It took five year-old Danny Kitchen just ten minutes to rack up £1,700 ($2,600 CND) on his parents iTunes account. He had asked for permission to play Zombies Vs Ninjas. After looking up the game’s price and description in the iTunes Store, and seeing that it was free, his parents gave it. What the iTunes Store did not explain was the game’s use of a Free-To-Play pricing scheme. It begins as a free game, but then introduces a series of delays and wait times that can only be avoided by buying virtual goods with real money, charged to an iTunes account.
Some of these virtual goods can be earned, some are given initially for free, some are bought with virtual dollars or gold that are different from the real dollars referenced by other in-game items.
A common delay-or-pay message, this one from Skylanders: Lost Islands. The building requires 200,000 virtual dollars to buy, but the game delays giving it to you for three hours unless you spend 45 gems, sold in packages for between $1.99 to $99.99 in real money, charged to your iTunes account.
That confusion between virtual and real purchases has spawned an endless number of parental horror stories and a couple of lawsuits in the US. In the UK Apple has agreed to refund Danny Kitchen’s parents for his charges while in the US Apple has agreed to pay out $100 million in a settlement after a nine year-old Pennsylvania girl racked up surprise charges last year. Another class-action lawsuit against Apple in the US for the same issue has just given the go-ahead this week.
(Update: Another boy, 8 year-old Theo Rowland Fry, is in the news this week for accidentally spending $980 on The Simpsons: Tapped Out iPhone/iPad game).
“My daughters spent $500 on virtual snowflakes…seriously…Put an actual padlock on the iPad after that” says Oona Woods on my Twitter account here in Canada. “We thought we were tech savvy. It cost snowflakes to breed animals together. We bought a $500 Leopony.”
The Croods, a tie-in to the Dreamworks animated film, is the latest Free-To-Play game to arrive. It’s made by Rovio. Their Angry Birds games have now been downloaded more than 1.7 billion times and has being turned into a cartoon that will be offered as in-app items this week.
The Croods is free to download and play initially...
But runs on a currency of crystals and coins solds in packges for as much as $60 in real money.
This is the big concern. It’s not just the small-time operators who are using Free-To-Play to get ahead, but the biggest publishers partnering with the most popular brands. Its Electronic Arts and The Simpsons, Activision and Skylanders, Walt Disney and Temple Run, Dreamworks and Angry Birds.
App publishers point out that a password is required to initiate purchases. To buy the app at first, yes, when it’s listed as free, but not later for purchases within the game itself. App publishers also point out that there are settings parents can use to avoid Free-To-Play charges, but to use them, parents first need to be aware of them and they’re not easy to find. The games certainly won’t help you locate them and they’re not where you might first look, such as the Store Settings section of your device menu.
How To Avoid Free-To-Play Charges
You need to turn off “In-App Purchases”.
For iPhone, iPod Touch, & iPad:
1. Go to Settings, General, Restrictions.
2. Tap “Enable Restrictions”, create a passcode
3. Scroll down to “In-App Purchases” and select Off.
For Android Devices:
Sadly there is no In-App Purchase control on Android. Instead you can set up a password to control purchases made in general.
1. Open the Google Play Store app
2. Go to Settings and select “Set or change PIN”
3. Tick the box next to “Use PIN for purchases”
This will require the PIN to be entered before an app can be purchased and downloaded. To put full responsibility on parents to protect themselves from in-app purchases is a cop-out. Yes, parents should be aware of what their children are doing on mobile devices, but Free-To-Play is a price scheme that no one would expect to encounter. The idea originally was to allow games to offer extras or rewards for a small fee, fair enough, but that has been twisted into a Casino-like system of urgency and tokens that allow you to spend money without it feeling like real money. Walt Disney and Dreamworks haven’t resorted to such tactics to sell movies or toys, so why feel the need to do so with apps?
Instead of slowing down to question where their responsibility in this may lie, the industry’s biggest names are now rushing to leverage every popular brand in what has become a Free-To-Play gold rush. Where you might have seen one or two Free-To-Play games surface in a month, they’re now appearing every week and from bigger and more powerful corporations. It’s unsettling.
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