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Make Purchasing Present
by Ethan Levy on 09/18/13 07:33:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Over the past year and a half as a monetization design consultant, one of my core tenets is to make purchasing present. Perhaps the biggest missteps I see in games with IAP is that the developer appears like they are doing everything possible to obscure the fact that a player can spend money within the game. When I get in front of audiences at GDC and other events, I coach that IAP are like banner ads: one must create hundreds if not thousands of impressions of the ability to spend money in order to generate a single purchase.

I am not talking about bombarding the player with frequent blocking modal dialogs. This  tactic is likely to frustrate a player and cause him to quit your game permanently for another. An excellent example I point to in making purchasing present is Bejeweled Blitz.

If I were to open up Bejeweled Blitz and play 10 matches of the game, I would see the Add Coins button 20 times within that session. It is not blocking my progress or making a nuisance of itself. But simply by playing the game and following the path of least resistance, I see the ability to spend money regularly. Purchasing is present.

This is in stark contrast to one of my favorite mobile games, Ascension, a game that vexes more than any other when it comes to IAP. I love Ascension. For literally two years I have played at least three matches of Ascension daily. It is my solitaire. I love it when they release new card packs, and would gladly pay $5 or more for a new promo pack of 6 new cards right now, let alone a full game expansion like Immortal Heroes that drastically changes the game with new rules and 36 new, unique cards. 

I do not follow Ascension on Facebook or Twitter. I do not subscribe to an email newsletter. Expansion pack releases do not make headlines on the game sites I follow regularly. The only method I have of hearing news of new IAP (which I desperately want as a core player) is through the app itself. An app I interact with multiple times daily. I have money. I want to give it to the developers. But they make it exceptionally hard.

The only way I am able to learn that I can give the developers my money is through App Store updates. Specifically I have to know that, as shown above, Ascension puts the announcement of new IAP in the patch notes. I update my apps maybe once every two or three weeks (and expect that is an above average frequency across all iOS users). Sometimes it is days or weeks after an expansion has launched before I make the 3 clicks it takes for me to see this information.

Once I learn of new content, I must continue to jump through hoops in order to purchase my pack. I have to update the app and open it. Then I get to the Main Menu, which is no help.

I have to remember that a new purchase is available and navigate to the in game store. 

In the case of the days old Promo Pack 2, I have to remember that the new content was a promo pack and navigate to the appropriate tab.

Before I am finally able to give them the money I desperately want to alleviate myself of.

1 account confirmation, 9 clicks and an obscure user flow I am more likely than not to ignore later, and I have finally completed a purchase that I am 100% primed to make.

I believe that Ascension communicates these new purchases via notifications, but I (like many iOS users) am annoyed by frequent notification spam and turn it off for almost all apps. For my favorite iOS game, one I have played almost every day for literally two years, one I am burning to give more money to, purchasing could not possibly be obscure.

Making purchasing present would be trivial. I see the Main Menu every time I open the app. Why not implement an in-game notification badge on the In-App Store button when new purchases are available? Why not integrate a spot for a banner add into the Main Menu to alert me of new features, content and updates? Why not integrate an in-game interstitial that notifies me of new content between matches after every 5th or 10th game and turns off after I've seen it 10 times? 

How many Ascension players have no idea that 3 expansion packs and 2 promo packs are available for purchase because purchasing is not present?

Please Stoneblade/Playdek. I have money. I want to give it to you. Make it easier for me to do so.

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Tim Mensch
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Ascension has in-app purchases?! [goes to find an iPad...]

Great article! I'll keep that in mind with the game I'm working on. :)

Wes Jurica
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My initial thought a few paragraphs in was some kind of Captain Obvious smartassness. Then you presented a good example of hard to get to IAPs. It can never be underestimated how easy it is to miss the littlest things when you are so close to a project.

Jed Hubic
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Wow I can't even recall ever realizing Ascension had IAPs. 9 clicks seems a little overkill, especially when the user is already resolute on making a purchase.

