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We need to talk about in-app purchases (again)

We need to talk about in-app purchases (again)

It’s forever a hot topic in the world of consumer technology, but it’s time to revisit the issue of in-app purchases. Why? Because the practice does not seem to be going away, and that worries me.

In-app purchases, or IAPs as they are commonly referred to, is one of those awful internet trends that we’ve come to accept as part of our modern, connected lives, despite the fact that they seem more a little shady - a predatory practice for profit, that we just have to live with.

For years I coexisted with IAPs with a feeling that was, in all honestly, ambivalence at best! I didn't care for the practice of giving consumers something for ‘free’ with the sole intention of charging them as much money as possible later down the line, but it didn’t really annoy me either. More fool those who fall for the trap, I used to think.

I’d read stories about a teenager in Belgium spending $46,000 on a mobile game and snigger at these wealthy families with bottomless credit card limits and unruly children who didn’t know the value of money. To me, in-app purchases were like email scams offering vast sums of cash in exchange for your bank details. They’re bad, obviously, but not really indicative of a wider problem affecting society.

How wrong I was….

Today, in-app purchased have evolved into a dominant force. The mobile game space is perhaps the worst affected. IAPs are no longer reserved for match-three games for casual gamers, but are the lifeblood of the entire industry. The practice has spilled over into console gaming, manifesting as loot boxes and the FIFA Ultimate Team model.

From a developers point of view, it makes sense. Why charge someone once for your product when you can charge them endlessly for it? After all, it works. Look at the top grossing apps on the Google Play Store. It’s like a hall of fame for IAP games.

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Buy more coins, buy more coins! / © ANDROIDPIT

But it’s not just games where the IAP model is blossoming. Take TikTok, the short form video app/social network, for example. Just this month, the Beijing-based developer, Bytedance, announced that in-app purchases are up 222 percent. The app is pulling in $18.9 billion globally from IAPs, and that doesn’t even include sales from third-party Android stores. TikTok, which allows users to pay for virtual coins that can be exchanged for gifts to give to friends online, is the third most installed app so far of 2019, behind only the two Facebook Messaging apps you expect to be up there.

At this point, you’re probably ahead on the narrative arc and have noticed that an article about an unsavory way of making money from digital users, which has just mentioned Facebook’s popular messaging apps, is about to marry quite nicely - and you’d be right. Zuck’s empire is, of course, all over this. In January this year, Facebook was found to have knowingly targeted children with online games in a bid to boost revenue, by encouraging game developers to allow youngsters to spend money without their parents' permission - often refusing refunds when angry credit card holders kicked up a fuss.

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TikTok is raking in cash thanks to in-app purchases. / © bangoland / Shutterstock

A solution in sight? Don’t count on it.

Apple, which has also suffered from scam apps that trick users into in-app purchases, added a feature that requires App Store subscriptions to be confirmed by a second, pop-up screen (after Face ID or Touch ID has been successfully completed) at least.

Google, too, has silently rolled out a feature that allows for better budgeting on its Play Store, but both of these measures feel like too little, too late. The culture of in-app purchases has already been established.

In The Elder Scrolls: Blades, the highly anticipated mobile game from the famous Bethesda studios, you can pay to skip side quests. That’s right, you can download a game and pay to skip the actual game content. Why waste time with the game when you can get straight to more paying?

Is this where we are now? Stop this world because I want to get off.

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6 comments

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  • I don't mind in-app PURCHASES, as I see them as the equivalent of paying for shareware. But then, I stay away from games with in-app credits or whatever. I do, however, mind in-app SUBSCRIPTIONS and especially self-renewing subscriptions. - On the other hand, I do have several subscriptions that I can side with. Like the anti-malware software for my Windows stuff, where the vendor has to keep looking for new dangers, or like on-line storage. Now, several subscriptions are hybrid, offering both apps and cloud storage. I have had a Microsoft Office 365 subscription for several years, and I feel better with it than without it. I wish that I could justify an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, but its price is way too high for my occasional use. - So that's my bottom line: I don't mind paying for another person's investment in time, but it's up to me to decide whether if a purchase is worth its price to me. - Additional note: Android peers, I'm spending much more money on iOS apps and their in-app purchases. I'm willing to, even wanting to, not really needing to.


  • storm 5 months ago Link to comment

    gaming has lost sight of entertainment


  • X-77 5 months ago Link to comment

    This is not fair, game devs need to lower the prices for iaps. For clear example last year a Mythical class weapon in pixel gun 3d costed $21 american on sale, now it's $54 and when it isn't $109. WHERE IS THE LOGIC IN THAT? Some people have literaly resorted to hacking for currency, only to find themselves with a "Your Account Is Blocked" Screen. Game companies like Natural Motion (CSR2) Gameloft (Asphalt 9) and Rilisoft (Pixel gun 3d) NEED TO REduce the cost of iaps. Otherwise they'd find a lot of their players abandoning them.


  • There will always be immoral "business" people out there. Imho the companies that run the play store and similar operations should introduce some transparency. That transparency should state the price of a full version of a program before downloading it. There are programs worth the price but I do not like being lured into a program and only then learn about the trap. In my view the worst offerings are for little programmes costing several dollars per month. If I encounter that I delete that program immediately and state that fact in my rating.


  • The lengths that capitalism will go to in order to extract as much money as possible seems endless.
    The practice should be banned, but we know this is unlikely, and even if we managed such a socialist move, they would just find a different way to rob us even more.
    Trying to explain to my 10yr nephew that they are stealing his money and making billions in profit, that this is not a good thing. £20 to unlock a "one time, today only, super avatar outfit" - what's so special about it? Nothing, no extra powers, no unlocking extra gaming, no just a different outfit for your player!

    Next thing is IOT, as soon as 5G is rolled out we will be paying through the roof for access, and subscriptions to use different services. All of which will be neatly packaged as essential....

    Peace 🖖


  • Mark
    • Admin
    5 months ago Link to comment

    In app purchases, and having to buy expansion pack on regular PC gamming have taken the enjoyment out of gamming for me. I have never bought an in app purchase, and wait to buy new games until you can get them with all expansion pack for one lower price. Paying 60 dollars for 1/4 of the eventual game is just ridiculous to me. If I have to buy items to proceed or have an advantage in a game I will not play it.

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