Apple must eradicate predatory App Store IAP ‘scams’ gaming the system

I’m all for developers of apps and games making money, whether by one-off payments or subscriptions. Although many now opt for the latter – and, frankly, in rather optimistic fashion, given the price-hikes that often occur – that’s fine if the user is at no point hoodwinked into signing up. Sadly, many apps are now using predatory tactics to game the system – and Apple needs to crush this horror.

The example I’m going to use here is Selfie Art, which is currently being advertised across a number of games. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill app that I nonetheless imagine quite a few people might enjoy, transforming photographs into comic-style illustrations. The ad is sleek and inviting. As is, to some extent, the app itself when it first appears. However, on examining the initial screen, there are a number of red flags.

First, this is a doorslam. There is no way to escape the screen and use even a feature-limited version of the app. The FREE FOR NEW USERS button shimmers and animates, and the header states you can “access all features for free”. However, beneath the shimmering button is a comparatively dull one, outlining a staggering £24.49 fee – for a filter app. This is clearly designed to drive people to prod the free button; but take another look and you see some really faint grey text below, which notes that the trial is for just three days. After that point, you’ll be charged a monstrous £8.49 per week – more even than that monthly fee.

Sure enough, tap the button labelled FREE under the heading that says ‘For Free’, and you’re invited to join a piffling three-day free trial that then converts into an £8.49 per week charge. On older iPhones, this is horribly easy to trigger in error – automatic, if your thumb’s already on the Home button. Newer devices require a double-click of the Side button, but even then many users do this without thinking. Should you make that error and not notice (if you don’t track your App Store receipts), you’ll be down 300 quid a year – again, for a filters app.

Clearly, this is not OK. Apple really needs to have stricter policies in place to weed out such predatory charging, in order to protect its users. Two obvious options spring to mind:

1. Make it so charges are outlined in the same fonts, at broadly the same size, and in crystal-clear text. No more buttons marked FREE, unless that’s followed by FOR THREE DAYS, say.

2. Notify users when trials end, and have them confirm sign-up again.

I imagine lots of devs would be horrified by the prospect of users having to confirm a subscription a second time – on the basis a lot of people wouldn’t. If that’s you, perhaps petition Apple to strictly enforce IAP listing rules that are fair, obvious, and clear. And if your apps aren’t already all of those things regarding payment options, redesign them right now. Don’t be the bad guy, tricking people into signing up; be someone where people splash out on a subscription solely because they want ongoing access to a great app or game you’ve made.

August 19, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Apple Maps in iOS 13 still isn’t a Google Maps killer

As iOS 13 rampages towards us, half the Apple press has lost itself in a squee love-in, glowingly reporting that Apple Maps is now a Google Maps killer.

I’ve used the new Apple Maps quite a bit, and it is an improvement. Apple’s Street View rip-off, ‘Look Around’, not only sounds like a terrible 1970s BBC family TV show, but it’s smoother and more useful (what with inline POIs) than Google’s equivalent. Also, Apple now gives you shareable collections, and still actually knows what colour roads are supposed to be on maps in the UK. (Hint, Google: motorways are BLUE; A roads are GREEN.)

But the wheels come off unless you’re living in a big US city, and armed with as much data as your phone can eat – on a connection that never dies. Head beyond a handful of US cities and Look Around vanishes entirely. The lack of a map download option means Apple Maps is effectively useless unless you’re online.

I’ve no doubt future Apple Maps revisions will address these shortcomings. In fact, it doesn’t take a tech genius to recognise that in a few years, these apps will enable you to download offline mapping info for the entire world. But my assessment of software and services is based on what I see right now, and where I happen to live and work, rather than in a bubble – virtual or otherwise – that exists around Cupertino.

August 12, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Google Play Pass vs Apple Arcade – which has the best chance of victory?

Android Police reports Google is looking into a Netflix-style app/games bundle priced at five bucks per month. This is probably good-ish for users, but a questionable draw for devs. When Amazon’s done similar things in the past, I’ve not heard positive things from app/game creators regarding income. Most have said such deals turned into a time-sink – little extra income, but a big increase in support requirements.

Naturally, there will be comparisons with Apple Arcade. I’m hopeful but cautious about Apple’s offering. After all, the company’s recent history with gaming has been poor. Game Center was left to rot, and then Apple killed it entirely. This left us without a centralised system for social gaming on the platform, and a massive increase in games asking people to sign into Facebook for high scores and the like. MFi and controller strategy has been repeatedly and unnecessarily botched. Even now, there’s no way to get a dynamically updated list on the App Store of games that support controllers. And then there’s the thorny issue of pricing, with many devs switching from c. 2012’s THE APP STORE IS AMAZING to leaving the platform entirely.

However, there are signs Apple is beginning to get gaming – at least to some degree. iOS 13 will support Xbox One and PS4 controllers out of the box. Apple Arcade isn’t just a case of Apple creating a gated gaming service – it’s throwing millions of dollars of funding at the thing as well. The App Store, too, now has its Games tab and games editorial in the Today tab, both of which help people discover great new and existing titles. Google doesn’t come close with most of this stuff – it is the BBC Micro to Apple’s ZX Spectrum.

That all said, success for these new subscription services will likely boil down to something a lot simpler – in fact, just two things:

  1. Are people willing to pay?
  2. Does enough high-quality fare exist on the platform?

For Google Play, answers to both of those are, sadly, mostly no. Android has a decent selection of games, but lacks many of iOS’s top-tier titles; and once you move past customisation and emulators, the app landscape on Android is dreadful. On iOS, I’ve of late found good new apps harder to find, but the ecosystem is still very strong. Games-wise, though, it’s frequently great – and that’s before Apple Arcade’s arrival.

