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Editorial: In-app Purchases – The downfall of Android gaming?

Sometime March last year, Google began allowing Android application developers to charge money for additional content and services from within their apps. This is possible for both paid and free apps. Now, this phenomenon is famously referred to as an in-app purchase (IAP) and many, if not most, games on Google Play implement this feature.

Over the past 16 months or so, IAPs have been rigorously reshaping the Android app landscape. Google dropped a bombshell (at least to me that’s what it was) during their recent I/O that more than 50% of the Play Store’s revenue stream now comes directly from IAPs. More apps than ever before (a significant portion of them games) can now be obtained at the low cost of free, but to make tangible use of the app, one would have to eventually cough up money via an IAP.

Before I go on any further, let me make this known: I have hated and still hate in-app purchases with a passion. I’d rather just pay a premium price up-front than to be bugged to pay in-game. Up until now, I find that the best games on the Play Store are premium games, not the freemium ones. Gone are the days where you can actually find a totally free ad-supported game. They’re all basically free in name only and nothing else.

N.O.V.A 3 from Gameloft

To make matters worse, we are now seeing something even more tragic. Paid games, some of them premium priced such as those from Gameloft and EA, are including IAPs. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but a lot of games that you find on Google Play now at the $0.99 or $1.99 price-point have IAPs. The most recent one to cause a huge furor was MadFinger Games’ latest title Dead Trigger. Gameloft’s N.O.V.A 3 for example, despite priced at a fairly high $6.99, has separate IAPs for its single player and multiplayer modes that cost up to $99.99. That, in one word, is crazy!

Understanding the types of IAPs available

To get a better picture of IAPs on the overall, let’s have a look at the different structures of IAPs on Google Play. Basically, there are two different variants. The first one is “managed per user account” and the second is “un-managed”.

“Managed per user account” means that Google manages your purchase, and once you make an IAP, the purchase is permanent. Whatever you purchased will be available on all your devices under the same Google account. Even if you wipe off your phone or tablet data, or get a new one, the purchase is restore-able and will be reflected once you re-download the app. Instances of this type of IAP is unlocking a full game (Galaxy on Fire 2) and purchasing additional game levels (Zen Pinball THD).

Zen Pinball THD

Next, we have “un-managed”, which means that developers themselves handle the transaction remotely. Unlike the first type of IAP, whatever purchased is one-time only and device specific. This means that should you wipe off the data on your device or get a new one, the purchases will not be reflected. Most IAPs in games are of this variant. For example, implementation of this kind of IAP revolves around consumables such as in-game currencies (Dead Trigger) and health packs (Dark Meadow THD).

Sadly, to my knowledge, there is no way of distinguishing the first from the second. Developers do not usually indicate the type of IAP used in the game description, and you will have to make an educated guess at best in the end. Another problem is that some games may contain IAPs that fit under the first category, such as unlocking all tracks (Mini Motor Racing) but in true fact, they are one-time purchases and not restore-able.

Dark Meadow

Implementing IAPs the right way

I understand the need for developers to jump on the bandwagon and implement IAPs in their games. After all, some of my favorite game developers, Vector Unit and MadFinger Games, have themselves embraced this new model. It is clearly more money-making than the usual one-time- pay-and-play-as-you-like game model. Developers do need to feed their stomachs, don’t forget, and as such they are perfectly entitled to choose whatever pricing structure they see fit. However, if developers are intent on implementing IAP into their games, they should at least do it the right way.

For one, cooldown periods which do not allow you to continuously play until or unless you use gems or some other form of in-game currency shouldn’t be imposed. This is perhaps the single-largest source of dissatisfaction for gamers. Recently, a new freemium game called Heroes Call THD was released onto Google Play. It had brilliant visuals, but one problem was it imposed cooldown periods and the further you progressed, the longer they lasted. About a week later, the developers made an about turn and completely removed the element of cooldown periods from the game after getting whacked by users in their Google Play reviews. I hope game developers will learn a lesson from this.

Heroes Call THD

Next, don’t have insane purchase options such as those found in numerous Gameloft titles. They have purchase options running up to $99.99. This, more than anything else, shows that the developers are nothing but a bunch of greedy people bent on squeezing every last dime out of the pockets of their most ardent fans. Have reasonable purchase limits, like $9.99 or $14.99. In that respect, I tip my hat to MadFinger Games because the highest purchase option in Dead Trigger is $12.99, which, compared to those found in Gameloft’s games, is very much more reasonable.

Another thing that developers should take note of is to not create a virtual barrier and make it impossible to progress without spending on IAPs. From personal experience, there are certain games where things become too difficult and an IAP is necessary to purchase some in-game cash to upgrade or buy new weapons for example. There is another option actually in most cases – grinding. But in many games, grinding is way too time consuming.

To be frank, I wouldn’t mind a little bit of grinding. After all, there must be some sort of incentive to make an IAP or else the developers will lose out real bad. But it is my opinion that freemium games should be designed such that at least the top 10% gamers can fully complete the game without making any additional purchases (Wind Up Knight). They key thing here is, the in-app purchases should facilitate, not necessitate gameplay.

Dead Trigger

Finally, in the case of consumables which are purchased via IAP, developers should seriously consider having an online backup system. It is most unfair to the gamer that after spending $14.99 on an IAP, he or she learns that whatever bought cannot be restored on a newer device. Games such as Soulcraft have implemented this feature successfully. Or if enough developers voice out, they can persuade Google to roll out a cloud-based service such as iCloud which can take care of this.

In a nutshell

IAPs are here to stay for the long run. Yes, they are a bane to the most serious of Android gamers, and yes they can take the fun out of playing most games as well. But like it or not, we have to accept the new reality that IAPs will continue playing a bigger role on the mobile gaming platform day by day, so much so that within a few short years we may be seeing a total of zero premium, up-front paid games released onto Google Play.

However, as to whether IAPs will lead to the downfall of gaming on Android remains to be seen. Yes, at these early stages, developers that implement IAPs more often than not earn the brickbats from the community. But over the course of time, I guess Android gamers will just adapt and open up to this new form of payment. For that to happen though, the implementation of the IAPs has to be flawless, and particularly such that gamers are not swindled of their money. I know, I don’t like the sound of IAPs either and what they have in store for us, but that’s the inconvenient truth.

What do you have to say about in-app purchases – aye or nay? Have you made any IAPs, and if no, will you make any in the near future? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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