Wednesday, 5 February 2014

In-App Purchases for games - enough is enough

At the moment, I’m immersed in game design. I’ve been playing computer games since the 8-bit days of the wonderful Acorn Electron. Acornsoft’s Sphinx Adventure was the first game I ever played on the machine, and it started me down the path of computer gaming, role-playing games, story-telling, and ultimately to my love of writing.

Of course gaming has moved on since the days of the text adventure. My next machine was an Atari ST, followed by a Commodore Amiga, and finally, a lowly 386sx PC with a 24MB hard drive. That machine gave way to a 486, a Pentium, Pentium 2, 3, and 4, mostly upgraded by me, and usually in the pursuit of better game performance. A few laptops followed, upgraded over the years, and my current machine is four years old this week, but still happily plays some great games.

Unfortunately, some game publishers in this current era of mobile and tablet gaming are gripped by “In App Purchase” fever (IAP). You’ve all seen the news stories, and most of you have probably seen examples of the worst kind of IAP: -

You get the game for free, but the actual game design has been compromised to make it "convenient" to buy currency to advance, in the form of “coins”, “gems”, etc.

What’s the harm, you may ask – a bag of gems for £1.99, when I got the game for free, it doesn’t sound too bad. Look further down the IAP choices: “Giant sack of gems, £69.99”. That’s about double the price of a new-release console game (PS3/360).

When the actual design of your game is being driven by the IAP model, you’re doing it wrong. The trouble is, there’s nothing to deter publishers from abusing the model. People are paying, so they’re just carrying on pumping out compromised titles that treat you the player as little more than a wallet on legs.

How it could change

The only way to rein in this sort of “design” is to make it an unpopular design decision: -

  1. App Stores could sort “free” games in order of their maximum IAP – so if a game only allows a maximum £1.99 spend, then it appears higher in the search results than one that allows a £69.99 spend.
  2. App Stores should immediately ban IAP prices above a certain threshold for games that are clearly targeted at children.
  3. App Stores could limit the pricing options for IAP based on the sale price of the original game (e.g. the Apple App Store prices things in tiers: 69p, 99p, £1.49, £2.99, etc.) What I’m suggesting, is that IAP should be limited to (for example) three tiers above the purchase price tier.

As an example, if you put your game out for free, then the maximum allowable IAP would £1.49.

Sadly, this could still be open to abuse, as games could simply be designed to get you to spend more frequently at the lower tier – but I would hope that it would at least open people’s eyes to the reality of what is going on, and that the gaming public starts to turn away from games that are designed this way.

I appreciate that for game designers, it can be a tricky path to follow – after all, if everyone’s doing it, why not see how much you can get from it yourself? Especially if you’re a smaller, indie developer. In my opinion, it's a very short-sighted approach, and one that will only damage the industry in the long-term.

Personally, I’ve got no interest in designing a game that wants to ask you for cash to proceed or imposes artificial limits on how you play. The game I’m designing is supposed to be modular – with scenarios / missions potentially being added post-release.

I’d want to be able to update the game with free content, adding missions etc. And yes, I’d like to have an IAP for something that I think is worthy of an extra purchase – so something like a real expansion to the game, something that adds meaningful content.

It’s this “what’s it worth” gauge that seems to be broken for a lot of game publishers today, especially when IAP are creeping into games that are actually paid for anyway!

I don’t know what the future holds for games – but if it’s anything like how the games industry is heading at the moment, then I may end up looking for a new hobby to replace one that has kept me entertained for over 30 years.

On a final note, as gamers you can do something about this: first, set up your device to require your password for all purchases, and don’t give your password to your children if they use it. Secondly, stop buying the games that are blatant cash grabs. If people stop paying, publishers will soon stop making games that follow the IAP model, or at the very least, adjust their design behaviour.

Happy gaming.