Smurfberries: Understanding IAP and Why Free Isn’t Free

There is a new cancer out there. It doesn’t invade your body nor does it take your life. While it is 100% treatable, people are happy to be burdened with it. Some people don’t even know they have it – and many who do have it don’t seem to care. But like a biological cancer, it is growing throughout the realm of mobile device gaming – and until people are willing to shake it off – it is here to stay.

The cancer is In App Purchasing (IAP). In “common speak”, we call it “Smurfberries”.

Take a look at this screen shot of Google Play’s Android store. These are the top fifteen TOP GROSSING GAMES on the store. You might notice … they are all “Free”.

The sane folk among us have to be scratching their heads. “Top Grossing” and “Free” are polar opposites – yet millions of users download and play these games every single day without thinking twice about it or wondering “What’s the catch?”

That’s what this article is about; explaining the repercussions of In App Purchasing and how it has taken control of gaming on mobile devices – and more importantly, why you should care.

Before we get started with the blood bath – let me go on record as saying that innately, IAP are not evil – anymore than a gun or knife are evil. IAP allow for the coveted “try before you buy” method of software distribution. Much like the old shareware days; IAP allows you to get part of the game for free to try it out – then pay a small fee to “unlock” the game into the “full version”. Sometimes known as “FairWare”, this model worked for decades on the PC when indie developers busted butt in their garage to bring you new and unique titles.

To be fair, there are examples of that in the various mobile device markets out there. Many developers, most of which have PC development going on as well, have extended this model to their mobile games. Hidden Object developer BigFish is a great example of this type of developer. You download the first chapter for “free”, then if you like what you see, you pay $4.99 to unlock the rest of the game.

Unfortunately, that’s as benign as IAP gets. The next stages of the cancer are far worse …

Gaming “Enhancement”
One step up the cancer ladder is what I call “IAP Enhanced Gaming”. These are games that are up front and honest about IAP in their games. The best examples of these titles are games that are NOT built around the IAP model – but rather ADD the IAP on later; as a way of fast-tracking the player through a single player experience. For example, imagine a racing game where you collect these little wrenches scattered across the play field as you drive. Once you get three of these wrenches, you can purchase an upgrade; faster engine, better tires, faster acceleration – you get the idea. In the “IAP Enhanced Gaming” model, you can buy wrenches in advance so you can trick your car out right away – but you are NOT penalized if you go about it without payment. It is like buying milk at 7-11 instead of the grocery store; you’re paying a little more for convenience. To get this lesser-cancer diagnosis a game must not allow you to gain online advantage with these purchases and you must be able to complete the game fully without being punished for NOT buying the wrenches. Games that fail to do these things move up the cancer ladder to “Smurfberries”.

Smurfberries
Almost the lowest form of gaming on mobile devices, the term was coined by one of the earliest examples of the business model; Smurf’s Village (which you might have noticed was on that Top Grossing Games list above).

In this title, you create a Smurf’s Village by using in-game pretend currency called smurfberries. These are trickled down to the player very slowly and are used up quickly as you “play for free”. Once you expend your berries, you are offered to buy more … using real money. You purchase a small amount for a certain amount of real money – then you play until you’ve exhausted the supply – at which time you must buy more. This raping of your Google Wallet continues; a dollar at a time until you realize you’ve blown $30 or $40 on this “free” game – and despite the fact you have spent that money – you are no closer to “winning” or completing your game. It is an ENDLESS pump suck from your wallet.

This game doesn’t use IAP to “enhance” your game – it is required to play the game AS THE GAME WAS DESIGNED. To play without IAP ruins the intended experience of the game – despite the fact that if you wait days on end between plays – you will end up getting small amounts of the covented in-game currency.

Parents were huge victims of the Smurfberry Scam. “Hey, let’s let little Johnny play Smurf’s Village .. it’s safe and free!” … right up until the time the credit card bill came. Parents were reporting that their children racked up THOUSANDS of dollars in “smufberries” in just one month.

Sounds kinda like gambling, right? You have to keep paying to play – but in Vegas, where the deck is stacked against you, there are ways you can win. Here? The only winner is the app developer that is getting your mad smurfberry monies. In Vegas you have to be 21 to gamble …

It’s hard to believe there is a rung UP the steps of the cancer ladder after Smurfberries – but believe me, we have barely gotten started.

Bait and Smurf
The newest way to get your money is what I call the “Bait and Smurf”. Just like a crack dealer, the idea is to give you ‘the first hit free’ and give you ‘the good stuff’ – hoping you’ll come back with fist-fulls of cash to get another cherry high. Ladies and Gentlemen; I bring you Dead Trigger – the definitive Bait and Smurf game.

The game started out as a $.99 ordeal (the developers quickly changed it to FREE after people complained). Google Play gives you 15 minutes to “try” a game and if you don’t like it, you can get a refund. Dead Trigger started off by making sure you never had the chance to refund the game. Long download times to get the remainder of the game assets and a long “training” session made sure you didn’t get the opportunity to get that buck back. To make matters worse, the first “mission” (before they spring the smurfberries on you) affords you a great weapon, lots of extras and equipment – making sure you get the GREATEST rush possible before they started asking you for money. Once completed, the great weapon and equipment are STRIPPED away – leaving you with a pistol to play with. Unless of course, you’re willing to buy some smurfberries. For just $2.99 you can get yourself a bushel and start the game (so to speak) with a better weapon; but of course, not the great weapon they lured you in with.

