A very mild defense of in-app purchases

OK, I guess I’ll be the one.

I come not to praise in-app purchases but to not bury them.

Really, I hate the in-app purchase racket. I hate how it’s abused by so many developers. I will always favor an app that has a list price and no in-app purchases over one that’s going to nickel and dime me or even just make me pay to unlock levels or features.

The in-app purchase racket preys on people like the lottery. Pay another dollar and maybe you could win today! Oops, not today! Well, see you tomorrow!

Turns out, surprise, a lot of people like the freemium model (via TUAW):

“However, when asked, the majority of heavy spenders endorse that they are satisfied with the purchases made in the mobile games on which they spend the most money.”

Well, sure. Ask a heroin addict and they’ll probably tell you the same. In-app purchases are just like the proverbial drug pusher, giving the first go round away for free in order to get you hooked with each subsequent high giving the promise of an even better one the next time.

But let’s assume you aren’t a victim and you can resist the siren’s song of the in-app purchase. If I don’t spend any more than I would have for the app previously, why should I care about the mechanism?

Actually, even that’s not right.

What we should be asking is simply whether or not we’re spending what the app is worth. We’ve spent a lot of time decrying the race to the bottom in app pricing. Now we’re complaining because app developers have found a way to make more money.

Not surprisingly, the study cited above says the freemium model works out well for developers. Almost exclusively, of course, it’s all the wrong developers. Because the good ones, the ones we like and go drinking with at WWDC, would rather drag a nail across a Retina MacBook Pro than go freemium.

My son is nine years old and I’ve lost track of the number of freemium games I’ve downloaded for him since I decided to give into this rough beast and let it slouch toward Tacoma, WA to be born again and again. But the amount he spends on games is the same as it’s always been, coming from his allowance, money he’s earned or random acts of kindness from me.

That’s obviously not the case for a lot of people. You can find stories of people who’ve spent their life savings on Candy Crush and now beg on the streets. But my wife and son both play the game and only my son has ever paid anything for it, and even then only $1.99. Surely it’s worth that.

I am currently making my way slowly and carefully through my first freemium game: Plants vs. Zombies 2. I’m not opposed to spending maybe $10 on it. In a world where desktop games cost up to $60 and console games maybe $40, it seems like a good mobile game should be at least worth that much. So far I’ve spent nothing.

If you’re not the addictive type, freemium games can be played without getting screwed. Just like with gambling, though, decide how much you want to lose and leave the rest of your money at home.