Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
News of Apple refunding £1,700 to the parents of a boy who had spent that amount in iOS game Zombies vs Ninja spurred me to write an opinion piece suggesting that it’s time for a proper debate on free-to-play children’s apps.
A debate certainly ensued: 161 comments at the time of writing, ranging from stern criticism of parents who let their children loose on smartphones or tablets unattended, through to discussion of the responsibilities of app developers and platform owners like Apple.
As a follow-up, I asked some children’s app developers and industry figures for their views on the in-app purchases (IAP) issue. Their answers throw up some new slants on the topic.
That includes distinguishing between different variants of IAP; a suggestion for a code of conduct and related trust-mark for ethical children’s apps; an idea for pay-as-you-go subscriptions where parents are only charged if their child actually plays with an app that month; nuanced thoughts on parental duties; and some useful background on the business challenges that are making so many kid-app developers turn to IAP.
Starting with the latter, and James Huggins: managing director of British firm Made In Me, whose Me Books apps use IAP to sell digital picture-books to parents, including branded versions for Peppa Pig and Ladybird books.
"If you have a major problem with IAP, don’t download any free apps," he says. "It’s that simple. The freemium model exists because the market is so reluctant to pay for apps. You can’t have it both ways."
That’s a point I made in the original piece: that many parents I’ve talked to are angry about IAP in children’s apps, yet say they only download free apps for their kids. Most developers are trying to negotiate this contradiction as best they can.
"99-cent pricing and, of course, free pricing is putting enormous pressure on kids’ app developers to try to find a way to stay afloat and deliver quality content," says Nat Sims, chief executive of US children’s apps publisher Night & Day Studios.
"It is expensive enough to produce a playful app with good game design and nice animation. If you want it to be beautiful, meaningful, and have educational value, how much more does that cost the developer? I can give you some insider data on that: twice as much or more. And yet how much more are you willing to pay, as a parent, to see this app?"
Sims notes that App Store discovery being what it is, many parents find new apps for their children by browsing the Education category charts, where the top apps are much more likely to be the cheapest ones.
Sims outlines the developer dilemma. "We need to find a way to get apps in the hands of parents – our true, buying customers, and the gatekeepers for our end users – children – and then, ideally, we want to also provide great, fun, educational experiences for the children," he says.
"We also need to pay our bills so we can make new apps that are even better than what we did before, and what every other well-funded company is also putting out. And we need people to find our apps, so there’s additional pressure to keep our initial purchase price as low as possible."
So, IAP makes for an appealing way for developers to make money while also lowering this bar to entry. Yet as Sims notes, IAP "competes directly with what I personally want as the parental experience".
How so? "For my young child, I want to make as few purchase decisions as possible – without her involvement or access to my bank account – and then know that her use of the app is safe, fun, and won’t unexpectedly cost me more money," he says.
"If she loves the app and wants more, I’d like to be able to provide that to her, but I obviously don’t want her to be able to just grab whatever she wants, with my money. Ideally I’d either pay a bit more from the start and get the whole package – the hardest to pull off as a developer, and so not really an option much of the time – or when I wanted to expand or continue the experience for her, only I would be able to make it so."
StoryToys debated how best to use IAP in its Farm 123 app
It’s important to understand that there are several flavours of freemium, depending which app you use. Consumable virtual items – be they stars, coins or bones – are just one IAP option. Also available: monthly subscriptions; purchases of individual pieces of content (like digital storybooks); and single-unlocks where you pay a one-off fee to unlock the full features of an app, and/or remove its ads.
Part of my anger in the original article focused on developers including £69.99 IAP in apps clearly intended for children. Some developers share that anger.
"Including high-tier ‘consumable’ IAPs in apps aimed at children, specifically the under-13s, is unconscionable conduct by developers and publishers," says Barry O’Neill, CEO of Irish children’s publisher StoryToys, which he says internally debated a freemium strategy for its Farm 123 app for a long time before its release in 2012.
"We discussed this with parents, most of whom have become quite suspicious of ‘free’ content, before determining that single price-point freemium models were all that we were comfortable with in the current generation of our apps: no consumables, just a single feature-unlock."
