Posted by David Price 17 February 2015
Apple declares war on free (sort of)
I spend a little of my working life writing about games (in your face, 15-year-old me!), and this means that iOS app developers often send me download codes so I can play their games for free. Many other iOS games, of course, are free for everyone. My wife cannot understand, therefore, why I also occasionally buy games.
(For those of you on Android, 'buying' a game means to exchange currency for a non-pirated digital copy. I know - weird, right?!)
Part of the reason I pay for games when I don't strictly need to is because I'm a weak man who is addicted to both playing computer games and shopping for computer games. Sometimes I desperately want to play a particular game even though it isn't of interest to Macworld's readers or is for other reasons unlikely to be covered on the site, and consequently it would be dishonest to request a free code from the maker. And sometimes a game is of immense interest to both me and the readers but the maker doesn’t respond to my email quickly enough and I get impatient and pay the money because what the hell, it's only £2.99.
The beautiful Monument Valley. "£2.99 for a relatively short game? That's extortion. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm just off to buy the latest iPhone."
But there are other factors at play too. One is that I don’t like the effect that free games, and the expectation of free games, are having on the games industry: discouraging risky or ambitious projects, which are unlikely to make back their costs in a market whose pricing expectations are set at zero, and incentivising cheaply made clones riddled with the sorts of delays and psychological tricks that induce less savvy gamers to buy lots of in-app purchases (IAPs). Another is the belief that software developers need and deserve to be paid, and my own preference to make that payment upfront rather than by subterfuge in the future, whether via IAPs, intrusive in-game advertising or the slow decline of an industry that I love.
For these reasons I like to feel that I am doing my own microscopic bit to help the situation, by paying a few quid to the people who make games I enjoy - and at the same time withholding my custom from the dodgy cloners and freemium scammers who happen to be offering their games for free. Hopefully I'm not the only one.
Then again, it doesn't look like I am, because Apple itself has started looking with disfavour on the freemium business model, or at least choosing to give that impression. This weekend, Apple took a third step in its low-key campaign to give quality paid-for apps a helping hand in their war against substandard freebies.
After previously adding a warning note on apps (both free and paid-for, but let's face it: mostly free) that contain in-app purchases, and changing the wording from the 'oh my goodness what a bargain' allure of 'free' to the more ambiguous 'get' in certain contexts*, Apple has now added and highlighted a curated section of non-IAP games within its App Store. These are called 'Pay once and play'. Which is an odd phrase, but a beautiful one in its own way.
I won't pretend to know exactly what Apple expects or hopes to achieve with this, but it strikes me as a brave move. Freemium is an enormous money-spinner for Apple as well as for its ranks of app developer partners, and even this small gesture, coming from a voice as loud as Apple's, is a PR blow for IAP-reliant software.
It's not inconceivable that Apple will lose a little money as a result of these three steps, particularly if they harm public perception of IAPs as much as I would like them to; which would make the strategy sit alongside Tim Cook’s famous outburst to a penny-pinching shareholder: "When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don't consider the bloody ROI." (For the background to that comment, see the epilogue to our article about Apple's environmental record.)
That remains a risk that Cook and his company are taking by siding with quality apps rather than the freemium ones. But I think this is a great strategy that will reap dividends for Apple as well as for the developer community in general. In doing this Apple can widen and highlight the gap in perceived and discoverable quality between its curated App Store and the piratical free-for-all that is Google Play. The volume of apps on the iOS and Android stores is so ludicrously high that the only issue for users is discovery, and Apple should be applauded for winnowing out the chaff - or, to be more precise, giving the wheat a curated micro-site.
In any case I always thought it was odd that iOS users were so leery about paying for apps, considering the cheapness of the software and the dearness of the hardware it's run on. Paying a higher initial price in order to receive a higher-quality product? Isn’t that what being an Apple fan is all about?
* I don't think this is the ideal solution, by the way - it's inelegant, for one thing, and I'm sure that after a brief period of confusion virtually all users will mentally replace the word 'Get' with 'Free' when scanning the store. But I can't think of a better one, barring a wide range of categories to include 'Free demo; IAP unlocks full game', 'Free; cosmetic IAPs', 'Free; requires IAPs for core functions' and so on. And those aren't exactly elegant either.