Apple's App Store shame

Apple's App Store shame

Summary: Apple, please clean up the App Store in-app purchases.


Overall, I'm very happy with Apple's iOS and App Store ecosystem. Call it a walled garden or a jail or whatever, I think it's nice to have a one-stop-shop for apps where you know you're not going to pick up some nasty malware that's going to do who-knows-what to my iPhone and iPad. But there's a seedy side of the App Store I think Apple needs to deal with, and that's the free games scam.

Take a trip over to the iTunes App Store and take a look at the top grossing games. Notice something odd?

Do you see it yet? Notice how ten out of the top 15 top grossing games are free. Doesn't that strike you as a little odd?

How does this happen? Well, the trick is that these 'free' apps become top grossing thanks to in-app purchases. Now, in general I don't think that there's anything wrong with in-app purchases, but the way that Apple allows some game developers to use in-app purchases is utterly shameful and bordering on being scammy.

Let's take a look at some of the games and what they offer in the way of in-app purchases.

First, Pet Hotel by Pocket Gems, Inc.

A 'Jar of Treats' and a 'Jar of Coins' each costing $19.99. Really?

Next up, Tiny Zoo Friends by TinyCo, Inc.

A 'Trough of ...' something for $29.99!

CityVille Hometown by Zynga.

A 'Barrel of Cash' for a whopping $69.99! You gotta be kidding me!?!?

Smurfs' Village by Beeline Interactive, Inc.

A hundred bucks for a barrel of what I am assured are 'SMURFBERRIES,' whatever the heck they may be.

Finally, Bunny Shooter Free Game by Best, Cool & Fun Games by Best, Cool & Fun Games - Free Game App Creation S.A.

A free game, but the 'Deluxe Pack' is a hundred bucks. Yowza! For comparison, Battlefield 3 is only $60, and you can get $10 off id you download it.

Who are these in-app purchases aimed at? Well, if the Apple support forum is anything to go by, it's kids. More specifically, kinds who don't understand that these purchases cost real money. One thread, titled 'Inadvertent $1500 in app purchase Tap Zoo - warning!' goes from one tale of woe to another, with people's kids running up huge charges in a scarily short period of time. And it's not the only thread of its kind over on Apple's support forum either.

As I said earlier, I don't have a problem with in-app purchases in general, especially when they're vaguely sensible. But tell me, honestly and hand of heart, do you believe that a 'Deluxe Pack' for your bunnies or a 'Barrel of Smurfberries' to feed your Smurfs is is any way 'sensible'?

I don't think so.

Developing 'free' games aimed specifically at children, and then bundling ridiculously priced in-app purchases inside those 'free' games feels scammy to me. Sure, it's not illegal, and it's not against Apple's developer terms and conditions, but Apple is a company that prides itself in protecting users from harm. Most of the game developers do make an attempt to warn users that the game 'changes real money for additional in-app content' but it's a lame attempt. It's easily missed, and kids aren't going to read it anyway. And given what I'm reading (and hearing directly from parents) it's not working.

Note: Apple does seem to be good when it comes to reversing such charges, so that's a good thing!

Bottom line, Apple doesn't need the $33 bucks from the sale of a hundred bucks barrel of 'Smurfberies.' Apple should be in the business of protecting users from being abused, not putting a mechanism in place to allow that to happen under the radar.

Apple, please clean up the App Store in-app purchases. Maybe put some limitations in place as to what is and isn't acceptable (if people want $100 worth of 'Smurfberries, what's wrong with doing ten $10 transactions?). A 'free' that later turns out to have in-app purchases that cost more than a AAA title game is simply crazy and in my mind an abuse of a system designed to make it easier to sell software upgrades and new features.

Just to make it clear, I'm not against in-game purchases in order to buy virtual goods, but when a free game needs to add such crazy purchases, something is wrong. A suggestion might be that Apple limit the value of in-app purchases for virtual goods to a sensible level.

If you regularly hand your iPhone or iPad to someone who might not understand that a hundred dollar barrel of Smurfberries actually costs $100 for real, then you can put in place a restriction to help you. Go to Settings > General > Restrictions then click Enable Restrictions. You will be asked for your pincode (you do have a pincode set, right?) and then scroll down to Require Password and change this from the default 15 minutes to Immediately. This will mean that anyone trying to make a purchase will need to enter the pincode.

Note: If you don't have a pincode set ... well ... sheesh ... do it now!


Topic: Apple

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Apple's App Store shame

    How about you also disable In-App purchases from the same restrictions group? If my kid was playing these "free" games on my iTunes account, you can be sure I would have disabled the ability in addition to the restriction you stated.

    Most of these games offer these items to speed up the process on an otherwise time consuming game and generate big bucks especially for Zynga. Although, I do have Bunny Shooter and it's actually quite predatory with constant nag screens every other level to check out the in-app store or rate the app and that's after spending $1.99 for the "ad-free" version.
    • One of the reasons they're doing this...

      @jmiller1978 I agree. Being able to disable in-app purchases would be a great option. I doubt we'll ever see it, though. Apple makes a lot of money on these in-app purchases.

      As a side thought, it occurred to me that one of the reasons they've started taking this in-app purchase approach is that game companies were having a hard time making serious money on games due to cracked versions of A+ titles being downloaded for free. For some reason, outrageously expensive in-game purchases have become far more acceptable than copy-protected $60 games. It makes no sense, but people generally don't make any sense, when taken as a group.
      • RE: Apple's App Store shame


        The option DOES exist and it is in the restrictions. Apple fully allows you to disable In-App purchases. It's been there since at least iOS4 and maybe even in iOS3.
      • RE: Apple's App Store shame

        @BillDem Sure it does. It's all about "try before you buy".
  • Why can't the free market speak?

