In-app purchases: The good, the bad and the evil

In-app purchases are something we're all going to come across, here's the lowdown on what's good, and not so good

Android Central University — Google Play

In-app purchases; a highly contentious topic of conversation, but something we have to accept. Developers want to get paid for their work — and rightly so — and for some the in-app purchase model is the chosen way to achieve that. Some folks will never believe they're anything other than evil tricks designed to get you to spend more money, but that isn't always the case.

As part of a continuing series looking at the ins and outs of Google Play we're examining the good, the bad, and the downright evil that comes with in-app purchases.

The good

in-app purchases

In-app purchases can be good. No, really. You just need to take stock of what you're being asked to pay for and why in order to decide this for yourselves. Thankfully Google helps us right from the word go. When you go to download an app — whether it be free or paid — the Play Store will tell you right there in the listing whether or not that app has in-app purchases. It doesn't sadly give you any indication of what those purchases might be, not unless the developer has written them into the app description.

The definition of "good" in-app purchases will vary from person to person. Generally speaking positive examples would be a free-trial version of an app with a purchase upgrade option to the full version, getting access to additional features in an app that will enhance your experience or monthly subscription fees for a service you're going to keep using. These use the in-app purchase model as we'd like to see it being used.

The word "freemium" is tossed around a lot these days, too. Mainly referring to games — Candy Crush Saga being one of the recent big names — where the initial download is free but you'll be required to cough up at some point in the game to keep playing. Again, assess your own feelings when presented with the situation. If you have to pay to progress, then it's probably a bad thing.

The bad and the evil

In-app purchases

We've lumped these two categories together because it's sometimes difficult to properly distinguish. It can come in several different forms, but the best way to describe it is that you're constantly being pressured to buy something. It's something you need to watch out particularly if you've got kids that are playing games and using apps on your Android phone or tablet.

Be that a game from a major studio which requires you to pay just to unlock areas of the game to play, or to continue to progress without waiting an extreme amount of time, or a game designed for kids that hooks them in and then hits them with a paywall, it's all bad.

Our advice – especially where your kids are involved – is that you download the app, use it, and if you're not happy when you hit the first paywall, walk away. Developers deserve to get paid, absolutely, but sometimes a good user experience is a distant second to that.

Pro-tips to help you help yourself

  • Read the Google Play Store reviews before you download an app with in-app purchases. Unless it's literally just hit the Play Store, those guys and gals who have gone before you will be sure to voice their displeasure if the in-app purchase situation isn't acceptable. Likewise, leave your own reviews afterwards to help out other folks.
  • Password protect your account if anyone other than you will be using your device. If you leave your kids with unrestricted access to spend great piles of cash, they will.
  • If you're into a game that keeps asking for payments, set yourself strict limits. Personally speaking I've spent a little money on Real Racing 3 because I enjoy it, but it's easy to get carried away.
  • Don't assume because an app is free to download it's necessarily just after your wallet. Not all developers go overboard, but as soon as you feel uncomfortable, walk away.

There isn't really a right and wrong way to feel about in-app purchases. Everyone feels differently about spending their own money, and that's absolutely important to remember. If you don't like something, just walk away. Don't be pressured to spend anything you're not comfortable with.

For even more on in-app purchases, and Freemium games in particular, be sure to check out Mobile Nations' special coverage, Freemium Rising.

