THE TOYNEWS BLOG: The hazards of in-app purchases

ToyNews' publisher looks at the challenges free-to-download toy and game apps present to the average parent.
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I should have known better. 

After all, I’m the former managing editor of Mobile Entertainment, I can boast a long stint as editor of video games publication MCV, and I’m now publisher of B2B titles covering PC, tech and toys.

So surely I should have been more aware of the hazards of in-app purchases than the average parent? Apparently not, given the shocking iTunes bill I received just a week before Christmas.

My husband downloaded Ice Age Village onto my iPad for three year-old son. Charlie played the game for about 20 minutes before moving onto throwing plastic balls at one of the cats.

The next morning, I checked my emails and was horrified to discover two iTunes bills – one for £20.99, the other for £74.98.

For the cost of £95.97, my three year-old son had purchased a ‘stash of acorns’ (£4.99), a ‘den of acorns’ (£20.99) and a ‘treasure chest’ (£69.99). All in the space of 20 minutes. And all without a password being required (he is a genius, of course, but he’s not yet managed to remember a 10-digit combination of characters).

If recent reports are to be believed, I’m not alone. Parents like me are discovering the ‘sweet spot’ in children’s games which allows IAPs to be acquired without a password being required - if they’re made within the first 15 minutes of a game being downloaded.

And toy brands are increasingly moving into the app space. Playmobil, for example, recently launched a Playmobil Pirates game, which is free to download but charges for additional in-app currency.

Despite my background in games and tech, I had no idea about this. I assumed that a password would be required for ANY downloads. I also wouldn’t have expected any additional content to cost £69.99 in a game that is aimed at pre-schoolers. Seriously, would anyone pay even £20.99 for a ‘den of acorns’, unless it was purchased in error…?

Luckily, my story has a happier ending than some of the reports we’ve seen in the press recently. After a strongly-worded email to the iTunes customer support department, I received both a refund and an apology.

I’ve also since increased the security settings on my iPad, obviously. Yeah, horses bolting and gates, etc.

But I remain a little unsettled by the whole episode. Given my history on MCV, I’ve always been a fierce defender of the video games industry.

Sadly, my experience with in-app purchase options in what are clearly children’s games means that I’m unlikely to do the same with ‘freemium’ iPad content.

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