Games with in-app purchases offer valuable life lessons for kids and developers


gemstl;dr Mobile games with “bags of gold” in-app purchases teach kids and developers that:

  • if you have deep pockets, you don’t need to be smart or work hard to win
  • without money, skill and hard work won’t get you anywhere. And no second chances.
  • building honest games is its own reward. Don’t expect to be making any money on top of it.

Who could argue with that?

As a developer, I enjoy letting my children try out new iPad games. I tell them to avoid the ones that sell “chests of coins” or “bags of gems”, because you need to pay to keep playing and that’s not how honest apps should work.

But recently, after someone told me about a certain game that is raking a million dollar a day, and has the tech press drooling all over it, I decided to perform an experiment. I installed the game for my eldest daughter and asked her to see how far she could get before having to buy anything. Just two hours later, her ragged, penniless and underarmed villagers were facing certain death in a desperate attempt to take over their neighbor.

Maybe it was a matter of skill. After all, my daughter had just discovered the game. Maybe the next attempt would be more successful? No such luck, we could not find the “restart” button. Even deleting and reinstalling the app did not work! The developers clearly took great care to make sure one could not enjoy the free game too much.

Renting digital media instead of buying it is nothing new. We don’t purchase ebooks, TV shows, music or movies. We just rent them. But at least we know in advance how much it is going to cost us. With a pay-to-play mobile game, we know that the more we enjoy it, the more expensive it gets. I don’t know if it is even possible to “win” at those games, and I am not going to find out.

To be clear, I have nothing against in-app-purchases that unlock specialized features, subscriptions, or are substitutes for free trials or even paid upgrades. But $99 for a chest of gems, seriously?

So Apple, you have repeatedly shown that protecting your customers was a high priority. Personally, I find a scam much more offensive than some nudity or political speech, and I don’t think I am alone. If you must censor the latter, can you please do something about those pay-to-play games? After all, the base version of an app is supposed to be fully functional, and the guidelines for In-App purchases prohibit “intermediary currencies”. The recently-added warning “Offers In-App Purchases” is not enough, since all the App Store lists are infested.

I know that many developers (mostly indie) despise that practice. Yet, among the hundreds  of “app discovery” web sites, I could not find a single one devoted to regular purchase-once-and-play-forever games. Maybe it is time for a “honest games alliance” or something?





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