When Free Games Get Expensive

It’s all too common. You let your kid download a free game for a smart phone or tablet, whether from Google Play, Amazon or iTunes.  15 minutes later, you get a tug on the sleeve.

“Mom, I need to spend my allowance.”

“Why?”

“It costs $5 to get some diamonds for this game so I can play the next level.”

“$5? That’s way too expensive for that.”

“But I have money. I’ll give you $5.”

“It’s not worth $5. You don’t even get that many diamonds.” (Thinking, You’ll ask again in two days.)

“But Mom…it’s my money! You said I could spend it.”

(Thinking. Yes, it’s your money and I said you can spend it. But that’s wasting money. Do I let you waste what is in fact your money, or say no? I can let you be irresponsible with your money and learn lessons from it, or guide you to be a better consumer and run the risk that you’ll hack my password and buy it anyway. On my credit card.) “Sorry, kiddo. I think you should save your money for something better. We are not paying $5 for 50 diamonds you’ll use in 5 minutes.”

(Thinking, please don’t hack my password.)

“But Mom! You NEVER let me do what I want!”

Adding Up: Free Games with In App Purchases

Did you hear about the kid who racked up $5800 in in-app purchases playing Jurassic World last month?  Yeah, it happens. Heck, it even happened to Kanye West, resulting in a Twitter tirade about the economics of the in-app purchase.

The model is simple. You (or your kid) downloads a game for free. You (or your kid) starts playing the game. Shortly after, you start getting an offer to buy more content for the game, spending real money. Depending on the game, you may be able to progress pretty easily through the game without spending money as long as you’re patient…or you may be stuck with a very small amount of content.

Unfortunately, a lot of the games that are aimed at kids use the latter model.

Little Bit loves her Kindle games, and unfortunately, she likes the kind that usually only provide a glimpse at the full game unless you unlock content.  Let’s take for example, my kid’s favorite unnamed cooking game. This game, which is aimed at very young kids, allows you to “make” cakes, sundaes, cake pops, etc.  You can “fill orders” from various characters to earn stars.

There’s no way to effectively progress in the game with the free version. The free game gives you a very limited number of recipes, decorations, tools and ingredients. The cost to unlock just the tools? $4.99. Want the whole version? $14.99.

Basically, if the kid likes the game at all, they are going to ask to spend money. There’s just not much entertainment value in the free game without spending money, and when you do spend money it’s still not exactly value.

We’ve gotten to the point where Little Bit won’t even ask if she can download games by the same company, because I’ll go on a 5 minute (kid appropriate language) rant on their business model.

However, as poor a value as I find this particular unnamed character’s games (there are more…), they aren’t the biggest money holes. At least once you buy the game, you’ve bought it.  You’re out $15, but that’s not thousands.

Nope, the really expensive free games are the diamond games.

Diamonds, Gems and Crystals…Why Does In Game Money Have to Be So Difficult?

So what do diamonds have to do with these video games?

A lot of free games have two types of currency. There’s a base currency that you gain from completing regular tasks. Play long enough and you’ll find that you can pretty much earn what you need through good money management.

Then there’s a premium currency that accrues more slowly. Usually this takes form as some kind of mineral: diamonds, gems, crystals, etc. Often, the premium currency is needed for things like speeding up tasks, recharging energy so you can do more activities, buying bells and whistles, opening up new quests, and getting the best characters.

Premium currency is expensive.

Take, for instance, my teenager-obsessed five year old’s new favorite, High School Story. In High School story, you are a character forming your own high school, where everyone fits a stereotype (jock, nerd, actor, band guy) but everyone gets along and does tons of social things like “dress fashionably,” “date” and “party.” The premium currency is high school rings.

Weird. Who needed more than one high school ring? That’s hardly the only highly unrealistic part of the game. Still, Little Bit has a lot of fun with the game and as long as you don’t spend money it’s harmless fun.

The rings are used to unlock (or speed up) quests, buy nifty outfits, and get premium characters. You can earn them through regular play….at a rate of about 10 a day. Of course, opening the special quests can cost 100-200 rings. Premium characters can cost anywhere from 100 to 3000 rings. Premium outfits might cost up to 5000.

So there’s a lot of incentives to use in-app purchases to up your game. You can play without them, but there’s appealing items that are very difficult to save up for with regular game play.