    If games are unreasonable (like jmiller above has commented regarding nag screens) then people should rate the game down. Problem solved.

    It annoys me that people are constantly trying to shirk their responsibilities to make rational decisions for themselves. Parents have the added responsiblity to make rational decisions for their children as well. That is part of parenthood.

    The problem with all of these extra controls is that while they may start off as well intentioned, they quickly end up reaching very ambiguous territory where it does prevent rational people from making rational decisions for themselves.

    And as you pointed out, Apple is quite good about refunding these purchases even though they are under no obligation to do so.

    You are making a big deal out of nothing for the sole purpose of making revenues of our comments. Why don't you call this one "In App Purchase-gate" since I'm sure that is worth an extra 50 clicks.
    • RE: Apple's App Store shame

      I commented badly on Tap Zoo and gave them no stars because of the same reason. After that they reduced the prices of their stupid jar of coins and jar of stars to 19.99 from 149.99 and I feel both are ridiculous prices.
      Ram U
      • RE: Apple's App Store shame

        @Rama.NET: $149!? Did that virtual crap cost that much before!? :/
    • RE: Apple's App Store shame

      @toddybottom - you appear to have missed the point of the article. These are games clearly and deliberately being *marketed at kids* - kids that don't have money management skills yet and won't learn any from blowing Daddy's credit card limit. It's the same exploitative thinking behind marketing McD at kids and alcopops at young teens (a thankfully now stamped out UK trend).
      • RE: Apple's App Store shame

        @psdie And you appear to have missed the point of toddybottom's post - it's about responsibility whether it is the adult buyer or the adult owner of the iDevice letting children use it as a gaming device.
      • RE: Apple's App Store shame

        @Pete "athynz" Athens - Exactly!
    • RE: Apple's App Store shame


      It is not about Free Market, nor is it about parental responsibility. It is about scamming parents. Period. A responsible parent can check to make sure the app has a G rating (such as Smurf Village), download and install it, and determine that the game is appropriate for children. If they then allow their 4-year old to play it, they are very likely completely unaware that the game manufacturer has exploited a hole in the Apple App Purchase system. The parent must put in their password in order to install the "Free" app, and that stays active for 15 minutes by default. If the child then answers YES to a prompt from the game to purchase SmurfBerries for 99.99, are you arguing that the parents are irresponsible? I would argue that the parents were cheated.
      • RE: Apple's App Store shame

        @Rooster6975 Regardless of if the password is active for 15 minutes or not if a parent lets their kids us a devices that allows in app purchases (we all know iOS apps allow this) without teaching them not to make such purchases then yes, it's the parents fault.
  • RE: Apple's App Store shame

    There's nothing wrong with this. I'm rollin' in the dough thanks to all these stupid kids - My app makes me hundreds each day ;)
  • RE: Apple's App Store shame

    Add TapZoo to that, they have Jar of Stars and Jar Of Coins each for 19.99 (it used to be 149.99) and if your kid by mistake buys that think lion or tiger is cool, you are a goner. I had to fight with Apple without any luck. They take huge amount of stars and coins for just one exotic animal and if your kid wants more exotic animals like lions, tigers, you will see your bill skyrocketing just in few moments. I had to fight for 149.99. And of course now I trained my kids to check the in app purchases thingy before downloading any junk app. They simply follow that rule because they know 149.99 would have given them 3 to 4 Kinect games which could entertain them more than stupid Tap Zoo.
    Ram U
    • RE: Apple's App Store shame

      @Rama.NET ...

      Why not disable in-app purchases completely, or restrict it so that it requires you (the parent) to purchase the jar of coins and whatnot.
    • RE: Apple's App Store shame

      @Rama.NET: "They simply follow that rule because they know 149.99 would have given them 3 to 4 Kinect games which could entertain them more than stupid Tap Zoo."
      Even though they should follow it for other reasons too, it's good to make sure they understand that there's consequences.
    • RE: Apple's App Store shame

      @Rama.NET [i]And of course now I trained my kids to check the in app purchases thingy before downloading any junk app. [/i]
      Ding...ding...ding, we have a winner :-)
  • Legal, but shady.

    If there are people out there willing to spend 100 bucks on "smurfberries," then by all means, give it to the developers. Pathetic, but it's called life. From an ethical standpoint, it's totally wrong, but it's not illegal in any way, shape, or form.

    If my kid had an i____, then I'd definitely put restrictions on in-app purchases and tell them not to download any of this crap--but who am I to tell others what to do? (I just realized how ironic it is that I'm arguing for freedom in a walled garden.)
    • RE: Apple's App Store shame

      @rlorenz: At least more effort should be made to inform the parents about these in-app purchases.
  • This is what I call the "Zynga Model".

    You get a game that's designed to be addictive to button-clickers. Those button-clickers get so far into the game, and are forced to choose to buy game points or earn them the hard way (leveling up); also, some in-game items can only be obtained by buying the virtual items with actual money.

    Somewhere between 10 and 50% of game players will bite the bullet and pay up for the special items, or to get well ahead of their neighbors. The rest of the people that "play" these games will hold off and do the hard work instead.

    And this is why Zynga is worth what it is today.