Monday 25 March 2013

Time to wise up to Freemium

The recent case of a £1,700 Zombies vs Ninja bill should be a wake-up call for how ruthlessly children are being used as cash cows.

“That will be £699.99, please.”

For all the criticisms I have of Apple, one of the things they got right was the App store. They weren’t first people to use this model (Linux distros had already used this approach for years), but they did pioneer mainstream adoption. This has brought a lot of benefits: software installed through repositories such as App Stores easily remains up to date, you don’t have to search on the internet to find the program you’re after (and therefore little danger of accidentally installing a spiked program masquerading as the one you’re after), and it’s easy to remove anything you don’t like (as opposed to hoping the program came with a working uninstall mechanism). It’s also opened up the market on paid apps beyond the big players, and pushed down prices; no more will we be forking out £29.99 for very basic games. On the whole this has been a major step forwards.

Not everything about it has been welcomed. There are quite a few iffy questions about Apple and Windows 8’s over-zealous vetting policies, which I’ve discussed before. But lately I’ve seen a new breed of programs coming to App stores which I think needs questioning. These are known as “Freemium”, and these apps, usually games, are free to download. But if you want to advance in the game, you have to pay real money to receive in-game power-ups. Let’s make this clear: it is nothing like the old model of a free demo version or a paid full-version – they make their money from customers who pay for upgrades again, and again, and again. Freemium advocates might argue that if you want to be a football champion, you have to spend money on a decent kit and training, but I don’t agree. This is cyber-land, where “training” and “kit” is merely changing a few ones and zeros in your favour, and unlike real training and kit this costs nothing to make. I would rather liken this to an owner of a cricket pitch charging you extra for bowling overarm.

To be fair to the Freemium companies, this isn’t entirely a new thing. The practice of gamers paying real money to better themselves in imaginary games has been going on for years without their help. For many years, people have willingly paid real money for virtual gold in games such as Warcraft on a virtual black market, in spite of the game owners trying their best to stop it. There are other also practices taken to such a ridiculous extent that a Chinese player even ending up killing someone for real over sale of an online sword. It was perhaps inevitable that someone would realise that there was a whole market for paying real money to win an imaginary game. I want nothing to do with this – this seems to me like buying a gold medal and thinking this makes you an Olympic champion – but is it really my business? No-one’s being forced to pay for this, so why force someone not to pay?

Good question. I have frequently berated Microsoft and Apple for depriving their customers of freedom of choice, especially in their app markets. I have never accepted the argument that customers need protecting from apps deemed to be inferior quality to the alternatives, so it’s not easy to suddenly claim we need to protect customers from unethical methods of payment. Surely we can decide for ourselves if we’re all adults?

The problem is, we’re not all adults. I’ve noticed that Freemium games are increasingly being aimed at children – and young ones at that. Young children, with no concept of financial responsibility, are the easiest targets for tat whose retail price vastly outweighs the design and production cost. Ruthless marketing pre-dates apps - remember the controversy over Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue? - but it also predates computer games completely. My Little Pony didn't need computers to churn out endless ranges of new ponies, and woe betide any parent who says no. The reason I am picking on My Little Pony is that this greed has blatantly gone straight into their latest app, where you have to pay as much as £35 to unlock new virtual poniesSmurf’s Village has also come under heavy criticism for racking up large bills, and recently a 5-year-old child racked up a £1,700 bill with the blatantly child-aimed Zombies vs Ninja. Not all Freemium games are aimed at children, but increasingly it’s the kiddie games that are behaving the worst.

The predictable response is to scorn parents for not having control of their children. I think that’s a poor excuse, no better than a supermarket blaming parents for tantrums over sweets they deliberately placed at the checkout. With the shameless targeting of children combined with the extortionate amounts Freemium games try to bleed off customers, and the fact that the contracts used mobile operators make it difficult to keep track of that you’re spending, we’ve got a very serious problem on our hands. Probably the most unkind but telling analogy I’ve heard is the business model of the cocaine dealer: the first hit is always free.

I don’t want Freemium banned. Like other consumer products pushed at children, creating new rules rarely solves the problem – they are too easy to get round. There is a case for pressing Apple and Google to be clearer about in-game purchases – as it stands, some iPad apps mention this as an optional courtesy, and one must consider Apple’s priorities when you consider how restrictive their vetting procedure is. What we do need is for the public to rise up as one and stop appeasing these tactics. With many freemium apps costing five times what you'd have paid for something similar in a shop, it's only a matter of time before people start wising up. And this may happen sooner than you think, because the mood is already turning ugly.

Done right, Freemium could still work as a business model. If they carry on taking users for granted the way they do now, it could be the next Instagram. And, unlike Instagram, it won't be missed.

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