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Smurfs' Village  (Source: whattheyplay.com)

Tap Zoo  (Source: a1.phobos.apple.com)
Game developers like Capcom Interactive and Pocket Gems have been advertising free children's games on iTunes, then charge high prices for in-app items without clearly warning parents of such charges

Developers of free children's games on Apple's iPhone have been charging users by placing price tags on items found throughout the games, but these in-app price tags have not been made clear to those purchasing these games, and Democratic lawmakers are getting the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) involved. 

On Tuesday, Rep. Edward J. Markey (Mass.) along with Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) submitted letters to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz asking for thorough inspection of free children's games by companies such as Pocket Gems and Capcom Interactive.  

Apple iPhone games such as Tap Zoo by Pocket Gems and the Smurfs' Village by Capcom Interactive have been labeled as free children's games, but what parents may not know upon choosing these apps is that items within the games, such as barrels of Smurfberries in the Smurfs' Village game, can cost up to $99 if a child selects them. The end result is bill shock when the charges arrive.  

While these purchases cannot be made without a password, parents argue that it has become too easy for children to figure it out and that safeguards are not strong enough to stop them from purchasing the items found in these games. 

In one particular case, a Rockville family was charged $1,400 from Capcom Interactive as well as Apple, who receives 30 percent of the tab. The Democratic lawmakers see instances like this as deceptive practices on both Apple and the game developers' parts. Markey argued that parents download applications clearly labeled as free games made suitable for children, and have no reason to expect that in-app costs such as a $19 bucket of snowflakes would be apart of their child's gaming experience. 

"Companies shouldn't be able to use smurfs and snowflakes and zoos as online ATM's, pulling money from the pockets of unsuspecting parents," said Markey. "The use of mobile apps will continue to escalate, which is why it is critical that more is done now to examine these practices. I will continue to closely monitor this issue and look forward to the FTC's response."

Capcom Interactive and Pocket Gems have both placed warnings on their games in the iTunes store regarding the additional in-app charges a user may face, but there is still some children-related software packaging left unclear. 

"The bigger question of business marketing practices moving forward is that policy doesn't have time to stay up, so we need to ensure there are safeguards across all platforms so kids are not exploited," said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University and author of "Generation Digital," who has urged the need for reforms to the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.



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RE: Question
By Luticus on 2/10/2011 11:34:53 AM , Rating: 5
quote:
wouldn't they also be able to bypass whatever safeguards (perhaps even the same ones which prevent the in-game purchases) in order to buy apps that cost money?

you'd think...

Actually what I'd like is a list of companies participating in this very evil practice so that i can more effectively avoid all of their products.

Nobody should be paying $99 for a DIGITAL copy of "smurf berries"! This is obviously designed to exploit unsuspecting people. Entire games themselves rarely cost anywhere near that amount.

Sad really...


RE: Question
By flyingrooster on 2/10/2011 12:17:50 PM , Rating: 5
It costs $99 because it's an Apple product :)
Actually, apple gets an easy $30 every time someone buys it so why would they want to change it? If you're stupid enough to buy it or let your kids use your credit card to buy it, you deserve to pay the bill. What every happened to *gasp* parental responsibility? Why do the kids have iphones in the first place? I didn't get my own phone till I was 18, before that I shared with my family if I needed to use it.


RE: Question
By kmmatney on 2/11/2011 12:30:29 AM , Rating: 2
Android phones have this as well - the Android Facebook app has it, and Angry Birds on Android is implementing something as well. The price for these in-game transactions is ridiculous, though, and seems to be targeting kids - what adult would play this? Kid games need a $1 for in-game transactions, and an easy way to disable it. And of course, the kid shouldn't know the password to begin with...


RE: Question
By FITCamaro on 2/10/2011 12:20:07 PM , Rating: 2
But a barrel of smurf berries can power a school for an entire month!


RE: Question
By quiksilvr on 2/10/2011 1:16:35 PM , Rating: 2
Thats two whole fortnights of energy for the children! What a bargain!


RE: Question
By MrTeal on 2/10/2011 12:22:03 PM , Rating: 2
That's the real problem with this, IMO. If you look at games tailored to adults, the DLC tends to be fairly reasonably priced. $2 a song for Rock Band or even $5, $10 or whatever they charge for those stupid Farmville cards at 7-11, they have to at least present a value proposition to the people buying them. There is no way that anyone 18+ who can actually enter into a contract would look at a $99 dollar barrel of Smurfberries as reasonable, and Capcom full well knows that. The only explanation for this kind of pricing is that

1) It's some kind of stupid gag.
2) They deliberately included it knowing that many of their target audience are too young to appreciate the value of money, and hoping that some of them have enough access to make ingame purchases.

