Saturday, February 19, 2011

In App Purchases Good for Developers but Bad for Uninformed Customers

Smurfs' Village is a top grossing iPhone game, but one which has proved controversial in terms of claims that many in-app purchases have been made accidentally.  According to some sites, Apple has told Capcom in no uncertain terms that its "free" game has been causing problems with an increasingly significant number of parents who have complained that their children have been racking up large amounts of in-app purchases without their knowledge.  Capcom is not alone in the practice, but may be one of the most recognizable name among the controversy.     

But who is really to blame? Is it Apple for allowing developers to offer apps that are labeled "free", but clearly have little function without the "in-app" purchases?  Is it the developers that are using this new feature and all of their creativity to rocket to the top of both the "free" app chart and the "top grossing" app chart with the same "free" app?  Or is it the parent who gives a child a device, that has spending power and credit card access, without due diligence?

All parties play a part in the controversy. Apple's iTunes account protocol allows additional downloads and purchases to reoccur for an additional 15 minutes after the account password has been entered. This is a convenience feature that helps when you want download multiple apps. But the issue most likely occurs when parents download a "free" app, assuming it is free of cost, and hands the device to a child.

It's a situation that has caused some parents to get billed for hundreds and thousands of dollars because their children had unwittingly purchased in-app items. In the case of the Smurf game, Smurfberries were purchased without the child (or even adults) realizing the true consequences.  And the money could literally get spent within a few minutes too.  Within seconds into the game, you will be prompted to make a purchase.  The SmurfBerries purchases range from 50 for $4.99 USD to 2,000 for $99.99 USD.

Am I the only one that thinks $100 for some virtual Smurfberries is ridiculous?  I think all of the prices should be a tenth of what they are charging.  Looks like someone is being quite greedy.  Capcom and other developers have updated their app descriptions, within the AppStore with warnings of "in-app purchase options".
Some have made reference to on device setting changes that can prevent accidental purchases. In the case of the Smurfs game, it has popup warnings at the start of the game to inform consumers that real money is used to buy items within the game.  

 Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos

While this is welcoming, the game constantly entices you to purchase SmurfBerries; so much so that a impressionable kid would eventually give in to a purchase to allow the game to progress along faster. Without the in-app purchase option deployed, it is almost impossible for a purchase NOT to occur. 

Indeed, we hear that many parents have been refunded these "accidental purchases" although it's not entirely clear whether this is due to action from Apple, credit card companies or Capcom.

I played a different "free" game that involved smashing ants with my finger.  

The ants would crawl from many spots on the screen.  The developer had ads in the game, one which was for their own "ad free" version.  Throughout the game, pops up would pop up unexpectedly and in such a way that you could not avoid clicking the window. 

However, the rumor is that Apple is looking to tighten up its iTunes log in procedure, with the current 15 minutes default before re-logging in reduced to around five minutes so that accidental purchases are limited. Most people would hate to have to enter their password every time they want to download an app, especially within a few seconds of the last download.  This "time out" should be an user configurable number. UPDATE - Apple added the option to ask for the password for every download or

The web site Ares Technica is reporting that the issue has now been referred to the United States Federal Trade Commission for possible investigation.  Not sure that is required. 

No doubt this will raise the question of parent responsibility as parents hand over their iOS devices to their children without proper precautions. Oversight and knowledge is still king of the situation. A kid could approach a parent and indicate that they are playing Smurfs and the app is prompting for the iTunes password.

That parent could enter the password without knowledge of the end result. 

With the number of "free" apps with in-app purchase options are growing in the App Store, it is logical move for Apple to control the flow of bad publicity from parents whose credit cards have been wacked by their free spending offspring, by educating the developers of best practices and by fine tuning the restriction settings.

As a word to the wise, I always recommend that the in-app purchases option be turned off in the Settings app.  To do so, launch the Setting app and choice "restrictions" from the General tab.  Use the OFF toggle next to the in-app purchases. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree with gist of your article but really have to point out that your work should be proofread before it is posted. And before dismissing this as nitpicking or anal-retention consider that I spent a good portion of the article trying to figure out if I trusted the information. This was exclusively the result of the myriad mistakes, some of them egregious. 'Recognizable name' in the first paragraph should be 'recognizable names' (plural). The second sentence of the second paragraph is obviously missing an 'as'. In the fourth paragraph, 'spend' should be 'spent'. In the last sentence of that same paragraph, a 'like' is missing and 'some' and 'one' are one word, thus: 'someone'. Elsewhere 'purchase' is spelled 'pirchase', and no, you don't get points for spelling it correctly just a sentence or two later. 'Over sight' is also one word, 'oversight'. And 'free spending' really should be hyphenated. For the record, I am the world's worst speller. My iPad has corrected me three or four times in this comment. But that's the point: What exactly are you typing on That 'pirchase' didn't send up a red flag?


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