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.
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.
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.