I Think I Just Became OK With In-App Purchases

Wherever you look these days, there’s an app or game trying to nickel and dime you for every penny you have. They do this by offering up a smorgasbord of in-app purchases, which do everything from letting you skip levels, unlock additional content, or even allowing you play the game, in some extreme cases. For all the moaning and groaning every time a new title is launched with in-app purchases, you would think that in-app purchases are the worst thing ever to happen to apps and games.

But here’s the thing: not all in-app purchases are bad, and most of the time, I’m actually OK with them.

In-app purchases can be grouped into roughly two main kinds. The most popular seem to be the ones that unlock content (additional levels, chapters), or there are others that have a direct effect on gameplay (upgrades, hints, bonuses). Some apps also offer purely cosmetic enhancements, such as additional colour packs or sound effects. The official Pokédex app for iPhone pictured above lets you unlock Pokédex data for the various regions, and puzzle games with a built-in hint mechanic usually let you purchase an unlimited amount of hints for a once-off fee. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy every episode of The Walking Dead or every game in the Ace Attorney HD Trilogy, mostly because I know the games and have played them before, but those who are a little more cautious with their iTunes credit get the chance to try out the game before they take the plunge. If they like what they see, a once-off in-app purchase is right there.

Ask any game developer, and they’ll tell you that in-app purchases are the new “in” thing. Big publishers like EA, as well as smaller indie developers like Halfbrick, are using it as a new way to make money. The thinking goes that instead of offering titles for a set fee up front like traditional software, developers and publishers can make more money over time, which more closely aligns with the subscription payment model. Whether it’s working out for them is another story entirely, but judging from the continued adoption and uptake of in-app purchases in many new apps, I’d say the results speak for themselves.

Look at any big title on the iOS platform over the past year or so, and you’ll notice a trend of titles that all feature in-app purchases. The recent iOS 7.1.1 update makes it extremely clear which titles offer in-app purchases, following a court case where Apple settled with the Federal Trade Commission over in-app purchases. In-app purchases cost Apple US $32 million then, but I bet they weren’t upset about taking a 30% cut of $12 million a month in 2012, from the free-to-play title CSR Racing. In-app purchases are now so prevalent in mobile games that Touch Arcade has even started publishing game guides based solely around the premise of “not spending any money“, and they’re not the only ones.

But it’s not just mobile titles that now feature in-app purchases. Desktop games have started to feature the same thing, either going down the same freemium approach as mobile games, or adopting the in-app purchase model in addition to an upfront price tag, often exemplified by episodic or additional content. Free-to-play titles such as Valve’s Dota 2 offer in-app purchases for (entirely optional) cosmetic enhancements, and downloadable content (DLC) for titles that were paid-for upfront have existed long before in-app purchases were even a thing.

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My own acceptance of in-app purchases started with Dota 2, a game I’ve been playing a lot of recently, and one that’s available on PC, Mac, and Linux. The original Dota was a mod for Warcraft 3 that completely revamped how the game worked, and, to make a long story short, the sequel is an entirely separate game in its own right with a focus on spectating matches as much as actually playing the game.

Importantly, it’s free to play, and Valve even released a short documentary about its rise in competitive gaming. Like anything published by Valve, Dota 2 contains an extensive monetisation strategy, everything from simple cosmetic enhancements to heroes to the eSports equivalent of season tickets to league and pro games, passes and purchasable items that can be shown off on any Dota 2 player profile.

Of course, all the in-app purchases are entirely optional; there’s no obligation to buy anything. Purchasable items can be dropped after a game, but drop rates depend on the item’s rarity and the drops themselves seem to happen randomly. Somewhat cruelly, treasure chests which can contain rare items can be acquired from these drops, but that’s about where the good news ends; they require treasure keys to be opened, which can only be purchased from the Dota 2 store. Valve’s monetisation strategy for Dota 2, is, if nothing else, extremely well thought-out.

Normally I’m fairly reluctant to spend money on something that was free. It’s not that I’m not willing to support good developers or anything, but unless I’ve played the game extensively and will continue to do so long-term, I find it hard to see the point in spending real money on extraneous things such as cometic changes. Especially if they can be obtained via just playing the game, and especially if they have no effect on actual gameplay. I saw no reason to spend money on the in-game currency in Guild Wars 2 after outlaying the initial purchase price, even though cosmetics were kind of a big deal in that game.

