In-App Purchases: Who’s to blame?

In-App Purchases: Who’s to blame?


Last week, a California judge gave the go-ahead for a class action suit against Apple brought by a group of parents upset about In-App Purchases in games and how kids were racking up huge bills from them. Court documents say that these games are deliberately designed to be highly addictive and compel children to buy in-game currency with real-life money.

You’re likely familiar with how it works. Games like Smurfs’ Village, Pocket Frogs, and others let you earn a paltry amount of in-game currency by performing certain actions. If you don’t like the pace at which you’re progressing, you can buy more in-game currency and it gets charged to your credit card via your iTunes account. This allows you to progress much quicker than if you were to just grind through the game normally.

Part of the issue is that up until about a year ago, it was fairly easy for anybody to make these purchases, as the iOS device you were playing on didn’t re-challenge you for a password that often for many purchases after entering it once. And of course kids, who in many cases don’t yet have a grasp on the concept of real-world money, would just go ahead and buy more coins or whatever the game was selling. When the credit card bill came in, parents would have a figurative heart attack. Apple did change the in-app purchase system to ask for passwords much more often when making a purchase, which helped, but came too late for the lawsuits.

So who exactly is to blame for this situation? You can make the case for Apple. They’re the ones who created the App Store and integrated the In-App Purchase system into Apps for developers to use. Plus, they’re the easiest target as they have lots of money, they’re the big corporation, and they set up the ecosystem so they should have taken steps to limit this kind of thing. Plus, the buck stops with them. Apple’s tight control over App approval is well known, and they green-lighted all of these Apps in the first place.

But what about the developers? Perhaps Apple simply provided the tools, and the developers took advantage. Beeline Interactive knew exactly what they were doing when they made Smurfs’ Village a free game, but then offered Smurfberries by the Bucket ($5), Bushel ($10), Barrel ($25), Wheelbarrow ($50), or the incomprehensible Wagon ($100). The same goes for the other developers who are downright miserly with in-game currency, making those for-pay coins/berries/whatever all the more enticing.

Smurfberry Purchase

This just in: Companies and corporations are in this to make money! A healthy amount of cynicism is all but required as a consumer these days. They’re out to get as much money as they can from us, thus we need to be out to minimize what they actually end up with. That’s why, to me, the most blame lies with the parents. How did these games get into the kids’ hands in the first place? Did they download them onto their iPhone or iPod Touch and then just hand it over to the children? Did the kids go into the App Store and download the games themselves? Either way, how are you not closely monitoring what they’re playing? By now, we should all know what free to play is all about, especially with the “freemium” model that is becoming more prevalent in casual games. This really shouldn’t be surprising anybody.

When my sons started playing Pocket Frogs, we had a detailed and stern discussion with them about the difference between buying things with game money, and buying things with real money, which was absolutely forbidden. They’re now eight and four, and have been playing Pocket Frogs and other games with In-App Purchases sporadically for well over a year now and we’ve yet to have one incident with them buying things in-game. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to talk with your kids about this subject, and to also keep tabs on what they’re playing. And if you still don’t totally trust them? You can totally disable In-App Purchases on your iPhone/iPod Touch:

  • Go to Settings -> General -> Restrictions
  • Enter your Restrictions passcode (or supply one if you haven’t been here yet)
  • Under the Allowed Content section, you’ll see the switch for In-App Purchases

As a bonus, this is also where you can age-restrict Apps, TV Shows, Music and Podcasts, and Movies. If you’re a little more trusting, this is also where you set the option for requiring passwords for purchases every 15 minutes or every single time.

Perhaps I’m being hard on the parents here. It’s certainly not always easy to keep up every single thing our kids are doing these days, and technology makes that job harder than ever. We’re fortunate that my wife and I are fairly tech-savvy, which has allowed us to stay somewhat ahead of the curve in this regard. But this is also basic parenting at the same time. You can’t just put the potential instruments of commerce in the hands of young children and hope everything will work out fine. A little bit of diligence goes a long way. I won’t totally absolve Apple, and especially the developers who came up with these pricing models, of guilt here. But we can’t trust corporations to do the right thing for us, so it’s up to us to do the right thing for us and our children. The courts may be sympathetic to the plantiffs, or Apple may just want to settle to make this go away.

Hopefully, somebody will at the very least learn a lesson from all this. An expensive lesson, but a lesson all the same.

  • Axe99

    Read somewhere that this case is based on purchases made prior to the i-devices having the option to disable in-app purchases – ie, Apple could have learned a thing or two from the main gaming platform provides before they set up their system. That said, I’m not convinced that even if it couldn’t be disabled that it’s not the parent’s fault. Surely they should be able to keep their kids from their phone.

  • Jeff Peeters

    I agree. It would have been nice to have had some mechanism like they have now. Still, nothing changes the fact that these kids were given unfettered access to the device. The parents had to know about the in-app purchase thing, and if they didn’t, a two minute Google search would have told them.


Co-founder and Managing Editor of GamerPops, Jeff Peeters is a husband and father of three precious and energetic boys who make every day an adventure. When it's daddy gaming time, he enjoys games in the inFAMOUS, Assassin's Creed, and Uncharted series. Follow him on Twitter @jpeeters.

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