My name is Jason, and I have an App problem.

My name is Jason, and I have an App problem.

Summary: I didn't realize that I had an addictive and compulsive personality until my wife caught up with my in-app purchases.



Dreamingame's Flight Tycoon for iOS devices, shown above, is the bane of my addictive existence.

To paraphrase actor Robert Downey Jr., in a scene playing billionaire Tony Stark in the movie Iron Man:

"Let's face it, this is not the worst thing you've caught me doing."

There is certain shame to being caught in the act of addiction that only those of us with addictive personalities truly understand. Downey, a reformed alcoholic and drug user in real life, probably understands this better than any of us.

Today my wife found out about my App habit. And it was completely humiliating.

Let's roll back the last several months. I travel a lot for a living, so my go-to friend for relieving my in-airport and on-aircraft boredom has been my iPad.

To burn some of the time hanging out in airport lounges and restaurants waiting to board an aircraft, and the two and a half hours I spend flying back and forth to New York on my weekly trips, I browse web sites, I read my email, and I check in on my social networks.

I also play a whole assortment of games that I download from Apple's App Store. Typical user behavior, right? I probably download 20 or 30 new apps a month, many of which I quickly grow tire of and delete.

Many of them are the kind of games that are free to download, but in order to remove the ads, you pay a nominal fee. I've got a bunch of those I've paid for because the advertisements interrupting each game round or level become tiresome, and I like the game enough that I have no problem supporting the developers.

Words with Friends and Draw Something are good examples of this.

Other games, like Rovio's Angry Birds HD or Bad Piggies HD are completely ad-free, but you have to pay money for them. If it's a really good game, I've got no problem with that either.

Then there is an entirely other class of "freemium" game, which order to progress, you have to spend real money through in-app purchases.

Most of these games are very similar to FarmVille -- you have to "build" infrastructure and then collect "income", in order to build out more infrastructure that is more "profitable" and then expand your friend networks so you can continue to expand your infrastructure and make more virtual "money."

Virtual "money", which of course is completely worthless in anything other than the game itself.

Vlogger Jenna Marbles did a funny YouTube segment about this over the summer. My wife made me watch it today, because she thought it perfectly mirrored my situation. FYI, her language in this clip is totally NSFW, so be prepared for a lot of F-bombs.

As Jenna explains in the video, with a huge amount of patience and diligently checking into these games every day, you can progress, but not as far as you would as if you say, buy a $10 pack of "Jewels" or "Gold" or "Credits" or whatever. All of which are treated as an entirely different currency than the "income" you generate in the game.

With this type of in-game money that you buy via in-app purchases, you can buy special stuff that your income currency can't buy, like special revenue-generating buildings, machines, what have you.

But it's not like you're actually winning anything or achieving a goal. It's just this... thing you have to maintain or you fall behind. And whether these games involve building "farms" or "hotels" or "restaurants" or "stores" the concepts and game dynamics are all very similar.

And I swore, absolutely swore to myself I would never get sucked into one of these things. When FarmVille first premiered on Facebook several years ago I told everyone that I would reject any request to start a farm. It's a dumb game that was completely pointless and it was intrusive.

So a couple of months ago I started looking for games on the iPad that were strategy/simulation-type, the kind you could play for a few minutes at a time over long periods. Like the classic Sid Meier Railroad Tycoon or Civilization kind of things.

I tried a bunch of these out, but I got bored with them after a few hours of play. Then I came across this game called Flight Tycoon, which is developed by a company called Dreamingame based in China.

It turns out a lot of the companies that build these freemium addiction-prone games are based out of China, Korea and other major developing countries. You think the Huawei and ZTE situation is scary? Think about how much cash is being sucked out of our economy by Chinese mobile game developers. But I digress.

Flight Tycoon drew me in because it was sort of like the Sid Meier simulation games. And I really liked the airport theme, especially since I get so frustrated in real life by airport delays and I wish I could just make those planes take off.

I... Just... Want... Them... To... Take... Off.

It had pretty graphics, and it was really easy to play. The economic model is pretty simple: you're given a starter airport, with a certain number of "Pads" that airplanes can be parked in. You have aircraft that you can buy with your starter cash (that you also have to purchase fuel for with your virtual profits) which can fly to another airport "friend" that the developer gives you by default.

By flying your aircraft back and forth between airports, you earn more cash that allows you to buy more airplanes, have more flights, and also expand your airport with more Pads, which makes your airport more "prosperous". Which in turn allow you to buy newer, faster, longer range, more fuel efficient aircraft.