Richard Devine
  • The minute I see IAP I move along. I would much rather just pay a fixed price.
  • Agreed
  • +100000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 Posted via Android Central App
  • Unfortunately, when Android was new, the VAST majority of users were uninterested in paying for anything, that's why the IAP model was adopted. IMHO we're lucky it did or the apps available for Android would be very slim pickings. The funny(or sad) thing is, if people would have been willing to pay a fixed price from the get go, IAP probably wouldn't exist and many apps would actually end up being cheaper.
  • No IAP was adopted because people would rip the apk and give it out for free. That and early developers with good games were making millions of dollars and other developers were like HEY! Why not me? I don't bother with IAP. If I do if it's an upgrade to a camera app, unlocking more pics in a live wallpaper app, removing ads, etc, but as far as games that are pay to advance, I don't even give them the time of day anymore... Hey is that Dead Trigger 2!!! Squirrel!! Posted via Ash William's Boomstick
  • Ahh, the old I'm gonna say you're wrong and then agree with you post. I love those kinds of comments.
  • I always sometimes get modded apks with unlimited gold like real racing 3 Posted via Android Central App
  • not really.... I love Where is my Water 2. There are IAP for sections of the game but...
    1. they are 65p (around $1)
    2. its not easy to design puzzle levels that ore not repetitive and relatively hard I truly belive that for the price of a chocolate bar it is worth forking out to have few hours of fun.... Another moderately good game for IAP is Major Maychem.... This game is loaded with IAP but all you need is coin doubler for £1.50 ( around $3).... again hours of play which I think dev deserves to be paid for.
    Yet another is The Walking Dead Series.... Anything that uses two types of currency etc... is simply hack and send a nice email to developers with included photos....
  • Yup >I'm the kind of guy who stops a microwave at one second to feel like a bomb defuser.
  • As a general rule, I'm okay with IAP, if you're purchasing something permanent. If that's a feature unlock, or an in-game item that permanently helps you out, then I'm usually okay with it, unless the price is outrageous, of course. Even then though, it's generally a value judgement. I may not feel it's worth it for me, but I don't really have an issue with it, since it may be more valuable for someone else. My issue comes when the IAP is for a consumable item, as is the case with the aforementioned Candy Crush (or my personal anti-favorite, Minion Rush). There, I feel that it's pure evil, because it affects the design of the game. Why not make a level or goal (virtually) impossible, since for just a bit of cash the player can breeze right past it? In fact, as a developer, I'd want more such levels or goals, since maybe it will entice the player to lay down a chunk of cash, instead of just a bit! Games should (at times) be frustrating, but the second I feel that the frustration isn't due to my lack of skill (which I'll admit is usually the case), but because the designer is out to make a quick buck... that's when I walk away and never look back.
  • I have never read something I agree with more. THIS THIS THIS
  • The problem is that it is not clear what is the definition of permanent.
    For me, permanent is kind of an asset. When I purchase an app it is an asset that I can install on my phone, tablet, etc... as long as I have in that device the same Google account that I used to purchase the app. This is not exactly bad. It would be good, if you can trust it to work that way.
    In contrast, in most games the In App purchase is an expense. You buy credits that get you more lives or whatever, but once you use it, it is gone. This is bad, but not so bad ig you know what you are doing. However when I purchased an In App upgrade for ROM Manager it was supposed to work similarly to an app purchase, but when I installed a new ROM (that is the purpose of the app) the upgrade was gone. The In App purchase was not recognized. I didn't know how to place a claim with Google and the author ignored my many emails. This is definitely beyond Evil, in the worst sense, because it made me believe that I was purchasing an asset, that resulted to be an expense. Bad behavior from Google and the author that failed to honor a return.
    I don't trust In App purchase anymore. I just avoid any app having them as the plague.
  • I Just wish that Half the apps I PAID an IAP for didn't delete the IAP's when I un-install a game or app. Or have to install on another device because I broke a phone.
  • Just this - sums up my thoughts perfectly. +1
  • The app wants you to in app purchase to be able to buy more in app purchases. The original transaction doesn't warn you that getting the paid version opens it up to buy the modules you believe your buying up front. It got me once but never again.
  • I really dislike IAP's. Charge me $5 and I'm ok with that. I can tolerate it tho on certain things. Like Subway Surf. I paid I think $3 for double coins, and its always there when I change phones (I did have to repurchase it on my iOS phone). Same goes for things like CSR Racing. I spent money on gold to buy certain special cars. No matter when android I'm on I know it will be there.
  • I find IAP to be fine, me and the missus will support the games we choose with small payments, I have wondered ever since the internet came about how these people make a living from the internet, I know there's a lot of add driven content but that can lead to a near instant dismissal if they get it wrong in the app and are too aggressive, I know this is here to stay but can say no game has had more than £20 out of me and for the hours that gets put in is very good value for money, cheaper than an Xbox game at £40 that could be absolute rubbish after two hours play, and I'm sure er all been caught like that, at least this way there is a choice to purchase as you play. Posted via Android Central App
  • I hate iaps and never ever buy any Posted via Android Central App
  • Unlocking app features I have no problem with. I've only once paid into a 'free' game; Real Racing 3. I wanted a small boost and felt fine with it; though I don't plan on doing it again. I dislike ads so if it's a game/app that I use all the time I will pay to get rid of them.
