies on in-app purchases to progress. Then, consumers can make their own minds up from the off as to whether a game is worth bothering with or not. At least this way, you wouldn’t feel cheated.

It’s probably down to the likes of Apple and Google to police such a system, but the sad reality is that the app industry had become far too reliant on in-app purchases to drive itself forward, flogging off the core games and applications for nothing at first to get people interested, before then making oodles of money from advertising and in-game buying.
Policing isn’t unheard of, by the way. In Japan, the previously oft-used in-game tool, “complete gacha” has been banned. The “complete gacha” requires consumers to pay up small bits of cash for a chance to win one of a range of special items at random, until the consumer has a full set of the virtual items they need, which they then win some form of grand prize for doing so. This has been put to seed and it would be good to some form of stance against in-game mechanics over here.

Conclusion

My position on in-app purchases is pretty clear: I think they’re wrong. The basic concept relies on taking advantage of the impulse nature of purchasing plus the obsessive personality of the videogamer. I’d also argue that some purchases simply ruin the gaming experience. Whether it’s your opponent gaining an unfair advantage or yourself paying £30 for a item that will take you to the top of the leaderboard, this isn’t gaming as I know it. The best games are challenging but playable, and they don’t require you to dip repeatedly into your pockets in order to get anywhere in the title.

The way that many developers adopt in-app purchases is simply immoral, preying on some people’s need to raise their street cred by spending their (or their parents’) hard-earned cash on the tools for the job. Like the fruit machine in the arcade, in-app purchases promise so much but all too often deliver very little.

The problem isn’t about to go away any time soon. Developers are making vast sums of money from this approach and it would be naïve to think that they will bow down to what consumers really want from software titles and games. Too often, a title appears to be based around the in-app content, rather than the other way round.

All I want is a fair playing field, a clear system where games developers are up front with us and where free really means free. Is that really too much to ask?