You can continue to grow provided you add more "friends". And the further a friend's airport is away from your airport, the more cash a plane (provided it has the range) can generate.

I've gotten to the point where I'm at level 43. The maximum level on the game appears to be 50, and I've essentially maxxed out my earnings capability. To get to level 50 and have higher levels of prosperity you have to spend real money.

I've already done this two or three times, at $5 or $10 a pop.

Last night I pulled the trigger and bought 400 gold coins, as well as a wing of ten F-15 fighter jets. Because they were free with any gold coin purchase. Oh! What a bargain!

Well this morning I woke up and picked up my iPad. I had a forwarded email from my wife from American Express, who had flagged my card for what they thought were four fraudulent charges. My wife was in the kitchen cooking breakfast, and told me I had to call in and deal with it, so I got on the phone with AMEX to find out what the hell was going on.

I put the AMEX rep on speaker so my wife could hear.

Two of them were legit charges from the Apple Store -- I had ordered $100 worth of accessories for my new iPhone 5, but I had forgotten to change my billing address when I moved to Florida from New Jersey over the summer, so they got denied. I had to get on the line with Apple and fix my billing info.

Another charge was from Crutchfield's web site and were new speakers that I wanted to get installed in my older car along with a new stereo head unit. No biggie. Re-authorized, all fixed.

But one was the $10 charge from iTunes. And I had to suffer the indignity of having to explain to my wife what the hell it was for.

I think she would have been perfectly okay with it if it was say, a renewal of an electronic subscription to Playboy or Penthouse. Or something even racier and raunchier.

But an in-app purchase to some Chinese game company so I could buy pretend airplanes to fly out of a pretend airport?

Oh God. The shame. The humiliation.

Has a "freemium" game on your mobile device caused you to make any in-app purchases that result in having to reveal a private app addiction shame to a family member? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Mobile OS, Android, Apps, iOS, iPhone, iPad


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • I think they should get pay for some money.

    Personally I always at least pay 2.99 in game purchase once. They did soend time to develop the game. After that I try not to buy any more. There is another game I play Hay Ville. I play flight tycoon too so I can identify with you.
  • Addiction is addiction

    An addiction is an addiction. It doesn't matter whether it's drugs, booze, or playing apps. For probably 20 years I spent pretty much all my spare time studying or building electronics.

    I went to law school at night while working full-time (as an electronic tech, of course). Most of the courses were required lecture courses, so there were about 100 people in a lecture hall and my name is near the end of the alphabet, so I was in the back.

    I would bring circuit boards and put together breadboarded audio circuits from hobby magazines. (This was back when you could build high quality audio equipment equivalent to brand-name equipment.) I was planning on building a 1 kilowatt bi-amped four-channel system. (This was when most hi-end home systems were 2x60 watts.) I finally realized how ridiculous it was when I seriously started planning on building a SPECTRUM ANALYZER so I could make sure the amp had really low distortion! -- once I got the amp done, which wasn't even built yet!

    I stayed away from computers as long as I could because I knew I would get obsessive about THAT. But electronic tech employers always give a technical test and it got to the point where all of them were asking about programming, so I had no choice. When I switched to law, even though I was working as a lawyer, I would spend at least 40 hours a week at home programming on a Commodore 64 in weird languages nobody cared about--6502 assembly language and COMAL. I did THAT for over a decade, later switching to x86 stuff in languages like WordPerfect Macro Language and MUMPS! For most of the time I didn't even try to get work as a programmer because I had a suspicion that I just couldn't put out lines-of-code-per-hour anywhere near a professional level. When I finally got in an environment with other programmers, I found out I was correct--in a language I'm fairly familiar with (FoxPro at the time), I can program at about 25% of the speed of a "professional" programmer. (And I have an understanding of the techniques, etc., equivalent to maybe 3 years of a CS degree.)

    I finally got cured of those addictions, but that is exactly what they are. And in most cases, the only way to deal with an addiction is just force yourself to stop completely. You won't be able to "keep it to a normal level". It's either you do it obsessively or not at all.
    • Projects completed

      And by the way, although I didn't finish the audio system or start the spectrum analyzer, I did hand wire up a two-keyboard 10 octave synthesizer, a four-channel 10-octave audio equalizer, 12-channel mike mixer, and a number of other very long-time projects. These weren't "buy a kit, put a CPU and some memory chips in a board, solder 'em in and you're done." They were early CMOS discrete logic chips with several resistors, capacitors and solder connections for each individual note, etc.
  • I ask for refund

    whenever I realize a paid game will require in-app purchases to succeed. "Free games" certainly have more right to do so, but sane people keep in mind that free cheese is only in the mousetrap when using free products. In fact, kudos to those developers, idiots dont deserve their money anyways.
  • Evil Practice

    My brother had a similar problem. My mother saw her bank statement one month which had $50+ in in-app purchases.