That said, I remain unsure how many people will shell out ten bucks a month in the long term for games. (Frankly, you’d have to be a massive idiot to pass on the prospect of dozens of high-quality mobile titles on day one. But on month two…?) But it feels like Apple has a better shot at this than Google – unless Google puts some serious effort into ramping up the quality and discoverability of the content on its mobile store.

August 2, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Publishers should steal Pi foundation’s approach to digital magazines

If you’ve not read Wireframe, it’s a British fortnightly games magazine, largely aimed at people with an interest in creating games. I was fortunate enough to write for the debut issue (a fun overview of the explosions in arcade classic Defender), but am also very impressed by the user experience of the magazine itself.

This isn’t something addressed by a great deal of publishers – they either forget how magazines can work in the digital age, or they figure out ways to get more money from readers who prefer flexibility over a fixed format. By contrast, every single issue of Wireframe (and any other magazine from the Pi foundation) can be downloaded for free as a PDF.

It’s an interesting model – open and inclusive. If you genuinely can’t afford the mag, you can still read it. If you’re not sure about it, you can check out a couple of issues, after which you may well subscribe. (At least, if you believe it’s good to support media you love, lest it disappear.) And if you buy in stores or subscribe, you get the bonus of digital backups as a reward for your purchase.

I much prefer paper over digital. I can just about stomach comics on an iPad, but gloss over when it comes to magazines and prose books. But I also don’t want piles of paper magazines with the odd article I might want to refer to in future. Most publishers don’t care about this. It’s a weird stance.

Publishers should be trying to lock-in readers via subscriptions, and doing everything they can to keep them. Free digital back-ups (even if they aren’t ‘openly’ available) seem like a good bet. But mostly you see publishers trying to double dip – 30% off (or similar) if you buy both paper and digital subscriptions.

Technically, a paper mag and a digital mag are two separate items. I know purists who argue people shouldn’t rip media they own to digital, and would say you shouldn’t expect a free digital back-up of a paper magazine or comic that you buy. They’re right. However, we exist in a time where media is being shaken up. Major corporations are shifting to wider subscription models. You subscribe to all music, or all telly, or all comics. Gaming services like this are happening too. Want to keep your subscribers/buyers yourself? Then do better by them! Give them more!

Sure, you as a publisher or creator might be happier if I pay 50 quid for a year’s subscription and then 30 quid on top of that for some PDFs. But that just makes me feel like you’re squeezing me for every penny. But I’ll be more likely to stick around if you decide as a publisher to improve my user experience regardless.

So, to me, Wireframe and other Pi foundation mags are at the very top of the heap – the shining example. But print publishers needn’t go that far. They could still boost stickiness by locking PDFs/CBRs behind an account number, and give readers the best of both worlds – but not expect them to pay for the same content twice.

February 4, 2019. Read more in: Magazines, Opinions, Technology

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How old is too old to play videogames?

Over on Digitiser 2000, Paul ‘Mr Biffo’ Rose mulls over: how old is too old to play videogames? Only he puts a space in ‘videogames’, because of a traumatic experience with a production editor.

Anyway, his story is that having blasted the iconic Digitiser into millions of eyes in his 20s (and, more recently, endearingly bonkers YouTube telly show Digitiser), he now finds himself an old git, 48 years ‘young’, playing games. What a total man-child idiot! Except: no.

Frankly, I find it astonishing this is still a question people need to ask themselves. Games are just another thing people do to be entertained and pass the time. They are interactive entertainment that sits part-way between puzzle solving, dexterity test and television. No-one suggests at 36 you should throw your telly out of the window, or at that 43 you should stop doing crosswords. But gaming has somehow been labelled a juvenile pursuit.

In part, this is down to short memories. Arcade games when originally created were aimed squarely at adults. Early home-gaming systems were largely in that space, although often also marketed as family entertainment. It was mostly with the arrival of NES-era consoles that gaming took root as something ‘for the kids’. Only, those kids grew up, and a big chunk of gaming grew up with it. Today, the range of games you can access is huge, from tablet-based fare like Thinkrolls that my then0two-year-old managed to grasp on an iPad, through to the kind of content that no-one under 18 should really be setting their eyes on.

Any negativity is really just another oft-repeated hot-take by curmudgeons and spoilsports who hate people liking stuff that they themselves don’t like. Comics? Pah! Those are for children! (What, even Saga? OK, then.) Tabletop gaming? Are you twelve? You still watch Doctor Who? Pfft! Etc!

A few years back, I wrote a piece for Stuff that sums this up, and I stand by it. In short, like what you like, and – assuming it doesn’t negatively impact on others (i.e. I’m not going to support, say, your desire to catapult parked cars at supermarkets) – nuts to everyone else. So you want spend evenings building a Picade retro-gaming console, like I did, to tinker with ancient games in your spare time? Go you! You prefer Harry Potter over more ‘worthy’ books bothering the fiction charts? Have fun with it! You want to settle down of an evening with MarioKart rather than EastEnders? Queen-Vic-You-Don’t!

You’re not too old to do the things you like. Instead, as you get older, you should cram more of what you love into those years you have left, not discard them because some miserable gits disapprove.

January 10, 2019. Read more in: Gaming, Opinions

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