An 8-year-old rang up $1,400 in charges (for “Smurfberries”) via the Smurfs’ Village iPhone game. The reporting focused on how such a thing could happen: Via a “15-minute loophole”? An older sister passing along the iTunes password? An 8-year-old not understanding real vs. game dollars?
I decided to look at the design of the game itself for clues. Spoiler: they weren’t hard to find.
A Little Context: In-App Purchase Done Right
Here’s the excellent game, geoDefense Swarm. It a great game as is, but players can also buy more levels as an in-app purchase.
First, the menu for choosing a level to play:
Tap “Hard Levels”, scroll all the way to end, and you’ll see Get More Levels:
Smurfs’ Village In-App Purchase Experience
So is Smurfs’ Village pretty similar? Did these kids go clearly out of control? I decided to take one for the team and install the app. I can now say that the answers to these questions are no and no.
Here’s a typical screen in Smurfs’ Village. I’m “purchasing” a house with play money. The link into the real-dollars shop is the SHOP graphic on the bottom right:
Tap it, and you’ll see a nearly identical “shop” — for purchasing (no air-quotes this time) Smurfberries:
At this point, one may wonder why any children’s game should have something for sale for $4.99, let alone $99.99. And why would a child even want Smurfberries? What’s the motivator? It doesn’t take long to find out. And this is where the hard sell begins.
Leaving the shop, we tap our garden to see when the blueberries will be ready:
The large brown panel on the right are instructions for using Smurfberries to force the blueberries to appear instantly. The cynical among us will realize this is a gigantic ad, taking up 1/3 of the display. Is this an isolated case? Unfortunately, no. Over and over, the game stops the flow and tries to sell Smurfberries:
The pattern becomes obvious: every step along the way, Smurfberries “help” our Smurfs work faster and better. (Scary…) Smurfberry “use” is woven into the fabric of the game in a variety of places:
This isn’t a game; it’s a money-extraction tool aimed at children ages 4 and up.