In-app purchases: a matter of perception


In recent times, the number of ‘free’ iOS apps featuring In-app purchases I’ve encountered has definitely increased. Many of them are games, but it’s not uncommon to find utility, productivity or even photo apps as well. Apparently, this is happening because the so-called freemium model is having success and more people are downloading more apps. The reasoning behind this model is not entirely wrong: since it’s still not possible to offer demo or trial versions of an app in the App Store, the ‘free with In-app purchases’ workaround gives developers a way to make people try their software with limited functionality (limits greatly vary for each app), and the In-app purchases are a way to unlock parts of the app or to add expansions that make it even more useful or versatile.

How such method is implemented is another story. (I’m about to make some examples, but first, a disclaimer: I have picked these apps simply because they help me make a point; I’ve picked them among the latest offerings on the App Store, and there’s nothing personal behind my choices. I’m just illustrating a trend, not pointing fingers for the sake of pointing fingers.)

Let me be clear: current buying trends may favour the freemium model, but I dislike it, and I generally prefer apps that make me pay up front without having to buy one or more extra building blocks to achieve full functionality. This is particularly true with games. (More about this later.)

Usually, non-game apps with In-app purchases tend to be reasonable with what you can do with the app in its basic form before you feel compelled to unlock more features via an In-app purchase. Sometimes you even feel the app meets your needs without having to purchase a single extra. Sometimes In-app purchases have so low a price that you just buy without hesitation (typical example: €0.89 to get rid of ads).

A recent example of what I think is a well-balanced app with regard to functionality in its basic form before one starts feeling it’s time to make the In-app purchase, is Curator, an iPad app that lets you “Collect and see your thoughts regardless of whether they are websites, text or images.” Your ‘visual notes’ are organised in tiled boards and the app lets you create up to five boards before you need to make a $6.99/€5.99 In-app purchase to have unlimited boards. Five boards may seem a very tight limit, but unless you have a multitude of ideas and projects to organise, you’ll see that Curator gives you enough room to realise whether you really need the In-app purchase.

When In-app purchases are reasonably and thoughtfully implemented, I really don’t mind the freemium model that much. Why is that? As the title of this article goes, it’s a matter of perception. Especially with games, where the In-app purchase situation is getting out of hand, in my opinion. I’ll be blunt: there are some games in the App Store with an In-app purchase system that seems to be designed to rip people off. I’ve often sided with developers and, as a power user, I do understand the amount of work necessary to develop a complex application or a high-quality game. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that I’ve always endorsed paying for software, so I’m not complaining about In-app purchases because I just want to enjoy something for free. But the ways certain games drive you to make In-app purchases in order to advance or unlock features that are necessary to complete the experience, well, make the developers behind them look like scam artists.

So, when I land on an iOS game info sheet on the App Store either after following a recommendation, or because I notice a featured game that looks interesting, and the game is labelled ‘free’ but ‘Offers In-App Purchases’, I immediately scroll down to the In-App Purchases section of the info sheet and examine them. It’s fairly easy to sense whether they’re designed to make you waste your money or not. If that’s the case, I’ll just ignore the game (or the app) and will look for a similar game or app which makes me pay in advance but doesn’t involve In-app purchases.

I know, I may end up spending more money this way, and I may risk paying, say, €4.99 up front for an app that turns out to be not that useful (or a game that ultimately disappoints), but to me that feels like money better spent. To me, that app or game feels ‘more honest’ than something that’s basically unusable or not enjoyable without spending a little fortune in In-app purchases. Take two very recent games that have been very prominently featured in the App Store: Oceanhorn and Clumsy Ninja. Oceanhorn is $8.99/€7.99 up front and doesn’t involve In-app purchases. Clumsy Ninja is free, but take a look at the In-app purchases:


(Not shown, a tenth In-app purchase, Cart of Coins, that costs €26.99.)

Now, which of the two I’m more likely to purchase? (And what about you?) I have no doubt that the guys who developed Clumsy Ninja are great developers, and that Clumsy Ninja is a fun, innovative game. But that In-app purchase structure completely changes whatever positive impression I may have of the game. (By the way, my wife downloaded it on her iPad 2, and the game is really fun and runs quite well even on that hardware. But it also becomes repetitive rather quickly unless you start making In-app purchases to advance in the training of that cute ninja.)

And it’s a pity, really, because games like Clumsy Ninja are really well done and deserve to be purchased, but not with such In-app purchase schemes that inevitably end up tainting the overall experience.[1]



  • 1. Let me reiterate: I’ve chosen Oceanhorn and Clumsy Ninja as fresh examples of different approaches. There are many other games in the App Store like them. To make another example: I bought Device 6 without hesitation, and avoided Real Racing 3 for the same reasons I avoided Clumsy Ninja.


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