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[Gamesbriefers] How should Apple help parents control their kids’ IAP spending?

By on February 11, 2013

Photo: Creative Commons license Anthony Kelly


IAP works. It works in games for adults and it works in games for kids. Yet I routinely get emails asking for my advice on how to monetise kids apps given that “IAP is clearly inappropriate”. I don’t agree that it is appropriate, but I do think it needs to be done ethically.

So, two questions this week. What should Apple and other platform holders do to eliminate the criticism that IAPs are bought by mistake and what are the best practices that developers should follow to keep their games on the right side of the ethical line.

(Please don’t say “it’s up to the parents.” That’s taken as read. This is about what the platform holders and developers should do to support them).


Stuart Dredge Journalist at The Guardian

Woo! Pet subject ;o)

1. A prominent explanation in the instructions to every device saying ‘IF you’re a parent and plan to let kids pay with this, THEN here’s how the IAP settings work’

2. A rule for developers of apps aimed at children – admittedly a discussion in itself in terms of what qualifies – about how and when to promote IAP. Certainly not in that first 15 minutes (assuming there’s still a 15-minute ‘you don’t have to enter your password again’ window).

3. Perhaps a rule on explaining the IAP tiers in the description of each app on the store? At the moment, some make it clear in their descriptions and others don’t – and while you can see some info in the ‘popular IAP’ bit, perhaps it could be mandatory. ‘We will sell in-app books for between 69p and £1.99’ for book-app collections, for example, or ‘here are the tiers we sell gems at in-game’

In terms of how high IAP should be, I think parents may self-regulate that – in that as soon as they spot £79.95 for a whatever of gems, many will delete the app immediately (this is based on detailed school-gate research on my part!). So in one sense, I think shady practises will be punished by parents.

Oh, and:

4. It would be great if Apple (or, to be honest, someone independent) commissioned and published some detailed research on parents’ attitudes and wishes on this sort of thing. Proper ‘x% of parents said y would be unacceptable’ data rather than the likes of me shooting my mouth off ;o)

5. A proper kids mode switch, like the Airplane mode switch, which at a touch chucks the device into the safe-mode with settings that you’ve already set up.

Mark Sorrell Development Director at Hide & Seek

I agree that it’s about kid mode or multiple accounts or ‘other’ that means a phone can be used by a kid without the parents needing to worry. And that such mode/s need to be explained clearly to parents.

Everything beyond that is a case of good and sensitive design. IAP is FINE for kids – Lego is the best example of an IAP system I can imagine, only without the IAP. If you’re making something that provides genuine value (as in content) rather than advantage then you’re fine.

Clash of Clans is an interesting one. Despite giving pretty good value to adults – I spent money on it and haven’t regretted it at all – I wouldn’t consider its monetisation suitable for kids (define kids here, I suppose) as it only provides what you could get for free, quicker. I don’t think that is acceptable in a game for kids.

Basically, IAP for kids should be functional/content, and ideally, not inside a free game, to avoid any accusations of manipulation. After all, the free bit of fremium is there to drive installs so you can sell more stuff. It’s not there because love, is it?

So yeah. Make virtual Lego and you’ll be fine.

Oscar Clark Evangelist at Applifier

Kids represent an important demographic and they can often have quite a high level of spending power – with the appropriate parental oversight. The problems with Freemium for Kids is uncertainty and the fear of escalating ongoing costs. Parents have no problem spending out on the latest Skylanders figures or even a subscription to Club Penguin but the fear of the ongoing cost in Smurfberry‘s fills some with dread.

But let’s address that fear and not just assume that the IAP within an otherwise free app means we have to become manipulative.

Freemium should be about making the purchase decision as easy as possible inside the app and after the players understand the experience. Its not about scraping as much cash out of people as possible. There may be some short-term gain in that approach, but that way of thinking kills off the trust for your games for ever more and provides only a fraction of the potential revenue that comes from creating experiences players love and want to commit to in terms of their cash. That applies whether we are talking about kids or adults.

For example, there is nothing wrong with creating a grind currency which allows players to try out things and at the same time use real money to buy assets which extend the enjoyment of the game. However, if we are selling to a younger audience lets make sure that its child and parent friendly in terms of their buying patterns and restrictions. Make sure that the game really entertains and that they can show off what they have purchased. Look at how the purchase process itself can educate and help kids be responsible with their money. Find ways to ensure that parents can feel comfortable that this is a safe place which offers something their kids will treasure and remember. These aspirations are what will drive a successful product, because they require us to think beyond crude greedy mechanisms.

