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Android, Games

Freemium – Unfair business model or unfit to be parents?

How things change over the years, what was once a phone is now a computer.  Who would have thought that the migration from solid state media would be so rapid? When it was clear which way the wind was blowing where did the vocal writers disappear off to when the Android Market Place, Netflix and the online stores of the consoles appeared?

It seems the migration away from solid state media is all but complete, with the exception of the console users.

A business model that always causes a heated debate is that of the “freemium” one, the app that you download and pay for extra usage – for example the games which “lure” you in for free then produce barriers which require payment (not my words there).

Whilst for every one person who has a good experience of freemium, there are plenty that don’t, but I suggest that the fremium model is nothing new, we’ve always had it, except in this world of app stores we seem to have forgotten our computing roots.

Cast your mind back to the 80’s.  Home computers were not the common item in the home, interest had only begun to grow in the industry and certainly pre-internet days, the ability to go online and converse/play as we do today was something of the remit of the “l337″ (BBS’s I am referring to)… I fondly remember the /atd 0816448714 I faithfully typed for many years (the Cheam Amiga BBS) and along with these happier days of computing we also had “fremium” of sorts…..a pay as you go business model for games.  If I am judging my words correctly, then about now you should scratching your heads and asking yourself what on earth I’m rambling about….

The coin-op Arcades are probably the best example of “pay as you go” computing and maybe the most similar to the freemium software we have today.  During those days, nothing was free and in order to progress through the game (unless you were very good) required you to push more money into the systems.  Think this was cheaper than today’s freemium titles? Think again, for the latest games (even in the early 90’s) it was 50p a go and you could easily use up £3.00 to get any amount of decent time on the latest titles at the arcade.  Now compare that to the freemium prices we have now (on average) and compare that to the price of the 90’s…..doesn’t look so bad now does it?

I cannot remember people calling for the boycott of arcades in the 80’s and 90’s.  If you didn’t like the way they charged for play, you could purchase the “lesser” home computer version or you didn’t play at all.  The same I’d suggest would go for today’s freemium titles and at least in todays world, you can get a better idea of what a title is like BEFORE you part with any money.

Here in the UK, it takes one horror story out of millions of users and next thing you know, Freemium is the digital devil incarnate

I thought it must be a mistake, so I checked my bank balance online and nothing had been taken out.

I thought nothing of it until I my credit card advisor phoned and told me they had authorised the transaction.  

Danny had bought dozens of in-game weapons and keys on the iPad 3 including 12 purchases of ‘333 keys’ at £69.99 a time and seven ‘333 ecstasy bombs’ at £69.99.  

He also bought five lots of “9000 darts” each costing £69.99, five lots of ‘4200 darts’ at £5.49 each and additional ecstasy bombs totalling £3.22.

Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/9901637/Five-year-old-runs-up-1700-iPad-bill-in-ten-minutes.html

What these comments fail to draw much attention to is that “Danny” (the child) had been given the password by his parents so was able to gain access to the in-game shop and make these purchases.  It’s claimed she was told by Danny her son that the game was free, but Danny is 5 years old and for parent to take the word of the 5 year old and give them access to make purchases then they have little sympathy from me.  No, its not the child’s fault, its the parents.  In a similar way if a child has access to a parents bank card (and giving the password on the app store is the same thing) then you can’t claim innocence when the child unknowingly runs up a massive bill.

For me this is not an example of the evils of Freemium, its simply bad parenting by lack of supervision.

If I give my lad my wallet and let him loose in the amusement arcades, should I be surprised when I find my wallet depleted of change? Of course not, that’s why I wouldn’t do it.  Online its even easier since you don’t see the money and the spending thereof is simply a click of a button.

The Office of Fair Trading is also looking into Freemium titles (although who, what, when) is not revealed.  I would suggest that maybe (if such a thing existed) that there be an investigation by the Office of Good Parenting instead.

For me freemium titles work very well.  I don’t have oodles of time to spend on a smartphone or tablet playing games, I want to test out a game and get an idea for it.  Once I like a title, I am happy to pay to expand the game – although in my experience a little more patience will get the same rewards without spending any money.  The freemium title I am playing with my son at the moment is Monster Warlord (reviewed previously on OpenBytes), I have no fear of him going off on a spending spree if left unsupervised whilst playing.  Why? Because he doesn’t have the password.  Anyone who cannot grasp such basics really shouldn’t own a smartphone, or certainly shouldn’t moan when a large bill is received.

The OFT are quoted as saying:

In particular, the OFT is looking into whether these games include ‘direct exhortations’ to children – a strong encouragement to make a purchase, or to do something that will necessitate making a purchase, or to persuade their parents or other adults to make a purchase for them.

Source: http://www.trustedreviews.com/news/freemium-games-could-be-unlawful-says-office-of-fair-trading#Q5BdrsxSZ0zKiVUv.99

To which I’d ask why? If the parents (and lets be fair here, to have a debit card in the UK you should be an adult) are the ones with the control of the password, then the games can be as addictive or aggressive in marketing as they like because the kids won’t be able to make any purchases.

Of course its in the OFT interests to be doing something about this.  After-all its a way to justify their existence – play on the few horror stories by parents who’s common sense seems to have been given away as easily as their passwords.

We are concerned that children and their parents could be subject to unfair pressure to purchase when they are playing games they thought were free, but which can actually run up substantial costs.

Source: http://www.trustedreviews.com/news/freemium-games-could-be-unlawful-says-office-of-fair-trading#Q5BdrsxSZ0zKiVUv.99

Unfair pressure? Like the advertising on TV? Like the placement of products in supermarkets designed to lure parents and their children into more purchases?   This is an excellent example of a larger issue at play in society today – its always someone else’s fault.  People are very quick to claim nanny state, but with people like the OFT policing Freemium it seems very much like people want to be nannied.  Want to hear about prssure to purchase? Any parents around during the Pokemon trading card craze? Again though, for responsible parents it wasn’t a problem to deal with.

I am an adult.  I am a responsible parent.  I do not need groups like the OFT trying to protect me from anything.  I’m probably far more aware of the plethora business models available online than they are and to be blunt, if parents need “protecting” this way by the OFT, then one has to question their suitability of being parents in the first place.

Should in the case of Danny the parents be responsible for the purchases? Yes of course.  If “Danny” had watched his parents type in the password and then made purchases that way, then maybe not; but in this case the password was given freely, therefore I’d say the parents are fully responsible for the transactions.

Tim W

Google+ : https://plus.google.com/u/0/114824920343832764896/about/p/pub

Twitter: www.twitter.com/_goblin

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Online tech writer, novelist/author of sci-fi literature and co-host of the TechBytes Show! I believe in multi-culturalism & diversity. Luton Town FC supporter.

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Tim Wilson

Tim Wilson

Writer/Novelist of many facets both in the world of technology and fantasy/sci-fi. Co-host of the TechBytes audiocast and writer for both OpenBytes and Goblin's Domain. Supporter of free and open source software.

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