Instead of paying the smurfberry ransom you figure you’ll take on the game without the IAP. You’ll quickly realize the game is HIGHLY IMBALANCED without paying for smurfberries; the in game enemies are nearly impossible to kill with a pistol, and since you didn’t pay – no bandages or recovery equipment for you. It is readily apparent that smurfberries are NOT optional if you want to play this game with any sort of value.

Let’s sum up; the game cost real money to “buy”, they gave you a crack cocaine hit with the best weapons and equipment – then took them all away until you paid; and even then you couldn’t afford “the good stuff”. Worse yet, they slanted the game COMPLETELY out of play-ability WITHOUT the smurfberry purchases.

Sounds terrible, right? But there is a step above this stage two cancer …

Premium Pay and Smurf
Game developers have big balls. I can’t argue with that. Take the above “Bait and Smurf”, now make the game cost $6.99 to BUY before you even get to play it! Thanks to the assets downloading, all the cut scenes and story build up – you’ll get out of that 15 minute refund window – sticking you with a $6.99 game – for better or worse. As a bonus, you get a few minutes of game play out of it before the Grim Reaper’s hand comes beckoning for you to buy smurfberries. Enter the game Call of Duty Black Ops Zombies. $6.99 is the price of admission – and you’ll find out before the first level is even over that the game is BLATANTLY leveled severely against you if you refuse to buy the “optional” smurfberries.

Sounds like a good time to be had by all, right …? And yet – all of the games on the Top 15 Grossing games use one or more of these models.

And That Isn’t All …
Enter Rage of Bahamut. This “Magic the Gathering” style trading card game had people paying HUNDREDS of dollars for “virtual cards”. That’s right – people were literally dropping $10 to $60 a hit for “card packs” which increasingly produced LESS and LESS quality cards. Just like buying the cards in the store – the foil packs keep you from getting what you want – and instead keep you buying packs hoping to get a winner – but at least you could still do ‘virtual trading’ online; swapping cards you don’t need with the ones you do. But the real tragedy hit when they finally got a synergy of players, they killed the trading card aspect and made it “card packs only”. The 1 Star comments are alive with people having spent HUNDREDS and THOUSANDS of dollars on this game; only to be shut out of what many considered the best part of the game; trading the actual cards.

How about Heroes of Call – the slick Tegra action RPG dungeon crawler that brought hopes to a quality Diabloesque game to tablets all over the world? Besides locking everything fun up behind smurfberry purchases, they even BUILT GAME ELEMENTS around the core system to stop you from identifying weapons or conducting standard “in game business” without paying for it in smurfberries. Curious what that “Unidentified Sword” is? Wait SIX MINUTES (!) or pay the dealer off in smurfberries. Imagine how pricey THAT could get?

Why should you care?
At first glance, IAP looks to be nothing more dangerous than simple post-purchase DLC (downloadable content) for a fee. Everyone seems to be ok with DLC, after all. But it isn’t stopping there. IAP isn’t being used as a “shareware” tool – nor is it being used as a DLC methodology – but rather IAP is becoming THE way to build games for the ultimate in monetization. The trend is taking us away from “quality game experience first, DLC second”. Games are being written from the ground up to be smurfberry piggies; ensuring you bare minimum experience (if even at all) without coughing up cash for the in-game currency. There will soon no longer be a way to “buy” a game – you get to rent it – for as long as you’re willing to buy smurfberries you get to play.

This is a lot different than the way we started, isn’t it? We had “free with ads” games where you could pay to get the “full version” and get the ads out. Then we got the IAP shareware edition – play for free for a bit, then pay to unlock the full game.

If this continues? All games will turn into smurfberry suckers – because smurfberries are making the developers money; and what’s worse – consumers are allowing themselves to be fleeced by these “free” games that end up requiring a fortune in smurfity good purchases.

How do we defend ourselves against the Rise of the Smurfberry? First off – education. Pass this article to folks new to mobile gaming. Help people become educated on how the IAP system works. Let your friends and social networks know you found an abusive Smurfberry game – and warn them away.

Second, the Smurfberry Boycott. Before you download that “free” game, check it for smurfberry stench. Don’t waste your time on the description – they aren’t going to fess up there. Instead, check under PERMISSIONS on the Google Play store. Of COURSE you’ll have to scroll to the bottom – and probably expand the “MORE” area to find something called “Market Billing Service”. This isn’t proof it is a smurfberry abuse game – but it will tip you off that the game DOES have IAP and it is likely the game WILL be slanted against you if you don’t pay. Protest by NOT downloading the game at all. If you do, make sure you post in your review/comments that you are not willing to play the smurfberry game and you uninstalled the title.

Finally, write your app store and tell them you demand full disclosure on Smurfberry titles. Tell them you want CLEAR designation (not something you have to dig three screens down for) of so called “Freemium” titles and those that require repeated Smurfberry purchases. Better yet, tell them you want to see FRONT and CENTER the AVERAGE amount of money a user spends on this title’s IAP. With this information, we as consumers can stop wasting our time and money on these cancer-ridden titles.

Want to know more? Check out these articles:

Freemium: It’s Real, It Sucks … It Really Sucks

Portable Consoles Are Not Dead: The True Cost of Smart Device Gaming

Shine Runner: $1 Gaming Done Right

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+