    Personally I look down on the freemium model because you are paying x amount of dollars for a loop in the code. I can understand paying to remove ads or more features but for in app currency that costs the developer nothing? Im sorry but im not going along with that.
  • Before I get an App, I check the in App purchase section...

    Zynga is the king of creating addiction. There has been a few nice article on this. The best way to not get hooked is to never start such games. So if an app has in app purchases I reject it immediately. I have also deactivated the in app purchase from the iPad.
  • frankly I find these freemium games disgusting

    at the beginning it's easy enough so that they can hook a good number of people. but in the long run they design the game so it won't be fun without spending money on tokens. but spending money on tokens isn't fun IMO, so they basically design the game to not be fun. pointless I say.
  • Great video!!!

    Sadly, I can relate (to Sudoku and crosswords--not Angry Birds or the rent-collecting thing).
  • I think rather that's an Apple problem

    but excuse me, I need to get back to WoW ;-)
    • not unique to ios

      Google Play and Amazon Appstore is the same deal.
    • Compulsive..

      human behavior doesn't care what operating system is on your portable device. My take is: Never purchase an item with in-app or additional level purchases.
  • I have an addictive personality

    So I stay from apps altogether. It takes a compelling "mainline functionality" app to get me to pay - which for me doesn't exist on Android - it already has everything I actually need.

    Back in the day I bought GooSync, a decent music player and a bluetooth driver for my palm. I don't think I have bought any thing since I got my droids.

    I could find myself paying for a guitar chord lookup, and one or two other things, but even then I feel like it is a slippery slope for me.
  • That's an addiction?

    You made one $10 purchase and you're calling that an addiction? That's offensive to people who have actual addictions, a problem that doesn't cost them $10 for some bytes, but costs them thousands for actual life threatening issues. Why not just say you bought a game to help you deal with the boredom of waiting at airports, or in airplanes. By saying you have a problem for playing 1 game and giving the developer $10 for the hours you've spent playing it you're devaluing your need for something to keep your mind occupied instead of being involved in the frustration of waiting all the time. There are real addicts in the world, who die for the things they enjoy, like playing World of Warcraft, and here you are paying some Chinese guy $7 for the hundreds of hours they spent modelling the economic algorithm that's involved in jointly operating an airline and an airport, and $3 to Cupertino for the privilege of letting you send them $7. You sir are not an addict, nor are you a gamer. No, you are a whipped middle aged man who isn't afraid to stand up for what he believes in the face of someone who's supposed to be his best friend and supporter. You insult me, you insult gamers, and you devalue your wife and marriage with this article, and for even thinking it. You do have a problem, but spending $10 on a game is not it. Look up from that screen and take a look at the world around you and maybe after the haze clears you will have an idea of what real problems are.
    • You don't recognize the article as humor?

      Wow. I thought it was obvious.
      • Stick to technology

        Jason, you're a fine technology reporter. Stick to it, avoid humor and allusions to cultural differences.
        • I am not a reporter

          I am a writer, a columnist who delivers opinions. Entertaining the reader is part of the mission of this column.
    • relax, dude

      The line, "if it had been Penthouse..." should have been the giveaway. This is a lighthearted post.

      And you know what? You can't take everything seriously, all the time, and stay sane. Addiction kills people. It doesn't get any more serious than that, anywhere in life. Addiction *must* be fought. But laughing at things, even horrible things like death, and disease, and everything else, is a fundamental human requirement. You can be serious all your life; that's fine. I'm gonna spend some time relieving my pressure valve by laughing at stuff. Even horrible stuff.

      Life is hard, and humour can be the difference between depressing yourself and bouncing back a bit. You have NO right to tell me what I can or can't think, or write, or laugh at!
  • free advise

    you need to grow up
  • China "developing country"?

    Jason, you put China and Korea in the "developing countries"? Please visit those countries and please report on what you saw there. A few "developing countries" (by your definition) are eating America's lunch, have you not noticed?
  • Geez, you have to justify a $10 purchase?

    Talk about being on a tight leash...