If it's the second option, that makes Capcom no different or worse than shady companies that sell those free "intelligence" tests that only text the results to your phone for a fee. Shame on them, they used to be a respectable company.


RE: Question
By FITCamaro on 2/10/2011 12:35:44 PM , Rating: 1
No one is saying the prices aren't absurd, but the fact is, they have the right to charge whatever they want for a product. And if you don't trust that your child can make a proper decision in whether a cost is absurd, then don't give them the means to make the decision in the first place.

As far as passwords being too easy, that's the fault of the parent. I'm assuming that the password is a PIN. Well don't use the same PIN as your ATM, phone number, birthday, etc.


RE: Question
By omnicronx on 2/10/2011 12:44:08 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
No one is saying the prices aren't absurd, but the fact is, they have the right to charge whatever they want for a product.
I disagree, the Apple appstore is a walled garden not the free market. Clearly they do not have the right to sell their products at whatever price they want, as Apple has rejected apps for this very reason in the past. If you don't like it, they are free to sell their products for whatever price they want elsewhere.

This is one of the few times where Apple's draconian policies can actually benefit its users.


RE: Question
By theapparition on 2/11/2011 8:55:37 AM , Rating: 2
Or this could be completely avoided if Apple gave users the ability to access thier online content without a CC number on file. Imagine that!

On setting up my wife's iPod, iTunes demanded a CC number or you couldn't even browse thier catalog! Imagine if every time you walked into Walmart, someone stopped you and demanded to see a valid CC or cash. You wouldn't stand for that. Why should you in a virtual world. That's only one of the reasons that I don't buy items in iTunes (the other is we don't use it anymore, Media Monkey FTW!).

Someone stealing your account now has access to your store, CC included. Seems like a very simple fix, one so simple it takes a company as stubborn as Apple not to implement.


RE: Question
By MrTeal on 2/10/2011 12:56:02 PM , Rating: 2
There are many areas where specific laws are made in order to protect children. In many jurisdictions, even advertising to children is prohibited. Many products are banned, or have restrictions on how they're made for safety reasons. You can't just make a crappy crib that is dangerous and claim that parents don't have to buy it if they don't want to.

The problem with this is going to be how it's implemented. In Canada, it's illegal to sell a crib that was made after Sept 1986. They made changes to improve safety standards, but were stuck on how to judge the safety of older cribs. Their solution was to just ban selling any older crib, regardless of how well built or safe it is. Government intervention at work. I have a feeling anything the FTC does here would be with noble intentions but either ineffective or so broad and crushing that it ends up killing DLC altogether.


RE: Question
By bah12 on 2/10/2011 1:02:31 PM , Rating: 2
This isn't to protect children it is to protect stupid parents. Anyone playing smurville that can guess your password deserves to have it.


RE: Question
By bah12 on 2/10/2011 1:01:26 PM , Rating: 2
IIRC most in game purchase are through the Apple store, and thus require Apple authentication. So it is even better than a PIN, if you are too stupid as a parent to select a password your sub 10year can guess, then pay up fool.

My 7 and 8 year old both have an iPod touch, but I control the spending. Actually it has turned into a wonderful parentiing tool we have a 3 strikes board that if clear on Saturday they can each pick an <$5 app/song (including free). I don't give my kids allowances so this has been the best thing ever. Usually costs me no more than $1-2 per kid per week. LOL wait till they get old enough to equate that to a really crappy allowance :)


RE: Question
By Keeir on 2/10/2011 6:41:49 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Nobody should be paying $99 for a DIGITAL copy of "smurf berries"! This is obviously designed to exploit unsuspecting people. Entire games themselves rarely cost anywhere near that amount.


While I "agree" to a certain extent, its important to understand what this repersents in the game.

Smurfberries is a way to speed up the development of your Smurf Village. Its essentially the same thing as buying time and effort. Since the entire point of the game is to build a fancy smurf village to show off... then this has some apparent value to people. As strange as that may seem.

The 99 dollar option is actual a bulk discount option. The standard price for the "normal" amount is under 5 dollars.

I don't like micro-transaction games either. Even worse than montly fee games in my mind. But its also hard for me to critize a company that allows some legitimate (read of legal age) users the ability to purchase with less effort and lower price what they would purchase anyway.

The only issue I can see is the 15 minute password keep. When the iphone keeps the itunes password for upto 15 minutes as a convience. This can be gotten around though... if you lock your phone and then unlock it, then this 15 minutes period is reset to none and a password must be entered.

Otherwise you better trust your child if you handing them ANY smartphone and password system because a irresponisble child can rack up huge expenses in a variety of ways.


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