Look at different billing options: Create a Parental controlled Wallet – filled once a month and releasing a set amount of currency per day; Offer a monthly subscription which gives multiple currency for the game; Create Durables which grant exceptional value (such as *1000 in-game grind bucks per day) and which leave open the possibility to buy more things if the players genuinely love the game that much and have the disposable income. In short lets think about how we can make the player safer and happier without removing the ability for them to choose to spend what money they think the game is worth to them (But no more).

And by the way this isn’t just about kids. Its the way we should approach all games – its just that with Kids the stakes are higher.

Harry Holmwood CEO at Marvelous AQL Europe

As a parent, before I’d give my kids access to my device, tied to my credit card, I would want the ability to be able to have multiple accounts with credit on each, the ability to cap credit use per week/month per account and, after that, let my children spend their credit as they please. If they want to spend it all on a big IAP, I might suggest they don’t, but it’s their call.

Both my daughters had an iPod Touch and an iTunes voucher. Both broke the iPods before they spent the voucher. Neither bought any IAP. One bought Minecraft. Yesterday, they broke the replacement iPod I loaned them after they broke the first ones.

So, to be honest, with or without content controls, they’re not getting their hands on my iPad or phone until Apple invent a screen that doesn’t smash 🙂

Andy Payne Founder of Mastertronic

Ok this is a tough one. My natural hippy disposition can really get in the way of capitalist logic.
I think developers should think and act ethically. Much like the LibDems ethos of ‘fairness’ this is all in the eyes of the consumer or producer and thus so subjective it is next to useless.
So I actually think all games aimed at children – discuss should be sold as time limited F2P games. Simple proposition is ‘ play the game, like it you buy it with everything for say, $10-15-20> ‘ or ‘don’t like the game after say 20-30 mins just delete it and no more will be said’.
Harsh, but for me the way to go. There is a big IAP car crash / addiction argument headed right down the road, so avoid at all costs and adapt models.
How do we tell it is a kids game? The age rating. 12 and above all bets are off.  Below that, iAP does not exist.

Harry Holmwood CEO at Marvelous AQL Europe

Have to disagree with that. Surely most successful F2P games don’t currently have an age rating? Would we give an age rating of 12+ to Hay Day (forgive me if it has one, I haven’t checked)? To cut kids out of FTP will potentially deprive them of some great gaming experiences. Many of the things I enjoyed as a kid, from collecting football stickers to playing Dungeons and Dragons, effectively had a F2P model, some cost me nothing and some ended up costing me most of my pocket money. That was fine, I wasn’t spending money I didn’t have, and neither should children playing F2P games.

There are many F2P experiences which could be great for kids – kids love to collect things, and collection can be an important and enjoyable part of a F2P game. If my daughter old has a £20 iTunes card and wants to spend her credit on a F2P game using her own account, that’s no different from her spending her own cash on anything else. Of course, she shouldn’t have access to my credit card so, if she’s playing on a device which is tied to it, it’s important I don’t give her the password, in the same way I don’t leave piles of cash sitting in her bedroom or give her my credit card PIN.

Andy Payne Founder of Mastertronic

You are right. Mobile and online does not bother with age ratings. Ignore me.


Oscar Clark Evangelist at Applifier

There have been attempts to bring age ratings in – but none too successful. This might change if there is a big public outrage… something we can’t rule-out.

Dylan Collins Executive Chairman at Fight my Monsters

I also have been hearing rumours (more than one source) that Apple are asking devs to put a ceiling on IAP levels for content which is directly (or otherwise) targeting kids.

Wouldn’t be surprised if in the US this whole topic gets subsumed under COPPA (or something similar aimed at protecting kids from aggressive online monetization) but that’s probably 1-2 years out.

Will Luton Games Consultant for mobile, social and F2P

When we launched My Star some years ago, I wrote details on how parents could limit IAPs for Ukie, who put the info on their site and we linked from the game via a big, bright parent icon from the start page. This education of parents is important.

However, each IAP purchase should require an input of a password. There should be no login windows allowing accidental purchases and children or vulnerable adults shouldn’t know their parent’s / guardian’s / carer’s passwords.

Developers and publishers have the responsibility of ensuring that the IAPs offered are honest, clear and fair.

Beyond that, it isn’t for us to say how parents or any other responsible adult chooses to spend their money. If you can spend £100 on a physical toy for a child, you should be entitled to spend the same on digital equivalents. Here’s a thing I wrote about that.

