Editorial: When ‘Free’ Is Actually Expensive

But daaaad, I need more Smurfberries!
Handing a password to a child is like handing them a wallet.

It has come to my attention recently (though I am sure it has been happening for a while) that Apple have been taking undue criticism from parents that let their children play with their portable devices. There is nothing wrong with letting children play games on these machines, I let my son play on my iPhone all the time. The problem arises when the child left unsupervised while playing a freemium game in which they happen to purchase in-game currency every time the game prompts them to do so.

At the beginning of March a five year old boy in the UK convinced his father to enter his iTunes account password so that he could download a free game from the App Store. The father reluctantly agreed, thinking the download would cost him nothing — but his son ‘accidentally’ bought a stack of in-app purchases priced at £69.99 ($105) each to help him progress in the game. The following day the father received an iTunes invoice for £1,700 ($2,550).

This has been a problem for Apple in the past. In older iOS versions, once a password had been entered to download a game a fifteen minute window of opportunity was still open to make in-app purchases without having to re-enter the password again. This changed with the iOS 4.3 update. From then on, the password would have to be entered again upon attempting to purchase anything once an app had been started. This means that all the current issues that parents are having are because they do not attempt to hide their password from their children, or they actually offer the password for their children to use themselves!

The password problems continues to persist to this day. Not a week goes by that some newspaper manages to find an unlucky parent whose child has run up a massive iTunes bill. Apple are usually very good about refunding the money back to the consumer in these cases, though customers querying smaller amounts may not be so lucky. Whenever I read about a parent who has been affected this way I always wonder why they let their child play a game while understanding little about its contents. Sitting down and spending quarter of an hour with a child while they play their new game should be enough to understand how a game works and whether there are any ‘optional’ purchases to speed up gameplay.

Smurfberries, part of a healthy breakfast.
Those are some expensive berries.

Maybe it is not all the parents fault though. Over the last couple of years the average price of a game on the iTunes App Store has declined. This is because a greater number of games have adopted the freemium model. In June 2010, freemium games were still somewhat of an experiment, generating just eight percent of the total revenue. But only a year later, fifty-two percent of all the revenue of the top grossing games was generated by freemium offerings. In addition, the revenue for the top 200 grossing games on iTunes increased by seventy-nine percent year-on-year, a tenfold increase from June 2010.

With this change in business model we also see the big publishers turning well-known brands into their own cash cows. The Simpsons, My Little Pony and The Smurfs have all had the freemium treatment to varying degrees of notoriety. Upon the US release of The Simpsons: Tapped Out, the game was shortly pulled from the iOS App Store due to the servers being unable to cope with the demand and a plethora of serious bugs reported by users (sound familiar?). After a month had passed, EA set up a forum whereby users could report bug issues, but failed to offer solutions to issues or temporary updates. Some users who had made in-app purchases, discovered that their purchases had gone missing. After contacting EA, users were able to collect refunds directly from Apple. Several months later, the app finally returned to the App Store.

As long as impatient people insist on buying in-app purchases to unlock content faster, the freemium model on the App Store will continue to dominate. We need to either play these games as momentary distractions, or do away with them entirely. I would never pay for anything from these games, and more importantly, I would prevent my son from buying anything by never giving him my password.

Have you ever bought an in-app purchase? Would you rather spend money upfront for a more ‘complete’ game? Let me know in the comments!


  1. I recently showered the shame from my body because I bought extra levels for Hotel Dash on my Kindle, but beyond that I usually hold myself at bay from buying in-game purchases.

    And though I have no children yet (that I know about), I believe it also helps that I keep my Kindle far, far away from my cat, or really any cat, who have been known to make impulse purchases on a whim.

  2. It’s fine, Tim. As long as you didn’t buy doughnuts in EA’s The Simpsons Tapped Out, we don’t have to murder you.

  3. The Simpsons game is one of the prime examples of the freemium model gone completely to shit. Many of the buildings in the game require 50 or more doughnuts, yet doughnuts are almost impossible to come by during normal gameplay. The “pay-to-win” style is bad, but forcing people to pay to complete the game is even worse, especially when you find out a gamer could conceivably spend $100 in Simpsons: Tapped Out and still not have enough doughnuts to complete their city.

    The other type of freemium content more closely resembles DLC, like the extra levels Tim bought. Some companies use this content as a way to circumvent piracy. Piracy, especially on the Android platform, is becoming quite common for mobile devices. The installation process is extremely easy, with no real worry of DRM….yet. Companies will us in-app purchases to turn their free game into a more complete experience.

  4. I’m sure there are still plenty of parents in this world who don’t share our hyper-awareness of scum-sucking in the video game industry, and think it’s harmless because they don’t know. Likewise, they must have not read enough Robert Heinlein to keep the axiom “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” (or TANSTAAFL) handy at such occasions. I think Apple took a pragmatic approach in this case; a simple barrier can protect against even simpler decisions.

    There is a bright side to free markets as well as a dark side. Given that we can clearly see the difference in such cases, I feel as though more should be done to educate people who don’t know. But at what point do we then cross over into a sort of video game communism – like socialized DLC?

    Sorry, I just felt like rambling today…

  5. Nice article, Imitanis. I have never bought such a game because it doesn’t appeal to me. In fact, I do not even give epic, widely-loved PSP games the time of day because they feel “smaller” to me. Anyway, not giving your password to even your children is GOLDEN advice that everyone should follow. The other golden advice in here is that parents need to always know what they’re kids are playing. It’s ridiculous that anyone would just say to a little kid, “Oh yeah, sure. Go ahead. You can download any of the games that are free.”

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