The cost of Apple's 'Pay Once and Play' category for iOS developers

Shane Schick

With one small step, Apple has effectively segmented the "good" mobile games from the "evil" mobile games. 

The recent introduction of the "Pay Once and Play" category on the App Store was clearly designed with consumers in mind. Consumers, that is, who are increasingly feeling uncomfortable with the limitations of playing a game in exchange for being bombarded with in-app purchase (IAP) requests. With "Pay Once and Play," Apple is trying to prove there are still options for those who are filling to fork over more of a straightforward up-front free in return for a more frictionless experience. In some respects, this is a worthy experiment in user experience design, and a way to stave off discontent or even potential litigation, but it comes absolutely at the expense of many iOS developers it has courted. 

In fact, I bet there are some mobile game developers who would say they have had no choice but risk an over-reliance on IAPs precisely because Apple does such a poor job of helping users navigate through the seemingly infinite choices in its overcrowded App Store. "Pay Once and Play" also does nothing to communicate the fact that there are plenty of mobile games that use IAPs within reason, with respect for the player's time and experience. Now, however, they are by default grouped as part of the business model you love to hate. 

Savvy mobile game developers have ensured that IAPs don't merely interrupt the process but are part of moving between levels, or to achieve certain rewards. Used well, they are certainly less annoying than certain uses of mobile ads. (By the way, it's not entirely clear whether or not those who are lucky enough to fall under the "Pay Once and Play" category are also forbidden to use ads or other forms of monetization). 

Will this revive the paid download? I doubt it. This is something the market decided some time ago--like any other content, mobile games and apps may offer value but not something customers will necessarily support the way they would the purchase of a physical item. There could also be a dark side to "Pay Once and Play," if pricing is varied enough or reaches a level that turns off consumers completely. 

I'll be curious to see how well "Pay Once and Play" mobile games do from an App Store chart perspective. There is also a question mark around whether developers might offer different versions of the same game--one regular one with IAPs and a version specific to "Pay Once and Play." That may sound crazy, but if this is really about giving consumers choice, that's the can of worms Apple has opened. 

My suspicion is that, unless the paid downloads show a true renaissance, many mobile game developers will ignore the opportunity to be featured in "Pay Once and Play." It might simply become that ghetto for iPhone and iPad users so resistant to virtual currency and merchandise they will shop nowhere else. If that happens, what remains in the category will have to be of the highest calibre. There is room for a more boutique kind of app business--but it better be a pretty nice boutique.--Shane