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Getting the App Store games we deserve

One of the problems with the App Store when it launched was the inability for developers to charge for upgrades or add-ons like new productivity features or new game levels. The introduction of in-App purchases was meant to solve this problem. Developers could add new features, game levels, and the like. Customers could decide if the updates would be worth the expense.

Then something bad happened. The freemium model emerged. Apps — notably games — launched as free, but not free as in "no money ever," free as in "download the game and be utterly frustrated by artificial delays or resource constraints unless you pay up."

Race conditions

Real Racing 2 is one of the best iOS games ever. It was paid up-front, but it was also fast and a lot of fun. It had an awesome multiplayer mode that worked from phones and tablets. There were some in-app purchases, but they weren't totally needed to play the game. Real Racing 3 was a very different story. It was "free," but it was also virtually unplayable unless you spent an awful lot of money on in-game purchases.

Instead of adding great features to get me to buy the game, split screen multiplayer was taken away. Apple TV support was so bad, I thought my display was broken. The abundance of ads, the waiting for unnecessary car repairs, the ways you were pushed to get certain cars to race certain circuits … it drained the fun away and left me with nothing but frustration.

ImpulseGP is another example. A formerly paid title on my "wish list" went free. The game is beautiful, touts a lovely frame rate, and has great controls. It's also utterly frustrating to get past the first level. In fact, if you've gotten past the first level sans purchases, I'd love to know how. See, paying doesn't unlock new levels or anything fun like that, it simply seems to be required to get new bikes fast enough to clear the existing levels.

Getting gamed

As we go into WWDC 2016 I'm hoping developers find ways to create great standalone apps again. I'm happy to pay. I just want to pay once. Want to charge me for a new level? I'm in. A cool new feature or added content? I'm in. Titles like Alto's Adventure, AG Drive, and Monument Valley show it can work.

I realize this isn't strictly a developer problem. There simply aren't enough customers like me. In-app purchase-based titles are often the highest grossing in their category. That puts terrible pressure on developers who feel like IAP are the only way they're going to monetize their work.

With this week's App Store news about new ways to monetize through subscriptions, I'm hoping developers still keep "buy once, own forever" as an option, make IAP work as it's intended, and customers step up and pay developers for their hard work.

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.

2 Comments
  • I am with you on this. I am fine paying $10 for a *really good* mobile game that I will play a lot, or $1-2 for something that I play once in a while, but the "freemium" thing turns me off.
  • I couldn't agree more! I sometimes feel like the old man sitting on his rocking chair telling the freemium games to get off his lawn, wistfully remembering the days gone by when you'd purchase a game once and get hours of enjoyment out of it. Then you'd buy the sequel, or the add on levels, and keep having more fun. But you didn't have to take your wallet out every day or play a crippled game until you paid to make it not suck. I wonder if some of this has to do with the lack of a software trial option in the app store? Do developers find they need to get people in the door by making it free vs. people gambling on a game being worth the price? I've often wondered what Apple's objection to trial software is, both on iOS and on the desktop app store. I know that I've downloaded a few freemium games to sample how abusive they are with my time before deleting them - but if I was paying anything at all I wouldn't download them without a trial. Some games have a reasonable carrot - fire it up once a day to get "x" marginal improvement - but some are downright diabolical. I played one game for a few weeks that had rewards for taking actions in the game every 5-15 minutes. The game was actually quite fun - think Warcraft - but it felt extremely manipulative after a while and I uninstalled it in frustration. One game that gets it right? Freeblade, a Warhammer 40K game that has a good balance.