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Why Free Apps Turn Me Off

Why Free Apps Turn Me Off

Whoever said that nothing in life is truly free may have been acquainted with the Apple App Store. Dozens of games there advertise that they don't cost a cent, but the developers get you in other ways, including in-app purchases. This business model may be a boon to the small companies churning out these apps, but they also help develop some bad habits among those playing the games.

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
02/21/13 5:00 AM PT

Of the 300 million-plus people using iOS 6 in one form or another -- and millions more using iOS 5 -- I get the feeling I'm a dying breed.

Why? I generally dislike and distrust free apps. I can blame some of this on the overwhelming influence of games, kids, and the psychology of the masses. Kids, I get. They don't have a lot of money, sometimes they are only allowed to download and try free games and apps, and sometimes they have no budget at all. As for games, the most profitable model -- from what I can tell -- comes very close to the same strategies employed by drug dealers and mass retail stores: Suck your customer in with freebies and super special deals, build habits and addiction, then bleed them dry for things they truly don't need.

It's all about manipulating endorphins, is it not?

It is.

As for the psychology of the masses, at least here in America, free is seen as one of the only ways to sell. Give me a free phone and I'll sign up for multi-year contracts. This is so ubiquitous that it's hard now to simply buy a smartphone, because the only simple and accessible option is to accept the subsidy by trading it for a contract designed to lock you in.

Even if you can buy the smartphone (iPhone) you want, the cellular service packages aren't particularly designed for people with this mindset. There's also little incentive for a hardware manufacturer to offer a phone this way at truly competitive pricing levels.

Why is this so irritating? It's not bad because it gives you a low cost of entry, giving you access to things you can't immediately get. It's bad because it trains a whole generation's method of thinking. Instead of saving up and buying a high-quality item that will last for years, you learn to get it now with a contract subsidy. Seems simple enough -- but extend it to items like furniture, and suddenly we have generations of people working dead-end jobs (poorly) because they can't pick their heads up to breathe and look around, lest they fall behind on their payments and make it all worse.

The Economics of Free Apps

I'm far from an app-selling expert, but I generally pay attention to the basics. Apple breaks out the top-selling paid apps, the most popular free apps and the highest-grossing apps. Take a look at the top-grossing app list. At first glance, you'll see that they are dominated by games. Take a closer look, and they're dominated by free games. Many of the top grossing apps themselves are also free, even when they aren't games.

How is this possible? Through in-app purchases and advertising.

The economics behind all this, in my view, encourage the creation of free apps that can appeal to hundreds of thousands or millions of people (often kids) in the hopes that massive download activity will drive favorable rankings in the App Store. Next, the developers of these free games and apps seem to know that they can't sell enough apps for straightforward purchases fast enough to maintain a favorable App Store listing. If you can't do that, your sales job is that much harder, no matter how fantastic your app is.

Instead, they cast a very wide net, knowing that when they reach a lot of people, they'll find enough fans to get a relatively small number of players to spend a lot of money through in-app purchases.

They'll be playing a game and run out of coins or tokens or gems to buy upgrades or unlock tools in the virtual stores within the game. The more effective games will offer up a call to action to spend real money via the App Store: You don't have enough gems to buy that fancy, cool, and important thing which will make this game easier to play or win, so would you like to buy more gems?

If you can't see the dark side of habit-training and manipulation here, you need to try harder -- or you're quite happy to manipulate your customers to increase your sales.

The really smart game developers use an astounding combination of cool game play with strategically placed achievements, all designed to produce the release of pleasure chemicals in your brain to entice you to continue playing. In addition to the magically attractive nature of touching and swiping, apps themselves become habit-forming.

Habits and Manipulation Aren't All Bad

Ever wonder why Twitter is so useful -- er, I mean, addictive? You pay attention, something shows up, you laugh immediately or go check it out, and boom: You get rewarded for your effort.

If you send out a tweet, what's your reward? Retweets. Validation. Same goes for Facebook. When these kinds of social activities start dominating the charts in the App Store, however, it becomes harder and harder to find quality apps and reward developers for producing great work.

It's a horrible feedback loop. Entropy, maybe.

Retailers, suppliers, drug dealers, casinos and domestic abusers have been using these sorts of strategies for ... forever, maybe. When I see them employed in the App Store, it totally turns me off.

What's Different?

Not all free apps find the chink in the armor of humanity and then pry it open. Media-related apps will offer streaming television shows in exchange for ads. The model is fairly clear, and it's not overly manipulative. If the top grossing apps teach us anything, we know it's not as profitable either.

If a free app, however, lets you play a game or a portion of a game -- try before you buy, so to speak -- how is that bad? If you can't wait to work your way through a level to gain experience and gems, what's wrong with letting you buy experience and gems or tools to "win" the game faster? (If you don't know the answer, read the sentence again.)

While I believe there's some inherent badness in this model, I find it acceptable -- making good choices for yourself and humanity, after all, begins with recognizing a bad choice. What's really disingenuous, however, is when the enjoyment of the game or app is stacked so that it's out of balance -- the only way to complete the "free" game or get the real promise of the free app is through additional in-app purchases. That's more of a bait and switch, and no one I've ever met enjoyed going for the bait and then paying for the switch.

It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

Not all games have to be free to be successful, but some of the best paid games I've run into could easily be modified to make even more money if they followed a more strategic plan of bait, switch, and outright manipulation. Here's a prime example: Little Inferno. On the description of the US$4.99 game, the developers, Experimental Gameplay Group, even point out that there are no in-app purchases: "IAP Free - no spam, upselling, ads of any sort. Just the game. Short, polished, perfect as possible."

Obviously, that attracted me. But more importantly, after playing the game and enjoying it immensely, even after realizing that it's also a work of art, I appreciate it all the more after realizing how much money Experimental Gameplay Group was willing to leave on the table by not compromising their values.

In the premise of the game, you get a fireplace from Tomorrow Corporation and you burn things -- stuffed animals, batteries, whatever you have handy in the house. To burn more things, you have to order them from the Tomorrow Corporation, which ships them to you. To "buy" them, burning things in satisfying and surprising combinations releases coins and stamps to make things ship faster. After a few hours of game play, you'll make it to the story ending.

If Little Inferno offered in-app purchases of new and inventive things to burn -- hybrid cars, pigmy elephant dolls, nuclear submarines -- the developers would make more money. They could create Easter Eggs that would entice people to buy items through in-app purchases that would surprise and delight with special effects. They could provide themed catalogs of food, rival sports team mascots -- all sorts of devilish items. But they have not.

I appreciate that.

Meanwhile, when free apps are really clear about what they offer and what you get, with clear premium features that are actually useful, I rarely have any trouble with that. But the increasing number of free apps that intentionally make it hard to use their features without accidentally tapping on ads you don't want to tap on? That create gameplay environments that are "fun" but just tedious enough that you have to buy tools through in-app purchases in order to complete the game? Apps that offer up stupid achievements in combination with in-app purchase options in an outright attempt to manipulate young buyers or people with particularly malleable personalities? All that taints my app experience and turns me off.

And it happens most often with free apps.

Consequently, I hesitate far longer over downloading free apps than I do over buying apps. Instead of greasing the wheels, free is a speed bump to me. It means I look at the app even harder, and as I wonder how the app developers are using the information they glean from me and my usage -- say, in any number of free social apps -- I'm less and less likely to get on board and become a die-hard user.

As for me, I wish I could create a mindless time-sucking addictive game and cash out on my fellow human beings without offering anything worthwhile or real. I just can't do it. Same reason why I'll never be able to run a casino, peddle meth, or create vast databases on every person with a digital footprint.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com.


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