O’Neill says that StoryToys has had "negligible" feedback on accidental purchases of the unlock in Farm 123, and notes that while children are the intended users of his company’s apps, the buyers are ultimately parents.
"It is critically important that we develop a relationship of trust with them, based on quality and transparency, as our future business depends on them," says O’Neill.
"Unscrupulous developers create a threat to the industry by undermining this trust. How can this be solved? My proposal would be a developer devised code of conduct and associated trust-mark."
Code of conduct
O’Neill elaborates, suggesting that such a code of conduct should be compliant with the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and require developers to have no IAPs more expensive than Tier 5 in Apple’s pricing matrix: £2.99 / $4.99.
O’Neill also suggests that this code of conduct could guarantee to parents that the app "does not promote or encourage compulsive purchase behaviour"; includes a feature to disable IAPs completely with a separate password to the device owner’s iTunes account; and carries no inappropriate advertising, with the ability to disable any advertising or promotion completely.
"Developers qualifying for such an initiative could use the trust-mark in their app description texts and as a badge on their screenshots and other promotional materials," says O’Neill.
"Parents would hopefully come to recognise the symbol as one of trust and perhaps quality, but this is a harder aspect to monitor and award. Ultimately a trust-mark could in time be acknowledged and endorsed by app stores themselves and perhaps bring about a children’s app category, to which parents could restrict app store browsing. Wishful thinking perhaps."
Night & Day Studios’ Sims has some more views on how developers could work towards more parent-friendly IAP in children’s apps, citing three technical and business solutions to the problem.
The first is subscriptions: the option for parents to pay a recurring subscription for a children’s app that they were confident would continue to get better and provide more content every month, as long as the child stayed interested.
"Another similar model, that would also need some backend, OS-level support from Apple et al. would be a true pay-as-you-go model," he says. "Each month that my daughter played a game, I could be charged that month’s rental fee, let’s say a buck. If she puts it down for a couple of months, I don’t get charged those months."
The third option, according to Sims, would be for Apple to allow developers to force entry of an iTunes password for IAP, regardless of the master settings on the phone. So a parent could keep the 15-minute IAP window for their own use, but rest assured that any children’s app would have a password prompt every time.
"This is not yet technically possible, as far as I know, but I think it would be a great change and something Apple could implement quite easily," he says.
Apple’s Guided Access feature is only a step towards an airplane-style Kids Mode
Like O’Neill’s suggestions, this points back to the idea of a separate Kids category on app stores, rather than spreading them between Books, Games, Entertainment and Education as is currently the case.
Apple has recently settled a class-action lawsuit in the US over IAP in children’s apps, in a deal that could cost the company as much as £66m. Some industry experts think the settlement could be a good thing for parents beyond the short-term cash and iTunes-credit refunds.
"I want developers to be responsible but above all, I think that the platform holders need to tackle this issue head on," says industry consultant Nicholas Lovell, of Gamesbrief.
"Apple’s recent settling of the class action law suit in the US is a very good thing in this regard: it sets out some clear guidelines for parental responsibility, it will have raised the profile of the issue at Apple and it is likely to lead to better communication and explanation of just how much IAPs can cost in a game."
Lovell says he would like to see Apple introduce a Kid’s Mode – "similar to Airplane mode" – that locks down IAP spending and other phone functions at the swipe of a virtual switch.
There is a feature buried in iOS’ accessibility settings called Guided Access which is a step in this direction, but there’s no evidence that lots of parents know it exists, let alone how to use it.
Something that came through strongly in the comments to my original piece was criticism of parents who don’t know what their kids are up to on their smartphones and tablets. A subject I possibly shied away from too much through not wishing to criticise the specific family in the Zombies vs Ninja case.
This wasn’t just about trollish comments calling parents "morons" for not reading their iPad manual and knowing how to change their IAP settings. Several people made the point that parents shouldn’t see a smart device as a "babysitter", and certainly shouldn’t forget that it’s an internet-connected device with a simple-to-use digital store built in.
"In my opinion, your article is a wake up call, not to developers with questionable ethics who clearly don’t care anyway, but to parents. Even at three or four, children understand when a particular button will trigger a purchase," says Huggins.
