Ever since Apple introduced In-App Purchasing in iPhone OS 3.0, game developers have struggled to find the right pricing formulas for their new releases. Previously, companies simply released free “Lite” demos and paid “Full” versions, and Apple specifically said that consumers should have clear options to try or buy apps without being forced to pay unlocking fees. But once In-App Purchasing arrived, Apple was able to take a 30% cut of post-sale transactions, and dropped the “only free or only paid” distinction for apps, tempting developers to experiment with new shades of gray. Free apps could now include several demo levels, then charge for the rest of the game, or the developer could sell a half-game for a few bucks and charge for more levels, or sell all the levels for a premium price and unveil a full second game later as an in-app purchase. More deviously, a developer could give away all of the levels for free, but charge players for play time, or sell individual items a player would need or want to continue progressing through the title.
We’ve seen all of these pricing models before, praised one of them (Ramp Champ), and disliked a bunch of others. But this week’s release of Cogs by Lazy8 Studios and Chillingo throws the topic of In-App Purchasing into fairly stark relief: Cogs is a very sharp little puzzler that uses the classic tile game as a basis for smart, multi-surface puzzles that require you to swipe cogs and pipes into positions that bring machines to life, or stop them from moving. Though the crux of the game is merely tile-shifting on grids, the 3-D models are impressive—fully realized polygonal steampunk art with believable wood, copper, and other metal textures—and the fact that its puzzles often require double-finger rotation of the play surfaces makes the game more complex and interesting at the same time. Even if Cogs is not strictly brilliant, it’s very well executed, and as a full game, certainly worth $5.
Yet that’s the problem: rather than just charging the appropriate $5 for the full game, the developer decided to use an In-App Purchasing scheme that’s creating a real stir. Lazy8 starts by charging you $1 for the game—which actually turns out to be the first 10 levels—and then tells you to cough up $1 thereafter for each of four packs of 10 more levels. By the time you’re done, you’ve paid $5 for 50 levels, achieved through five separate transactions. Contrast this with the PC version, which gives you the first 8 levels for free in a demo, then offers the full 50 levels for $10. Though it’s more expensive, the PC version’s graphics display at a better-than-iPhone resolution, have more realistic shading, and so on, giving the PC player a superior overall experience for the extra dollars.
There’s one key reason that Cogs is such an interesting illustration of the problems with In-App Purchasing: the pricing model alone is actually detracting from the otherwise positive buzz Cogs is receiving. Complaints about the level packs are filling up comments threads on the game, and intruding on App Store reviews, as well; Cogs’ ratings are far too disproportionately spread between 1 and 5 stars given the game’s quality, and variants on the “nickeled and dimed” theme appear in a number of purchaser impressions. Some people—reviewers who received the game for free and players who understand what $5 buys outside the App Store game world—have no issue with paying the full price for Cogs, even in increments, but everyone else seems to be really worked up about having to buy their way through the game.
Part of the problem is that a decent player can blow through the first ten levels in an hour, which some have viewed correctly as the equivalent of having to pay out for the tutorial levels typically offered in free demos; after such rapid progress through $1 of play, people ask themselves whether the additional dollars are even wise to spend. There’s clearly a sense amongst App Store users that they shouldn’t be charged for a demo, and then shouldn’t be rationed out subsequent levels in chunks. This isn’t Ramp Champ, which included the equivalent of a full real game for its initial asking price and then added more levels thereafter; Cogs lets you know that it’s cutting you off mid-game just as it’s warming up.
Over the years, we have openly criticized both overpriced accessories and first-party Apple hardware, and haven’t shied away from calling out apps when they’ve been too expensive. Cogs is not one of them. In our view, it’s more worthy of a $5 asking price than all but one or two of the Click Wheel iPod games Apple published in the pre-App Store era, and we certainly wouldn’t want to begrudge Lazy8 fair compensation for a title that’s so obviously well built. Yet by choosing to try and charge the player five times for one game, the company aggravates its potential fans, quite possibly stopping people from making the single purchase that they might have made up front, or perhaps would have tolerated with two transactions—say, a $2 initial app that was fully unlocked for $3 more. With this editorial, our hope is that other developers will learn from this mistake, and that puzzle fans will be able to look past this developer’s pricing model to appreciate the value of its regrettably segmented game. Proper pricing is no longer just a matter of choosing a dollar amount; in the App Store, appropriate initial and subsequent price strategies are necessary, as are smart approaches to selling In-App content, or avoiding it entirely.