How To Stop Wasting Money On In-App Purchases

If you don't manage them, In-App Purchases (IAP) can add up fast. Here's how to keep them under control.

Australian money photo by Shutterstock

What's an IAP?

While they're most commonly associated with game purchases, an in-app-purchase can cover any kind of digital "extra" within a mobile app, be it some additional time to perform a task in a game or a new kind of filter for a camera application that makes your photos look extra-funky.

Are IAPs always "bad"?

Just because an app uses IAP doesn't automatically mean you should consign it to the digital scrap heap. Developers do need to eat, and in the modern app space, paid apps can often struggle to gain any kind of meaningful traction even at price points of only a dollar or two. This is where free to download, IAP-assisted, or "freemium" titles can gain some attention. After all, if the app is free you're essentially trialling it for nothing beyond the cost of your data, with the option to purchase additional parts for a fixed cost.

The issue with many IAPs, and especially those found in mobile games, is that many are built on the premise that paying to play is the only way to operate, with incessant nagging to purchase whatever the game's "premium" currency is to actually do anything meaningful. This can sometimes be obscured behind layers of secondary currency that appear to fulfill the same kind of function.

Essentially speaking, there can be good IAPs that are clear ways to benefit both users and developers with additional features and funds respectively, and woeful IAPs that actively detract from the user experience while trying to suck your wallet dry.

To give this some real world app context, consider the way that EA's Dungeon Keeper and Hipster Whale's Crossy Road each treat IAP.

Crossy Road's IAP is quite simple, with a variety of characters that you can opt to buy with real money in-game. You're not obliged to, but you're reminded gently that you can. It's a positive feedback loop, because you're rewarding the Australian developers of the game without being limited in what you can do in-game. The game's random lottery reward system further enhances this by giving you a random chance to score IAP content in the meantime. So you can play the game for free forever, or enhance the experience with extra content is you wish.

Meanwhile, EA's reboot of Dungeon Keeper was an IAP disaster of quite epic proportions, with a currency model that essentially made it impossible to play without coughing up quite frankly insulting quantities of cash in order to perform even the most rudimentary of tasks. That sort of behaviour does not deserve to be rewarded.

How can I check if a title features IAP?

The easiest way to check if a title has or may require IAP is to carefully examine the title's description. Both Google Play and the iTunes Store make this quite evident. Here's the aforementioned Dungeon Keeper on Google Play. Yes, I had it installed, back when I reviewed it, if you really must know.

And here's its iTunes Store image:

Note how in both cases, "Offers In-App Purchases" is stated upfront. Which is fine if you're a responsible and sane adult, but one of the key areas for criticism with IAPs has been their appeal to small children, who may not appreciate why it's a bad idea to spend thousands of dollars on digital fruit, berries or costumes for their bright pink horses.

I don't want IAP! What can I do?

The very simplest way to limit your exposure to IAP is to set up your accounts without linking a credit card. That means you'll have to buy credit in predetermined quantities which is a minor hassle, although you can save some money there, especially on the iTunes side of the equation where discounts on iTunes credit are incredibly common.

If you've already got an account with an activated credit card, the other way you can limit IAP exposure is to specifically prohibit access without a passcode. That won't help you if you're a hopeless IAP game addict, but it should stop your kids from sending you broke.

iOS

  • Launch Settings;
  • Tap on General;
  • Scroll down to Restrictions and tap on it;
  • Tap on Enable Restrictions and set a four digit passcode. Don't use the same passcode as the device itself unless you don't in fact like your bank balance;
  • Toggle the switch for "In App Purchases" from green (which is "allow") to white ("forbid").

Android

  • Launch Google Play;
  • Go to Settings, which should appear if you tap on the hamburger menu at the top left corner;
  • Scroll down to locate Require authentication for purchases;
  • From there, you can choose "For all purchases", "Every 30 minutes" or "Never". We'd suggest "For all purchases" for maximum security.;

Lifehacker 101 is a regular feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?


Comments

    On Android, install Google Opinion rewards. Do the short surveys (like 5-15 seconds) and get free credit for the store. Only use that for IAP so you don't actually lose money.

    One other way IAP's are used in mobile games is for chapters. Try out the game for free, then an IAP is used to buy the rest of the game. This is perfectly reasonable.

    Step 1: Don't install "games" with in in app purchases.
    Step 2: Drink Gin and Tonic (optional)

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