No one really likes in-app purchases, do they? Sure, sometimes the flexibility is great when they're done well, but far too often it all feels a bit cynically done and to the detriment of the player's bank balance. How good would it be to have a new system that aims to make things much clearer and much fairer? That's the idea behind Play Nice, a system set up by UK-based developer, Strange Flavour, and set to be a particularly eye catching part of their forthcoming game, Any Landing.
We had a chat with CEO and Lead Coder, Aaron Fothergill, to learn more.
148apps: How did the idea for Play Nice come about?
Aaron Fothergill (AF): We dipped our toes in the freemium games market a few years ago with the free version of Flick Fishing, which went on to earn far more than the paid version had when it was at the top of the iPhone games chart, so it was pretty obvious to us just how profitable freemium could be. The problem was, we also saw some of the crazy side of freemium and noticed a trend in other games that was causing the press to start kicking up stories about games designers "deliberately targeting children" or "iPhone gamer gets sudden $3000 bill" and so on.
As with a lot of other game designers, our initial thought was that it's really a parenting issue. The controls are in place to restrict your children from auto-buying consumable content and Apple even tells you to set the parental controls. However as the issue grew, we realized that we weren't thinking the 'Apple way'. Rather than the industry needing to teach players how to work their phones. If we don't want players to accidentally run up huge bills while still having the benefits of consumable IAP, we need to redesign how we use consumable IAP to suit the way they play.
From that, we first thought of a simple cap, but realized there were issues with that and the way IAP works and then developed it into what we've now got for Play Nice where we can set an upper limit we think is a fair amount players can spend on the game, but where any consumable purchases up to that point are actually deducted from the top price, so you don't lose anything by trying a consumable item first. (Actually, because of the way the IAP system works, you actually save a few pennies by buying the consumables first)148apps: How long has the system been in development for?
AF: On and off for about a year, mostly using our upcoming Any Landing game as a testbed. It was planned for release in June originally, but then I went to WWDC and saw a lot of shiny new code things I wanted to play with and of course that took us back a few more months.
148apps: What challenges have you guys faced in its implementation?
AF: The biggest challenge was working out a way to use the current iOS IAP system to get the specific effect we want in a way that's not confusing to players (the whole point is that it's meant to be transparent and fair) and not cause issues in approval.
The other issue is actually in balancing the game itself, as when you've bought the 'full' IAP package, that effectively gives you whatever power ups you want and would drastically change the game's balance. So a lot of time has gone into making sure that it actually works well as a game.
148apps: Are you concerned about there being any difficulties getting through Apple's Approval process?
AF: We are. The method is a bit of a jumble under the hood and while it's not doing anything technically bad as far as Apple's rules are concerned it could look like it's trying to abuse the system. Because of that I've kept Apple support in the loop to check we're not doing anything that could be construed as dodgy. It still has to go through approval of course, but we've done quite a few unusual new features in the past on iOS, so I'm confident that we can keep everything within the rules.
AF: This is one feature I'd actually be quite happy if other devs copied it. Once the actual workings of it are out there, it's pretty obvious (if slightly fun to implement) so we'd be happy if other devs wanted to give it a go.
148apps: What's your opinion of the conventional in-app purchase system? Are there any titles that you think use it well or particularly badly?
AF: In itself, it's a useful system. There's a lot of confusion about IAP, especially about consumable IAP (which is the one that is easiest to abuse) and non consumable. For instance, if you wanted to do a 'shareware' type game on iOS where you unlock the rest of the game after playing demo levels, that's entirely practical with a non consumable IAP item. (the only rule is you aren't allowed to call anything a demo, as Apple doesn't allow demos on the App Store).
What consumable IAP does well (and where Play Nice aims to improve) is it lets you design a game where the skilled players who like to put a lot of time into their gaming can play through the entire game without paying for anything extra to speed the game up or make it easier, but players who really want to play the game but can't afford as much time, or aren't quite as skilled, can purchase upgrades to adapt the game to the way they want to play. This is one reason why freemium is so successful. It doesn't pitch one game at everyone with specific skill levels and free time, it allows players to choose how they want the game to play. Two of my favorite examples of this are The Blockheads (by Majic Jungle Software) and Nimble Quest (by Nimblebit) which both have an optional non consumable purchase that effectively doubles how fast you play (in The Blockheads it halves the time everything takes to craft and in Nimble Quest it adds red gems that effectively double the rate you collect gems). Both use consumable IAP in a reasonable and entirely optional way that doesn't force itself on you.
The abusive part is where games focus entirely on being nearly impossible (or actually impossible) to play unless you keep spending money on consumable IAP. They're effectively targeted at the same people that would be spending a fortune on gambling games, i.e. children and the surprising number of people with compulsive issues.148apps: Do you think the freemium model is here to stay?
AF: Absolutely. Developers can't make a living on just the paid model and the big developers are making a lot of money on freemium. There's nothing actually wrong with IAP itself (or freemium for that matter), but some publishers are really going to have to be careful to balance making crazy amounts of money with the risk destroying the system that makes all that money by triggering potential legislation that restricts or bans it if it's seen as too abusive.
The Play Nice concept has certainly piqued our interest. Anything that helps make things clearer for gamers has to be a good thing. We'll be keeping a close eye on Strange Flavour's work and Any Landing's progress. Thanks to Aaron for taking the time to answer our questions.