Fun and games? The cost of ‘freemium’

Some apps that are free to download can end up costing users hundreds of euro, as they automatically debit money from the card registered to the account

An iPhone display warning about in-app purchases on the game Smurfs’ Village

An iPhone display warning about in-app purchases on the game Smurfs’ Village

Mon, Mar 10, 2014, 01:00

Owning living, breathing animals can cost a lot of money but the virtual ones can set you back a pretty penny too if you’re not careful. A couple of weeks back, we downloaded an annoying cat on to our smartphone for the amusement of a small child.

While the game was free, the shiny gold coins needed to buy the cat’s food and hats and sunglasses and magic potions and drapes for its kitchen – yes, you read that right – was not. It has taken swift intervention on numerous occasions to stop the child innocently blowing as much as €90 on coins to keep her cat in the manner to which it has become accustomed. Welcome to the “freemium” world, where the games are free at the start, but once the addiction takes hold, they bleed you dry.

Mobile games such as Candy Crush Saga , Angry Birds , Clash of Clans and hundreds more like them are free, but they allow you to spend money using your iTunes, Google or Microsoft account while you play to advance to higher levels or get new things to make your experience more fun. These in-app purchases have helped to drive up spending on mobile games by more than 60 per cent on the last year.

However, earlier this month the European Commission announced plans to take on the big players, such as Apple and Google, and the app makers to make sure they were more upfront about the sometimes hidden costs of these games. It is acting after concerns were raised by consumer groups across the EU, and its first step will be to hold talks with the industry, policymakers and consumer protection authorities ahead of the publication of more transparent guidelines.

The big problem is that, often, the games are labelled “free to download” – which they are. They are not, however, “free to play”, and purchases are automatically debited from whatever credit or debit card a user has registered to their account.

Consumer protection
“Misleading consumers is clearly the wrong business model, and also goes against the spirit of EU rules on consumer protection,” said EU’s justice commissioner Viviane Reding. “The European Commission will expect very concrete answers from the app industry to the concerns raised by citizens and national consumer organisations.”

Europe’s “app” industry has grown exponentially in recent years as the use of smartphones and tablets has boomed, but it should be worried now that Reding is on the case. In her previous role as telecoms and media commissioner, she took on the mobile phone companies over their “unjustifiably high” roaming charges and had them slashed within three years.

The problem with in-app purchases in certain games is who is making them. Many of the games are aimed at children as young as four, and, unless a parent is clued in to the dangers, they can end up racking up huge fees to the registered credit card without realising it or without getting the green light of their parents.

John Broxson is an angry man and Angry Birds is to blame. He has two sons, who both love playing Nintendo DS games. “One of our sons wanted to play Angry Birds ,” he says. “My wife had previously registered her visa debit card to a Microsoft account on her phone so she could listen to music. She downloaded the app for free. Our son was delighted.”

The next bank statement revealed that the child had spent almost €600 on various tokens. “The worst case was on the February 16th, when nearly €300 was spent in 20 minutes [of] game play. As he advanced through the game, pop-ups kept appearing on the screen telling him he needed to get more gold coins to get to the next level of game. He just kept clicking gold coins and they just kept giving them to him.”

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