Freemium and in-app purchasing in iPhone and iPad gaming can be a pro, not just a con

In-app purchases don’t have to be a grind – they can benefit developers and gamers alike, says Craig Grannell
Dungeon Keeper – the latest game to run afoul of gamers' ire because of IAP

On January 15, Apple and the US Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement regarding a complaint about in-app purchases.

In return for the FTC calling off its attack dogs and dropping the lawsuit, Apple would refund a whopping US$32.5 million to customers. According to the complaint, those customers were often parents unaware their darling little tykes were burning through next month’s rent on in-app purchases lurking within iOS games.

The main problem was that Apple hadn’t provided a warning that purchase passwords stayed active for 15 minutes; although another – unaddressed – problem was games companies taking the piss, offering buckets of virtual coins and gems in return for not-exactly-micro transactions of 70 quid a pop.

A buck for consumable in-app currency? What a non-bargain!

For some, this latest incident provides more evidence that in-app purchases and associated business models are inherently evil. It cements a line of thinking that freemium, free-to-play and IAP – either alone or in some combination – are a cancer eating away at the foundation of the mobile app ecosystem, especially gaming.

The most recent target of gamers' ire is EA's Dungeon Keeper, which uses IAP to charge for resources that are used to speed up play. With IAP enabling gamers to skip lengthy wait times to open up new areas of their dungeon, it's been characterised as a "free-to-wait" game. Even Peter Molyneux, creator of the original Dungeon Keeper, has weighed in on the argument, saying that, "I don't want to schedule it on my alarm clock for six days to come back for a block to be chipped."

Dungeon Keeper and other games are the subject of countless hyperbolic rants; you’ll find sentiments about the halcyon days of ‘real gaming’, where you’d only spend a fixed sum on any game, and harsh warnings that any ‘real gamer’ daring to install a game including IAP should be subjected, in a locked room, to an infinite loop of Amiga disaster Rise of the Robots, until such a point as their brain makes a break for it, consigning them to merciful oblivion.

Commonplace arguments state that iOS gaming is now little more than about grinding out revenue from near-oblivious player automatons, with every title a mini-casino.

READ MORE: 25 amazing free games for iPad and iPhone

The case for IAP

Letterpress shows that not all IAP is evil – here, £1.49 unlocks the entire game

Reality is more nuanced (apart from the bit about the dire Rise of the Robots, natch). Many developers are – perhaps surprisingly – broadly in favour of IAP and various free-to-play models.

They argue these things enable fans to spend more money than they might otherwise on games they truly enjoy, incentivising those who created it, adding that iOS game pricing is ludicrously low compared to most other platforms, and so any potential for ongoing income is welcome. Without barriers to entry, games must also place more emphasis on rewarding mechanics and immediacy rather than attempting to hoodwink them with pretty screen grabs, thereby potentially further improving things for the player.

IAP can also enable digital releases to be sustainable in the long term, which is important on a platform that has trained users to expect regular updates forever, for free. All development work needs funding, and if iOS gamers refuse to understand games and apps might have a limited shelf life as Apple blazes ahead from iOS 5 to iOS 6 to iOS 7 and beyond (while also refusing to provide any kind of paid-update option for existing titles), IAP looks to be a useful solution.

Why no demos, Apple?

Magnetic Billiards

That’s not to say problems don’t exist, because they very clearly do, not least when kids are spending thousands on the equivalent of virtual magic beans. It could be beneficial for everyone if Apple allowed demos for apps and games, thereby removing the need for products with single-IAP unlocks – although some developers would argue the free period would lead to people playing for a short time and then abandoning the product for something else that’s free.

Still, Apple could – and should – also consider making parental controls far more obvious, allowing developers to charge for updates, and limiting the top IAP tier, thereby encouraging genuinely micro transactions rather than ludicrously large payments.

Mostly, though, what’s needed is for the wider industry to recognise that exploiting its audience isn’t a smart move, and that a better balance needs to be found when it comes to in-app purchases. They need to be about value and reward, not just a cash grab.

Until that point, the smart move isn’t to tar IAP and related issues with the broadest possible brush. Instead, embrace those titles and products that use the model well, and take developers to task that reek of greed, swindling and vile accountants with an evil glint in the eye.

READ MORE: 25 fantastic free Android games