Plus, there are some things you just can’t buy without actual money. For instance, High School Story includes the chance to buy some Monster High characters….for a price. Now Little Bit loves Monster High. We’ve watched all of the movies on Netflix, and she has a bunch of the dolls. Heck, she even had a Monster High birthday party last year. We are big Monster High fans in this house.

It costs $9.99 to buy the Monster High “hangout” that allows you to get MH characters, and $4.99 to get just ONE of them. So hey, you might as well spend $19.99 to buy the whole Monster High set with all four characters, right?

$20 bucks to add my kid’s favorite characters.  Even with the begging, Not. Going. To. Happen.

The rings are pretty pricy for what they buy. There’s a special “deal” that will give you 30 a day for 30 days for $2.99, but if you want instant gratitude (and what kid doesn’t?) it’s $1.99 for 280, $4.99 for 770, or the best value….19,600 for $99.99.

You don’t have to spend money to play the game, as there is a fair amount of accessible content. You can see where the costs associated with playing a free game like High School Story might add up quickly if you let it, and this is for a noncompetitive game.

For games where players compete against each other and the in-game resources you have to spend directly influences your ability to beat other players, there can be even more pressure to spend real money. If you look at “top grossing free games,” you’ll see a lot of games that fit that description.

Don’t Get Stuck with a Big Freemium Bill For Free Games

When Free Games Get ExpensiveTablet, phone and computer games can be a great way of keeping your kid occupied, especially on car trips, in waiting rooms, or anywhere else they have to sit and wait with minimal entertainment options. There are free games that are good value, but there are also a lot of enticements for kids to spend money.  If you want your little one NOT to leave you with a big app bill for their free games, here are some suggestions:

First, set passwords for your device and for app and in-app purchases, and change them regularly.  You better believe I was changing passwords when I realized my kid was figuring out what I was typing every time she wanted to download a game.

(Of course, it also helps to remember the password. I have had at least one occasion when I had to do a remote factory reset on her Kindle because I forgot the new password.)

Some parents use apps like Kindle Free Time to limit content, but I found it inconvenient since my daughter loves to listen to music and Free Time didn’t have a way to add her favorite Kidz Bop albums. However, her Kindle is password protected so that she can’t download any content, even free stuff, without my permission.

You can also set your account so that the default for any app purchases is a pre-paid card. If your kid gets around your passwords, they can only do limited damage to your finances if the account has to be prepaid.  It can be less convenient to have to reload prepaid cards, but it can go a long way toward minimizing any unexpected charges. This might be especially important for older kids whose content doesn’t need to be as carefully monitored.  I imagine it’s a lot easier to control what my 5 year old plays than what a 13 year old downloads.

For your younger kids, controlling the downloads is key. Before you allow your child to play a game, read a few negative user reviews of the game.  If the game is particularly limited in free content or aggressive in adding premium content, someone will say so. Forewarned is forearmed. Don’t be afraid to say “No” to a free game.

Make sure that your account emails you about any and all purchases. That’s how I found out I needed passwords in the first place: my then 3 year old was buying episodes of Dora the Explorer on my Kindle.  Carefully monitor your statements for unexpected charges. You may be able to get a few expunged, but don’t expect to be successful if your kid is accruing charges on an ongoing basis.

Know your games. Play with your kid (at least occasionally.) There are some game publishers who release money pits, and others who tend to put out good free content or even good paid content. For instance, Toca Boca releases a number of kid’s games that are cute, fun, have great replay value, and rarely cost more than $2.99. Amazon Underground offers several of their games for free.

Amazon Underground is Amazon’s service for helping you find “actually free” games. No in app purchases, no premium upgrades. Since we are a Kindle family, I use it regularly to find games. Unfortunately, Little Bit does not, but I know if she picks a game with the “actually free” banner I have a lot less to worry about as far as extra purchases.

Be aware. Freemium games are out there, and they are targeting kids to make their money. While I think there are some really good free games available and even really good free games with in app purchases, there are also a lot of opportunities to rack up unbelievable charges. Set rules, boundaries, and a few hurdles to minimize your exposure to free games that cost too much.

Have you ever found yourself paying a lot of money for a “free” game? What methods have you used to prevent unauthorized downloads?

Top Image courtesy of a454 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Part of Frugal Fridays at Aspired Living & Annie and Everything

Disease Called Debt
14 Responses to “When Free Games Get Expensive”
    • Emily Jividen 01/08/2016
    • Emily Jividen 01/08/2016
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  1. Mel @ brokeGIRLrich 01/09/2016
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  2. Tyler 01/12/2016
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