  • I don't think well written article will convince of the people who start foaming at the mouth when they see IAP.
  • I generally hate IAP. If they want to make a free or trial version, then do so... make a SEPARATE app for that, so we can clearly see what all the costs are. Most of the IAP models I have seen are slimy. The vendors intentionally make it difficult to know what total cost ownership will be for something. Some even lock an IAP to your ONE DEVICE.
  • This. Hate this badly. And when you change ROM the system assume that you are in a different device. It is ridiculous that a ROMing app would do exactly this (ROM Manager). You buy the upgrade and as soon as you use the app to apply a new ROM your upgrade is lost.
    No more support for that author.
  • I stock to it either being free or paid. I'm not into in-app purchases, the exception being swiftkey. Posted via Android Central App
  • I like paying for a lagging keyboard too.
  • Agreed. I enjoy SwiftKey :).
  • Stay away from any game made by Gree.
  • IAP:
    The Good:Nothing.
    The Bad:Everything.
    The Evil:The Bad.
  • My rule is simple...any purchases that don't benefit the usability of the app doesn't warrant an extra purchase from me. So all of those feed my pet, kim kardashian, golden coin games that don't actually benefit me get zero...but hey...not hating on those that do.
  • I have no problem with IAPs... other than I want to know about them UP FRONT. Google's little "Offers in-app purchases" is practically worthless for me. They may as well not have bothered. I'm pretty sure that the Play store knows the exact breakdown of all the IAPs. I'm also pretty sure they don't want to advertise them because they rely on bordering-on-deceptive practices to make more money. Please just let me know in the Play store what the IAPs are. Then I can decide to download or not.
  • I just don't bother with in-app purchases. It's just much nicer and at the end you don't feel like you wasted your time and money. Not all BUT most in app purchase games are designed to eventually swindle you out of your money. Especially if it's made by Gameloft or EA. Posted via Ash William's Boomstick
  • I'd rather pay for an app, instead of a free one that has IAP. The one thing that bothers me if you pay for an app and it has IAP's. >I'm the kind of guy who stops a microwave at one second to feel like a bomb defuser.
  • The only game with IAP I play is clash of clans. Posted via Android Central App
  • And even then, you dont need to buy anything unless you wanna advance faster... Perfect type of IAP Posted via Android Central App
  • Sorry to disagree... But I believe free should mean free...if the developer wants paying without adding adds,then charge for the app ..all this download an app and have to pay after a trial period or for additional features is just bs..
    Just seems wrong to me, feels like they are trying to con you somehow ... Posted via Android Central App
  • Here's my idea on IAP's. The "Good" IAP
    - Ads removal.
    - The Spotify subscription model.
    - A donation request from the developer provided that the app has ABSOLUTELY NO ADS AND/OR LIMITED FUNCTIONALITY to begin with.
    - The 'Clash of Clans' model (It's fun grinding your way to a decent base without having to cough up real dough for gems.) The "Bad" IAP:
    - Everything Ubisoft/EA touch. (It's especially insulting considering console and PC games from both companies can thrive and give them money WITHOUT resorting to abusive and mandatory IAP systems.)
    - Timed trials of apps that will just stop working altogether unless you pay up.
    - Games that require a payment for more levels. (You might as well have released the game as a PAID service to begin with!) The "WTH" IAP
    - Podcast apps on Android (paid, or ad-removal IAP)
    (Pocket Casts and Doggcatcher are very good podcast utilities, but C'mon. Every iOS device has it out of the box. Every phone that will be updated to Windows Phone 8.1 will have it natively. Android users should NOT feel that they have to purchase apps (it be outright, or ad-removal IAP) for a service that every smartphone user else can enjoy for free.)
  • I can see IAPs useful for continually supported games. Examples that come to mind are Bonza, or other level-based games. I mean, if the developers are going to dedicate more time to develop more levels, and new challenges, I don't mind paying them for their new work. Typically, I'll avoid paying for temporary/expendable IAPs (more coins, etc), but I don't mind buying new levels for Bonza or Monument Valley,etc.
  • Here is my thing with IAP. I download the game Reaper. It told me in the description that you get the first 10 levels for free. After that you have to pay for it. So the I figured the first 10 levels are the trial and if I don't like it I can uninstall it and if I do I can pay one time for everything. I ended up loving the game and had the option to pay $3, $4, or $5 for the game. The more money I spent the more extra stuff I got, but the extras weren't required. I enjoyed the game so much I opted for the $5 just because the game was so good.
    I am ok with that kind of IAP. For the podcast app I have BeyondPod and I can use it for free just fine but they had a couple features that charged one time for so I opted to pay them or those features and very satisfied with that purchase. The other thing you have to remember is that some apps need updating or maintenance. There is very little incentive for an app developer to maintain an app if they aren't going to make anymore money on it. That is why I like what swiftkey did. They went to an IAP model to continue to make money but it's not required to give them any money if you don't want.
  • Never have been a fan of IAP's. I've also never shied away from paying upfront for an app. I could never understand the reviews I'd read talking about "what a total rip off OMG gonna go broke stole my.99 cents FML". If you couldn't support a dev with a dollar, then get a feature phone and call it a day (and don't buy the app if it has bad reviews). I do like the 15 minute refund window if you pay up front. IAP gives nothing of the sort. Now, my MAJOR gripe on Google Play concerning IAP's is that you aren't informed ahead of time what those costs will be. Even the Apple App Store has a drop-down that lists the IAP costs when looking at apps. That is very useful and I'd love to see it integrated into Play.