When it comes to IAP methods, do you see any benefit to tailor them or try to tailor them towards any sort of a platform specific way? Or do you find the totally platform agnostic approaches work? I'm working on a game and some IAP stuff and I'm not a power user on multiple platforms, and as I approach the time when I make the game multiplatform I'm curious as to whether there's something I might be missing. Ie, maybe something that seems different on Android from iOS may be divergant because it works, or maybe it's my own ignorance.

Bryan Wagstaff
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Perhaps I'm reading the article wrong, but it looks like you are encouraging spamming your customers until they give you more money... and then after they pay, you keep begging for more. I do not want to be bombarded with ads. I do not want to see "give us more money" twenty times in a game session. That is the opposite of a good game, that is Pavlovian training.

Unfortunately it tends to be the bad actors, the ones who are trying to extort your money often with IAP on every screen and engaging multiple ad providers, tend to foul the waters for everyone. I find it distasteful and sad to see apps begging for money on every screen.

It seems like the good guys, the ones who care about player experience, tend to hide their IAP the same way Ascention does. And I say GOOD FOR THEM. When I find these games that keep monetization down yet still provide great games, I tend to send them my money because I genuinely enjoy the game. If more games followed the model of providing good games rather than providing opportunities to buy power-ups in a mind-numbing trance, or that slip in the "buy the ultimate refill package for $49", I might be more friendly to the IAP style. As it is, I find the whole premise of the article distasteful. We have too many games designed to cash out on IAP brainwashing and too few games designed to actually be fun.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I'm kind of with Bryan. I think it should be fairly easy to spend money if you are motivated to do so, but I think putting opportunities to spend right into the play field is too aggressive. Apparently European Union regulators feel the same way so they have summoned me to a summit in a few weeks to see how they can eliminate exactly the tactics advocated by the OP. They seem to already have the appropriate laws on the books to protect children from these sorts of business models, they just need a bit of advice from me how to use them appropriately. I will be giving a teaser talk on the subject two days earlier at the Austin Captivate Conference.

Monetization would be so much easier if ethics were not a factor, and I understand this is the case for most of the industry. This is exactly why regulators are getting involved.

Ethan Levy
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@Ramin - I know you work in a similar capacity to me as an "applied virtual economist" but I have to say that I do not appreciate you using the comments section to promote your upcoming speaking engagement at the Austin Captivate Conference. If you want to have a discussion about IAP and talk about the merits of the article, that is fine. But you have not seen me commenting on your articles to promote my own speaking engagements or work as a monetization design consultant.

To that end, I also feel like you may have misinterpreted the article. "I think putting opportunities to spend right into the play field is too aggressive." I did not advocate putting opportunities to spend right on the play field. This article is entirely about more intentional design of the menus outside of the actual game to inform the player of his ability to spend money.

Ethan Levy
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I'm sorry Bryan, but from my perspective you are reading the article wrong - or at the very least projecting perfectly valid dislike/distrust of IAP in general onto my article.

Did you look at the screenshots of Bejeweled Blitz? This is not "begging for money on every screen." It is simply showing the player's current currency numbers and including a button that allows her to access the in-app store. I do not advocating blocking modals/begging for money in the article. What I advocate is making it clear that the player has the ability to spend money because so many games make it unclear the the player even can.

A well publicized example is the story of Gasketball developer mikengreg - as told by the Penny Arcade Report (
ss-how-an-app-with-200000-downloads-led-to-devel). From the article "A common complaint on the release build of Gasketball was that even our friends couldn't find out how to buy the game" and "Boxleiter was forced to take out a loan from his parents due to the lack of revenue coming from the success of Gasketball. Both men are now homeless, floating around and sleeping on the couches of friends until their financial situations improve."

It is fine and valid to dislike IAP. Many gamers and game developers do not, and I do not need to defend hundreds of games whose design I had nothing to do with. But I see many developers making the same mistake as mikengreg and Ascension, which is making IAP so hidden in your game that most players do not even know it exists.

Ramin Shokrizade
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If my public service announcement is offensive then please disregard it. Maybe you can find out about the European Union regulatory summit concerning the control of IAPs in online games played by children from another source, since you feel strongly that this is not appropriate to your article about how to more aggressively promote IAPs in games available to children.

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