Apple's App Store shame

Apple, please clean up the App Store in-app purchases.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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!


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