Mark Sorrell Development Director at Hide & Seek

Yeah, I’ve also written about this at length.


Eric Seufert Head of Marketing and Acquisition at Grey Area

I agree with Oscar — exploiting users is a short-term strategy as it leads to lack of user trust and will probably result in the app being deleted from the user’s device. And in a children’s game, after enough complaints, the platform owner will likely pull the app entirely.

The freemium business model relies on a dynamic of mutual benefit: the user gets as much out of the experience as she wants, and the developer gets paid commensurate with that level of delight. In the case of kids’ games, the “user” is represented by two parties (the player and the payer), and thus the child is the agent of delight and the parent is the agent of trust. Therefore, as is the universal case in freemium, the optimal revenue strategy is the strategy that promotes the greatest degree of trust with the parents, which is to monetize very deliberately, visibly, and without any element of subterfuge. Parents are much more wary of the potential for unscrupulousness than an adult player that controls his own purse strings.

Andy Payne Founder of Mastertronic

Amazon have just announced their own ‘coins’ currency system from May this year. I bet this is to do with tax management, IAP control and pricing across various sovereign economies.

In terms of age ratings I know that everyone hates regulation, but most will know once citizens are under threat of commercial ‘exploitation’ then politicians wade in. At Ukie we have been warning members to get ready for the incomings on this IAP and child protection issues.

The genie is well out of the bottle online , but I could see Apple and Amazon start to put somewhat tighter controls in.

For me game devs who anticipate the back lash and act with responsibility (ok define that I hear you say) will gain trust. Maybe a simple ‘buy all game’ button for say $10 would help. And as Oscar and Will and Mark have said, those with an eye on building true fans will limit their ability to charge endlessly on children focused games.

Ben Board Senior Product Lead at Boss Alien

I’ve got five-year-old and seven-year-old lenses through which I look at this, and I suspect my opinion might be different, and the situation a bit more complicated, when they’re older; but right now I’m satisfied with there being a password on my account that is needed every time I transact in the store and that the kids don’t (and, inshallah, will never) know.

I think the concept of physical money, notes and coins, and their value, is actually quite complex for young kids; and invisible, digital money as an abstract limited resource even more so. Inasmuch as I’m in a hurry to teach them the value of money (which I’m not, really, plenty of time for that) I’m happy for now to keep it in terms of comics, sweets and Skylanders in return for shiny coins from their purse, and make the digital decisions myself from the safety of my password-protected iPad. And as a developer, to avoid making F2P games for kids, because I’m a coward.

Stuart Dredge Journalist at The Guardian

I get as angry with children’s games popping up “Hey! Buy some IAP!” messages as I do with Sainsbury’s hanging a strip of Disney Cars toys in its canned-veg aisle.

In both cases, it’s hoping to stimulate pestering. The point is less that I think my kids will buy all the SmurfBerries (because I have my password settings sorted) or buy 17 Disney Cars (because the bank cards are in my pocket), and more the aggressive marketing.

Sainsbury’s knows my 3yo will go apeshit if he sees cars and can’t buy them – and OH MY he does – just as shady developers know suggesting IAP regularly will get children hassling parents to buy for them.

And perhaps this is self-regulating: as a parent, I don’t trust that spammy developer, and I may even delete the game. So they lose out in the end, really.

At some point, though, I’d be more than happy for my children to be budgeting for digital purchases in the same way I saved (or, rather, spent furiously) pocket money on sweets, C64 games, etc over the month. So perhaps they’ll get a £10 / £20 iTunes card every month to use for games (including IAP), music, apps etc to spend how they wish. But I’m thinking forward a few years to when they’re 8/9 there

Richard Firminger Managing Director, Europe at Flurry

Advertising aimed squarely at “pester power” as I think the ad people call it is annoying, but in a TV-world it helps provide the free content on CiTV/Ch4/Ch5/Milkshake and the such like, so like freemium thats a quid-pro-quo for free content in my mind which is reasonable most of the time, and to your point you have the credit card/password.

It’s also been well-said here that under 8yo’s have precious little understanding of real-world money let alone digital virtual goods.

From an analytics and tracking perspective this arena is getting greater clarity and focus from the likes of the FTC, COPPA, EU Directive/ICO and the such like.

Some astute journalist observed here last week about the impact of consciously or unconsciously capturing data, let alone monetising them. The key line being: “in addition (Path) has been fined $800,000 for collecting data data from children under the age of 13”

Kids mode also needs to effect what data you’re tracking as well as IAP and monetisation, as Path now knows very clearly.

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