Kids and mobile microtransactions

Capcom’s mixed efforts on the iPhone radically transformed with the recent release of their wildly successful Smurfs’ Village on the iPhone. It’s sort of Farmville mixed with a city sim and a little Lemmings thrown in there for good measure. Combined with a great license, the game quickly unseated Angry Birds as the new king of the AppStore charts.

Smurfs Village has attracted a lot of controversy as a free2play game utilizing microtransactions clearly aimed at a younger demographic. Forums are filled with rants from angry parents, shocked that their kids racked up iTunes bills in the hundreds of dollars buying Smurfberries to get ahead in the game.

The fact is, you can find plenty of complaints about any f2p iPhone game if you look hard enough. Some forums about NGMOCO’s games feature threads from people seemingly of limited intelligence confused that they made real money transactions in WeRule, despite having to enter a password and click through prompts that explicitly announce a purchase is being made for real dollars. It’s the player’s own fault–as NGMOCO shows in the forum thread, you’d have to be almost brain dead to not know you are about to blow some cash.

Smurfs’ Village is a special case for being partially a kid’s game. It’s good business for any f2p game that may attract a young demographic to feature some parental controls. Sure, you can only perform an in-app-purchase in an iPhone app after entering a password. But, because you don’t have to re-enter the password for a short while after a purchase, it’s possible a child could make an in-app purchase without having to pass through iTunes security measures.

If you look at games like Club Penguin and Wizard101 on the web, they both have extensive parental controls that not only control what can be bought, but what the child can do in the game. In the case of Smurfs Village, there should be an option to turn on a secondary password that will only trigger the in-app purchase if it is entered. That way a parent can authorize each purchase, even if the iTunes password prompt isn’t coming up. I’m sure Capcom is thinking of something like this–we’re all in uncharted territory here as the mobile business model evolves rapidly.

I’m in the design phase of a few new f2p projects, and I plan to include at least basic parental controls. It remains to be seen how active parents will be in using these tools. But at least there won’t be any excuses.

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