In-app purchases are in need of reform

The common wisdom with Apple, especially when it comes to explaining the unusual and apparently limiting ways they introduce features, is that to better serve the user they introduce features that solve the user need in a specific way for each task, instead of providing a generic, unrestricted feature that may not provide an optimal user experience.

At least, that’s how I have seen it expressed, e.g. in one Jesper post:

I am more out of my depth here, but just applying the output to what we know of the process, I think the iOS group sees files as something you are under pressure to manage. In particular, it sees files for everything as a generic solution, and by applying Apple philosophy, it thinks that most of the problems that can be solved using files and applications are instead better solved in a task-specific way for each task.

(post which you may remember from our exchanges on the lack of a document filing system on iOS)

This applies very well to iOS multitasking, as well: instead of just allowing apps to run unconditionally in the background, Apple provided ways to fulfill (practically) each user need in a specific way, and grant background execution privileges commensurately with the need: frozen but no background execution in the general case, background execution for a limited time in the “complete a task” case to e.g. complete an upload, background execution only as long as audio is played for the “play audio while doing something else” case, etc. List which Apple has expanded a few years later with new specific privileges, which shows a willingness to revisit initial restrictions.

So I have to wonder why Apple is not applying this principle to in-app purchases. Currently, it is a generic feature that does not provide an optimal user experience for a variety of user needs:

  • digital content purchases (ebooks, comics, etc.)
  • apps that are downloaded for free with limited features for trial purposes, with a one-time fee to buy the app and get the full functionality (known to old-timers like me as the shareware model)
  • games with a base scenario supplemented by substantial expansions (think StarCraft/StarCraft Brood War)
  • games with more discrete, non-recurring downloadable content (extra weapons, extra maps, etc.)
  • apps with extra functionality obtainable through in-app purchase
  • coin-operated games or with consumables (ammunition, smurfberries, boosters, gems, etc…)

Yes, the purchase experience per se is optimized for each user need, by virtue of each app managing entirely that experience; where this is not is for the other places where in-app purchases have an impact, such as the top grossing list. In particular, information in the iOS App Store about presence of in-app purchases, and how many/how expensive they are, is a completely generic solution to many specific problems, and in way which is not very transparent, to say the least.

This results in warped incentives for app developers, which you probably know about already since Apple has gotten in hot water in the press for those, especially the matter with children buying smurfberries amounting hundreds of dollars or more (which they’ve been able to do while under the timer, initiated by the initial purchase, where the Apple ID password is not prompted for). Apple has fixed the most egregious issues, for instance by having separate timers for the initial iOS App Store download and for in-app purchases, but the fundamental incentive of appearing as an ordinary game, then tempting the user with “boosters” to get him out of a bind, or even possibly get him addicted to these boosters, remains1.

Apple has more recently improved the situation, by changing the language when obtaining free apps (which now reads “Get” rather than “Free”), including those with in-app purchases, and by featuring games that you Pay Once and Play, i.e. without in-app purchases, and while this is a step in the right direction, this is far from sufficient as this excludes games like Monument Valley that feature a single, consistent expansion, and everyone (Apple included, since they featured Monument Valley in the WWDC intro video) wants to encourage apps like Monument Valley.

What can be done?

So what can be done? I think the most important is not to prohibit anything outright, because there may always be a legitimate use for a particular in-app purchase pattern. For instance, long ago, way before there even was an iPhone, I remember reading an article bemoaning that arcade games (back, you know, when arcade games mattered) were ported to consoles without any adaptation; that is, when the arcade version would prompt for a quarter after a game over, the port would simply allow unlimited continues, which sometimes would make it absurdly easier. And the article imagined potential solutions, one of which was a system by which the player on his home console would actually pay 25¢ whenever he would continue that way, that would be wired somehow to the game publisher, which sounded completely outlandish at the time. Not so outlandish now, eh?

But whatever is allowed, what matters is that the user is properly informed when he installs the app.

So the solution I propose is to keep in-app purchases as the common infrastructure behind the scenes, but for the iOS App Store to present each app in a specific way for each use case:

  • First, of course, apps (free or paid) without any in-app purchase, featured as they are currently.

  • Then, apps that you can try before buying. Those would be listed among paid apps, with a price tag that is the unlock price, but with a mention that you can try them out for free; and those would have two buttons rather than “Get”: something like “Try for free” and “Buy outright”, so that you could save yourself the trouble of going through the in-app purchase process if you know the app already and know you need it.

  • Then we would have apps, typically games, with a discrete and limited number of “tiers”. They would be listed among paid apps with a price tag which is the first tier; and in the page for the app, the tiers would be shown in a clear way (instead of this meaningless ranking of in-app purchases), e.g. as a series of “expansion” elements which visually combine, with each the name and price, as in:

    /-------------------\--------------\
    | StarCraft          \ Brood War    \
    | $20                / +$10         /
    \-------------------/--------------/
    

    or even:

    /-------------------\------------------\-------------------------\------------\----------------------\
    | World of Warcraft  \ Burning Crusade  \ Wrath of the Lich King  \ Cataclysm  \ Hey why not Narnia?  \
    | $30                / +$15             / +$15                    / +$15       / +$15                 /
    \-------------------/------------------/-------------------------/------------/----------------------/
    

    (Maybe with a shape that less suggests an arrow, but you get the drift)

  • Then apps that have unlockable features in a more complicated structure, but with no “ammunition” in-app purchase (what Apple refers to as a “Consumable” in-app purchase). Those would just have their initial price, then a ranking of these in-app purchases in a way close with what is done currently, but a “maximum cost” which is the price of obtaining all of them would also be shown as an indication.

  • Then apps with content in-app purchases, such as Comixology before it removed them. For those, there would be no such “maximum cost”, because no one is going to buy the whole catalog.

  • And lastly, apps that do have “ammunition” in-app purchases. These would be listed with a special price tag mentioning no specific cost, and the page for the app would have the button say, not “Free”, not “Get”, but “Install coin-operated machine” or some such that makes it clear you would be inviting on your device a box that belongs to the app developer and has a slot that takes money and directly sends it there, because that is what these apps are. Such a decision wouldn’t be popular with many app developers, but Apple has shown itself willing to take decisions that don’t sit well with developers when they sincerely think they are acting for the benefit of the consumer, for instance when Apple still doesn’t allow paid upgrades.

  • And we would also have apps using recurring subscriptions, about which I don’t have much of an opinion so far.

Building on these distinctions, more changes would be possible, for instance there could be separate top grossing lists, one for each category, which would avoid legitimate hits of the first categories from being drowned by the eternally grossing coin-operated machines of the App Store.

There you have it. At any rate, even if there could be completely different ways to go about it, it is certainly an area of the iOS App Store that could use some improvement (Mr. Schiller, if you’re listening…), having barely changed for so long without any of Apple’s apparent philosophy of “Let’s replace this confusing, generic solution by a number of specific solutions designed for each task”.


  1. In fact, given the similarities with gambling, I can’t exclude for these boosters-laden games to be eventually regulated as such

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