Well there are a few issues here. Freemium apps aimed exclusively at kids are actually pretty rare and, thanks to a number of high profile missteps, certainly not getting any more popular.
A look at the top kids’ apps charts reveals that, rather uniquely, the top grossing apps are paid and not free. That’s definitely not true of the adult-orientated categories. The hubbub of the past two years has worked, and the kids market has largely got its house in order.
The problem comes when kids play games that are aimed at adults, but that children also adore. We’ve already established that kids love games and can deal with game mechanics that are at a far greater level of complexity than they exhibit in other areas of their development.
But there is a gradual understanding that within freemium, it’s not the more mercenary and mendacious techniques that are the most successful. A well designed freemium game uses money as a way to increase player agency and allow an extra form of expression rather than as a gating mechanic or devious trick. Spending money in many of the more successful freemium games is a symbol of the player’s enjoyment, not capitulation.
And when it comes to children interacting with these games, well, it’s not like we haven’t historically been teaching kids to say, gamble, anyway.
Panini Sticker books, those are definitely gambling for kids, and they sell six billion stickers a year. Those little LEGO Minifigure packs with a random minifig are gambling for kids. LEGO are the world’s biggest toy company
A closed packet containing a random prize has been an acceptable way to stop a child from making terrible, horrible noises in a public place for decades.
LEGO did not become the world’s biggest toy company by selling blind packs of random minifigs to crying children. LEGO neared bankruptcy prior to obtaining a license for the Star Wars franchise. The success of that license spun into numerous other licenses for Harry Potter, Marvel and DC, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. LEGO also spun these franchises into lovable video games (free of in-app purchase), movies, and many other merchandising endeavors. They are not a company who has rooted their business practice in micro transactions for digital commodities or goods.
In 2004 the LEGO group was in trouble. They were losing money and losing market share to other toys and entertainment products. In order to address some fundamental issues in their business, they needed to cut costs. Leading up to this crisis, LEGO bricks had been adding new designs and colors without consideration for the cost to the business. LEGO went through a large reorganization and cut the production of unique elements in half, the variety of colors in half, and the number of suppliers by 80%. This, in addition to an increase in licensed sets and an expansion into video games, saved the LEGO Company.
Sure, the “blind pack” is a form of immediate gambling and a successful side business but it also encourages diplomacy in trading. It’s the same practice that never stopped trading card or vinyl figure collectors from growing their collections and offering up the pastime of a scavenger hunt for the whole set. If a “whale” happened to have a massive amount of extraneous coin, they could easily buy the lot of a “blind” collectible box with probable certainty that they would complete a series. Or they could walk into any trading card shop and shell out for that rare Kobe Bryant rookie card without hesitation.
What happened to building a franchise and the “long game?” Video game sequels, be it Super Mario Bros. or Sonic The Hedgehog, are just iterations of the same game. Trickle in a new characters, mechanics, and levels and you’ve got yourself a sequel. Those that fell in love with the characters and gameplay from the first iteration are likely to scramble for the next.
Take a look at the Pokémon franchise. The first iteration of the game (red and blue) offered the first 151 Pokémon. However, each version only included 140 of said 151, 11 of which were exclusive to each version of the game. A single player could purchase both versions of the game along with two Game Boys, link them up and trade amongst themselves. However, the likelihood that a parent would allow for such an investment for 11 extra Pokémon was highly unlikely. Instead, children were encouraged to trade amongst their friends with the different version of the game.
This crazed investment of time, energy and community built a sustainable franchise… from collectibles. Just as with trading cards or any other expanding collectible sensation, offering more collectibles was an opportunity for more revenue; therefore, more and more Pokémon were created. This has continued for 16 years over several handheld console generations and spawned TV shows, movies, and various other merchandizing opportunities.
Carnival games still exist even though we know they are rigged, but we keep coming back for the chance of triumph. Even monetary gambling offers a chance at monetary and physical return. Sorrell’s cover of an IAP’s ability to “increase player agency and allow an extra form of expression” acknowledges the industry’s nearly unanimous “thumbs-up” of aesthetic IAP. Though, I’m not sure I see how buying a new dress for Barbie and “gambling” are linked.
The success of in-app purchases comes from whales. Children are not whales. Sorrell inadvertently touches on this with mention of games for adults vs. games for children. The problem is that these games are marketed and available without restriction to all age groups. It seems to me that if an IAP dev can wrangle a few bucks out of a unsuspecting child and ignorant parents, that child may come to believe that the nature of games is to pay for progress, thus a spiral.
The first time I played a console game and realized I did not have to feed the machine another quarter, I was sold. Once I owned the console, I could enjoy limitless play albeit at the hefty cost of a console and finished games. I learned to save and research for fulfilling experiences and communal discussions. Turns out, that trade-off was something millions were willing to make. The arcade vs. console era taught me more about money management than begging my parents for another roll of tokens.
Play itself is very rewarding for children. Maybe in some respects there’s a little too much play, but play is still important. And there’s this whole social opportunity, this currency of interaction, with friends, family, and even strangers. That kind of attitude extends beyond the playground, so I was really happy to be expressing that aspect of games.