Late last year, I wrote about the increasingly absurd nature of IAP (in-app purchase) on iOS. The subject was Hipstamatic Disposable, which offered a bizarre pricing model that made you buy new and shiny virtual digital film for your new and shiny virtual digital film camera. I joked that we’d soon see driving games were you had to fill up your car with fuel, matching prices to the real world, just to enhance the realism. Several devs responded on Twitter, with at least some degree of seriousness, that I shouldn’t be giving certain publishers ideas.
The thing is, I’m not against IAP entirely, since it can be used for good. For example, it’s a great way to offer new content, or a ‘demo’ of a game that can be unlocked once you complete a few levels; it’s also a means to enable gamers to skip ahead through buying extras (i.e. cheats), which is fair enough if your difficulty curve is well-defined. The problem is that too many companies are now using IAP to gouge customers; they look at the top-grossing charts and see grind games performing well and therefore implement grind-or-pay mechanisms of their own. The vicious cycle continues, even infecting classic games like Tetris.
If you’ve not yet played it, the new Tetris for iPhone and iPod has the most astonishingly bat-shit crazy IAP possible. The sad thing is the game itself is, in my opinion, really good. You get a standard sub-optimal swipe mode, but also a new one-touch version that retains the game’s strategy but works well with the touchscreen. Additionally, there’s a compelling level-based puzzle mode that has you blast your way to the bottom of piles of junk. I’ve not had so much fun with a Tetris game since the version released for the original Game Boy.
But EA had to weld IAP to the game and ruin things. The puzzle mode has power-ups and these are paid for using T-Coins. You can either get T-Coins by grinding away scoring in the main mode, or by paying cold, hard cash. 200,000 T-Coins? A snip at $99.99! That’s a $99.99 IAP. For Tetris. Or you could ‘just’ pay $29.99 for a 12-month T-Club subscription, which earns you 15 per cent more T-Coins with every game! That’s right: for just 43 times more than the game itself costs, you can get a slight speed bump to how fast you acquire coins to spend elsewhere in the game. Of course, you don’t have to pay, but without doing so, you’re effectively screwed in the puzzle mode when it comes to decent scores and ratings (which is essentially what any iOS puzzler is about).
This is hateful, but it’s becoming all too common in the iOS gaming world. We now see freemium sports games that demand you pay for more ‘energy’ that is otherwise replenished at a painfully slow rate. And similar mechanics are evident in other genres, too. To my mind, this is the greatest threat to iOS gaming, which could become known not for great games, but for the fact it costs tens of dollars to buy yourself a right to play a bit of a game, but only for a set (and short) period of time, regardless of your level of skill and investment to that point.
I’m really not sure what the solution is. I’d started off thinking about 1980s arcades, which rewarded skill, in the sense that you still paid per play, but the better you got, the longer you stayed on the machine. The thing is, such ‘hardcore’ mechanics would alienate many contemporary gamers, who don’t expect to be booted off a game for not having perfect reflexes. But ‘pay for a slice of time’ in a more general sense feels even more like a corruption of gaming’s purity. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times and of my age. Music continues a move towards a subscription model, with you paying monthly for as much music as you can take in, rather than owning a more limited number of albums forever; television and movies, too, increasingly drift towards such models. But I still fear for gaming when instead of you paying a sum of money upfront for a finite slice of entertainment, you’re instead presented with absurd difficulty curves or arbitrary limitations that can only be overcome by delving into your wallet. And even then, you’ll be expected to delve at regular intervals.
I hope this is just a blip. I hope that the efforts of indies such as Zach Gage and Jeff Minter, both of which offer fantastic iOS games for set prices, encourage other developers to take this path, rather than gouging. But every month I see more developers dipping a toe into the freemium waters, under the guise of ‘social gaming’ or ‘value’, when what they’re really doing is hoping our wallets will chunder coin vomits into their banking toilets.