Herr Bischoff

In App Purchases

What’s Wrong With Them?

It seems like ninety percent of all games currently sold have implemented some sort of micro transaction strategy to keep playing. I understand that developers need to make money but what this leads to, is that games are deliberately designed to motivate spending money on purchases

It used to be that you paid one fixed amount and got the whole deal, the whole game. Now you get mere chunks of the whole experience and need to pay to continue on. This breaks the gaming experience fundamentally. No more are games primarily designed to be fun but to get people to spend money. This is a radically different approach compared to classic game development. And it needs to stop.

Recently, I was looking for a title to play over the Easter Holidays. Prepared to spend a reasonable amount of money, I headed out the review sites and the App Store itself. To cut right to the chase: what I found was irritating and to some degree appalling. I’ve been playing games all my life, from a TI-99/4A onwards to Xbox360/PS3/NDSi and never have I found a more technologically advanced but fundamentally flawed ecosystem like the iOS App Store. Here’s what I found.

Indie titles are almost exclusively puzzle games

I really don’t know what’s up with that. The best explanation I can come up with is that implementing a new/tried and tested/slightly modified/combined puzzle mechanic is far easier than, for example, writing a story-driven game from scratch.

There is a disturbing number of “Flappy Bird” clones

Really, there are. Just search for “flappy”. It’s mind-boggling.

Most games range between free and 2,69 €

I always wondered how anyone could consider selling games for less than the price of a Starbucks coffee a sustainable business model. Apparently it’s all about scale. The App Store offers millions of potential customers. From what I can grasp by looking around on the internet, the reasoning is as follows:

  1. Users are much more likely to make an impulse buy at the lowest price point the App Store allows for: 0,89 €.
  2. If enough users buy your game (thousands or tens of thousands), you can potentially make more than selling it for a higher price point which will make users hesitate.
  3. You can always get more revenue from In App Purchases.

Because the App Store does not allow for trials, developers originally worked around this limitation by offering the game for free and unlocking the full game with an In App Purchase. This I consider a smart workaround.

Practically all games feature some sort of IAP.

See above. When used to unlock the full game in the spirit of “shareware”, it’s smart. When used to keep you hooked, it’s abusive. I’m going to elaborate on that point further down.

There are ads in many free games.

I understand the idea and the reasoning behind this. However, I consider advertising on my mobile device as extremely intrusive and am more likely to develop a resentment towards a brand that’s willing to stuff their offers in my face every chance they get. It steals screen real estate. It disrupts what I want to do. It steals my attention. This is not something a responsible brand will want to get associated with in a users’ perception. So, it’s bad for advertisers and bad for users. What a sublime idea. Plus, I will never ever purchase an ad-free version of a game that has ads in it originally.

You can never be sure what exactly you get when you buy a game with IAP.

This is one of my major gripes with IAP: you can never be sure what you get.

It used to be easy: you pay for a game, you get the game. The complete package, the whole enchilada. Now that you get mere chunks of the whole experience, you can never know when you might need to purchase another “Pile of Gold”, a “Handful of Gems” or a “50,000 Coin Pack” to progress. Should a game succeed in capturing your interest for an extended period of time and you hit a carefully engineered wall that you can only get past by waiting for hours or days – or by paying up and accelerating gameplay speed to normal – that’s what I would call extortion. Here’s why:

  1. It steals your attention and time. No matter if you decide to abort playing the game, you are put into a conflict between having already put in a considerable amount of time to get to the point where you are in the game right now. If you abort, it will all be for nothing – or at least it feels like it. There is no way to get to the conclusion or progress further into the story. It’s like watching a movie up until the point where it gets exciting when suddenly your TV provider stops the movie, dims the screen, overlays a “continue” button over everything and bugs you into purchasing the next 20-30 minutes of entertainment.
  2. It’s detrimental to the experience. With In App Purchases used like this, every aspect of the game will be engineered around the need to ask for micro payments. Especially with “free to play” titles this will heavily skew the games’ progress in the direction of moving along quickly at the start (to reel you in) and artificially slowing things down to a crawl until you pay up. Inevitably, more time will be spent on figuring out clever ways of asking for cash instead of polishing the game to be a fun experience. While psychologically understandable (get people to spend small amounts repeatedly instead of one bigger amount once), this corrodes and ultimately destroys what games should be about: delivering a memorable experience.
  3. It’s detrimental to the ecosystem. By going down this road, you get customers accustomed to getting value for free and devaluating everything, including your own work. The effects can already be seen in abundance. People complaining in reviews that a game with a price point of 5,99 € is perceived as being “expensive”. Apps in the price range of 20-30 € are viewed as “outrageously expensive”, yet some reviewers can be bothered to add a reluctant “but it’s worth it”. Maybe at 35 years of age I’m an old fart already, yet I seem to have missed the point where software became so much cheaper. I am used to pay game console prices, which in case of Nintendo are hovering around 40 € for a game. This sets the expectations for the game accordingly – and is more often than not delivered upon. When an application that was developed in hundreds or even thousands of hours of work can be purchased for half the cost of a basic one way subway ticket in most of Europe’s capitals and people are still complaining about what they get, because they consider themselves to be “customers”, something is seriously broken. However, I don’t see the common user at fault here. They are just predictably reacting to what is happening in front of them: a race to the bottom. A place where the owner of the App Store, Apple, will never go.


After stumbling around the internet, review sites and the App Store itself, I finally settled on not purchasing anything. I got my sights set on FTL (a full-featured indie game that’s not a puzzler at 8,99 €), but need to check a test version out on my Mac first. I’d really like to be able to play a game for a set amount of time before I decide to buy. Or play one episode, like in the “shareware” titles of old (Doom, Commander Keen, etc.). That, however, is entirely up to the Gods of the App Store aka Apple.

It is entirely possible that I’m not in the intended target group of most of the games currently offered in the App Store. Actually, that’s what I suspect. Looking at the way things are going, I can only hope that more developers are turning towards more sustainable business models, away from hoping to milk the quick cash cow that is casual games and the disturbing, highly questionable trend of In App Purchases in childrens’ games.

In time everything will regulate itself. I have to believe.