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In-App Purchases Have Gone Too Far

By: Ricky Brandt

PRSSA President

You’ve been trying to beat that one level for days.  It’s such a stupid game, but you can’t put it down.  Just then, for the 59th time, you encounter the boss.  You furiously tap his head, hoping that this time…. This will be the last time.  You’re so close… But no. Failure again. WAIT! What’s this? Ninety-nine cents for a power-up to beat the boss?  Purchase, confirm and done. Next level please.

We’ve seen it a million times.  Developers have learned that the best way to profit off an app is give it to you for free.  All they have to do is make the game so difficult, so addicting, that you’re willing to spend a lousy dollar just to keep playing.  I’ve always been a big fan of this model.  If Grandma can keep playing Bingo with free chips and buy more to keep the fun going, why not?  Developers have to make money for their work and users simply can’t expect to play quality games without giving up anything.

Then, last weekend, I was awakened to the inevitable reality of in-app purchases when my Uncle told me about a little app called Pet Shop Story.  Now, disclaimer.  I’ve never played this app, so everything I’m about to say is based purely on anecdotal evidence.  Moving on.  Apparently, my 8-year-old cousin, Sophia, is really into this game.  The premise is that you have pets of all varieties and have to check-in on them periodically to make sure they’re well fed and taken care of.   This genre of time-based games is a lot of fun, but can be incredibly addicting.

So, because you have to login frequently to keep playing, what happens when you put the game down and come back to it a week later? Essentially the pet you’ve grown to love over weeks of play gets sick.  How can you make him better? Easy, feed him one purple gem.  Problem? You have to buy all the purple gems in the game.  According to my Uncle, they don’t come up in organic game play, so anytime the game decides your pet is sick, you have to pay.

This is an interesting development strategy, as the game is clearly targeted at and used mostly by younger players who have their accounts tied to their parent’s credit card.

Now, poor Sophia is at an impasse.  Does she let her sick, beloved doggy die of some made-up disease, or beg her Dad for a dollar to let him live?  I don’t need to tell you that she chose the later, and I also don’t need to tell you that he steadfastly refused to pay the price (and rightfully so).

This is why developers have taken in-app purchases too far.  This is an app that was specifically made for children.  And just as it was built for children to understand, it was built to eventually land them between a financial decision (albeit a small one) that they have no grounds to make, and deciding between virtual life and death.  From a PR perspective, the more developers make use of this tactic, the farther their brand reputation will fall.

By all means, charge me for the power-ups.  Charge me for the level skips, the world unlocks and ridiculous wardrobe add-ons.  But leave the children out of it.

Have you ever had a crazy in-app purchase experience? Tell me about it in the comments.

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