But eventually there comes a point where you realise you should spend something on a game. For me, I reached that point after spending a few hundred hours in Dota 2 without paying a cent — I realised, after a few hundred real-world matches, that I really should throw a few dollars towards a game that had given me more gameplay and enjoyment for free than another title I has paid premium dollars only to have played it a handful of times (I’m looking at you, Battlefield 4).

It started off innocuously enough. I completed a set for Drow Ranger (a playable hero in Dota 2) that I already had most of the items for. Then I looked up a few new sets for heroes I liked playing, and bought those too. Somewhere between hitting up EB Games for my third or fourth Steam gift voucher, I realised I had to curb my spending, lest I go broke from buying cosmetic items for a game I had poured hundreds of hours into. It might not seem that bad when you read it like that, but trust me when I say Dota 2 was becoming as much of a money-suck as it was becoming a time-suck.

It was around then that I realised I was OK with in-app purchases that either unlocked content or added cosmetic enhancements to the game. In my mind, buying those item sets and treasure keys meant I was contributing to the long-term success and viability of that game, even though it needs absolutely none of my help. (It is the most-played game on Steam, after all.)

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At this point, all I was OK with was spending money on a game I had played a decent amount of. I saw nothing wrong with getting a few things here and there, so long as I didn’t go overboard. It was my way of giving back to a game that had given a lot to me, both in terms of gameplay and sheer enjoyment.

The actual “a-ha” moment came earlier this year, when I was playing Colossatron by Australian studio Halfbrick. It’s a game that offers in-app purchases, some more frivolous than others (I’m still not sure why you would spend the in-game currency of prisms to permanently unlock certain types of weapons on the otherwise constantly-rotating roster). At one stage, the game popped up a “special offer” on the in-game currency that I had to stop and think about. On the one hand, it was “only” $5.49, a price I might have paid for the game in the first place. On the other hand, it didn’t offer any specific advantage in terms of gameplay, instead allowing me to choose from a number of upgrades that would mean I could progress through a few levels more easily.

I didn’t end up purchasing that special offer because I wanted to see what else the game would offer at a later date, but I think it’s interesting that I had to stop and think about it. Was I being led to believe that this in-app purchase was a fair deal for a title I paid next to nothing for? Or was it just another way the developers were trying to eke a few more dollars out of me, combined with the other in-app purchases I had already made or was going to make in the future? Curiously, the game hasn’t offered me any special offers since, so maybe it was really a once-off deal after all.

While I’m perfectly OK with spending a few dollars on a title that I’ve gotten a lot of playtime out of, or a title that I’ve played and want to support the developers, what I’m not OK with is an in-app purchase for me to play the game. You’ve probably heard about Real Racing 3, a game ruined by in-app purchases. You can use the in-game currency to clear timers on upgrades and repairs, or you could just… not play the game. That particular in-app purchase strategy has always struck me as a little strange, but then again, it’s EA we’re talking about here. I was a pretty big fan of the original Plants vs Zombies, so you can imagine my disappointment to learn that Plants vs Zombies 2 was mired down in the same in-app purchase minefield. And let’s not forget the time EA added and then removed “pay to win” lawnmowers.

For the most part, I like to think as EA as the exception, rather than the rule. There are plenty of developers doing things with in-app purchases that don’t involve trying to extract as much cash out of the player as possible. When you think about it, freemium games and apps are almost the equivalent of trial periods for software, in that they let you experience the game or app without forking out. It’s like the developers are saying: “If you like it, you can pay for the full thing, otherwise, no worries, and no hard feelings — enjoy the game, and maybe we’ll be able to tempt you again some other time.”

At the end of the day, games or apps with optional in-app purchases aren’t necessarily a bad thing. It means those with less disposable income can still enjoy titles they might not have been able to if they required upfront payment.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Update: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Colossatron was a free-to-play title. The article has since been updated to reflect Colossatron’s correct price of $1.29 in the Australian App Store.

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