"When the kids were small we’d go to the shops, and I remember well explaining why you can’t just take stuff or start eating sweets off the shelf. It’s the same thing here: You regulate the apps they download and spend a little time helping them get accustomed to the mechanics, whether that’s how to make the character jump, or how to avoid IAP traps."
Not a babysitter
Back to those "iPad isn’t a babysitter" comments though. It’s impossible to tell how many of them came from parents versus non-parents, but Lovell suspects that people who do blame parents in this way may have an idealised vision of the daily nuts’n’bolts of parenting.
"Parents often leave their kids reading a book, watching television or playing a game while they get on with other important tasks like cooking supper or dealing with a potty-training toddler’s soiled underpants," he says.
"That is not abdicating responsibility: it might take place in the same room, at the same time, taking an interest in what the child is doing without supervising every last moment. It’s an important part of learning for children and an invaluable tool for parents."
Lovell adds that people who criticise the idea of stricter regulations on IAP – or at least features like automatic password-entry being switched on by default rather than the 15-minute window – because they see it as impinging on their own rights are blinkered.
"Apple initially marketed the iPhone for globe-trotting 20 somethings: hence the airplane mode being so accessible. It now has a huge market that consists of every demographic," says Lovell.
"To prioritise the protection of the most vulnerable in our society is not, in some strange way, damaging the rights of the non-parent or the non-child: it is good social responsibility and sound business sense."
National Geographic sold virtual bones for up to £69.99 at a time in its Dino Land game, but not all IAP is consumable
Games industry consultant Will Luton, whose previous article about IAPs and children I linked to in my original post, is writing a book about free-to-play games. He has his own views on how parental responsibility fits into the children’s apps debate, relating to a point in the article comparing IAP to physical purchases in the real world.
"The first point you make about your children wandering Toys R Us with your credit card is a good one," he says. "Although whilst I don’t agree that’s quite what is happening on iOS devices, there are mistakes being made because of a lack of understanding from parents and problems with default device settings from Apple."
Luton thinks this is something that could easily be solved by Apple tweaking its default settings for iOS devices, and adds that this is the reason he thinks anger over £69.99 IAPs versus lower amounts is a red herring.
"This is something that needs to be sorted with better education and the closing of the window from Apple, but the price is irrelevant," he says. "A child could hammer a 99p button as well as a £69.99 one – they’ll still rack up huge amounts. That’s not the bit that needs fixing: it’s education and the IAP window."
Luton also thinks my comparison of IAPs to sweets isn’t quite on the mark, pointing out that while they are consumable, they can often be used to buy durable items in a game: hats, pet dragons and the like.
"In that sense a better comparison would be pocket money: A child may spend on sweets, which are consumable like boosts, or toys, which are durable like hats or dragons," he says. "In this sense, that can teach children about value, especially as our economies move ever more towards digital."
This is something I’ve written about before in a piece called Should Kids Get Digital Pocket Money? wondering how the idea of pocket money could and should evolve as more children get more of their entertainment digitally.
That’s probably something that comes with older children though: those who are trusted with their own iTunes, Amazon and/or Google Play accounts – through vouchers, likely – rather than the younger kids who are often the unwitting villains/victims of stories involving huge IAP bills for their parents.
Made In Me’s Huggins boils it back down to traditional parenting values – and the trust and respect that hopefully exists between parents and their children – applied to new digital challenges.
"As a parent I agree that a £69.99 product in a kids’ app is tasteless and inappropriate. But so be it: as long as my kids have the same opinion, I’m not worried," says Huggins, who says his four year-old son recently asked to get an app that wasn’t free because "the free apps always try to make me buy things and are not as good as the apps that are expensive".
But he brings it back to the opening point of this article: the idea that parents have the power to vote with their wallets, and ensure that higher ethical standards are good for developers’ businesses, while poor ones hurt it.
"If you find a developer you like and trust, see what other apps they have and buy them. It’s a tiny sum of money that makes a big difference to developers of great children’s apps," he says.
"If parents are discerning, the kids will be too, and we’ll all be better for it."