[In his new column, writer and designer Ian Bogost looks at Apple's iPhone App Store -- and one of his game purchasers' demands to get his 99c back -- to discuss digital purchases, value, price point, and the 'race to the bottom' for iPhone games.]
Last month I took an early Sunday morning flight from Atlanta to Orlando. I wandered into a newsstand and picked up the May 2009 issue of Popular Science, which featured a cover story about space planes that intrigued me.
The story turned out to be less interesting than the cover suggested, but I rather enjoyed another article about the discomfort of airplane seats. Overall I found the issue to be pretty good, but not good enough to carry along with me, so I left it in the seat pocket. Price paid: $4.99.
Last week I stopped on the way home at the local Krispy Kreme to pick up some doughnuts and grab a coffee. It was the first time this season that the heavy humidity characteristic of Atlanta wafted over the city, so I opted to take my joe on ice.
Once back in the car I realized that the iced coffee was sweetened -- not how I like it. I was disappointed but also thirsty. I managed to enjoy the beverage somewhat. Price paid: $1.49.
A few days ago, I released a new game on the iTunes App Store. It's a bit high concept (a port of an Atari VCS game I made), but I had worked on it carefully and knew it had been polished. I offered a good deal of context and charged the lowest price allowed by the service. Numerous trade and consumer rags picked up the story and said positive things about my effort.
Later in the day of release, I got a disgruntled email from one of my customers: "I want my 99 cents back," he wrote.
This made me start to think about small-scale digital purchases in general and the iTunes App Store in particular. When someone spends a dollar on a coffee or drops a fiver on a magazine, certain expectations are set.
The goods to be purchased at such rates are consumables, things that can and will be used up, and quickly. Sure, I could have gone back in and complained about my iced coffee, but sometimes it's not worth sweating the small stuff.
To be honest, I appreciated getting the email; I was able to respond to the private email and talk to the player, I think to his satisfaction. It's harder, if not impossible, to respond to anonymous negative reviews and ratings on the App Store. Indeed, developers have noticed that average app ratings have been dropping since OS 2.2 provided a "rate on delete" feature, inviting users to star a program after having deleted it.
Part of this problem is related to platform design. An ordinary computer has a big hard drive for storing applications and documents and the like.
Programs can sit front and center on the desktop, in the Windows quick launch bar, or on the Apple Dock, or they can be hidden away in the Program Files folder or Applications directory.
Part of the problem is related to expectations. Apple has set up a convoluted application approval process to insure that programs do what they say, but the individual treatment any one app gets varies greatly. The App Store is noisy and many products don't work as promised.
But I'm convinced that a large part of customer and developer dissatisfaction with iPhone games and apps comes from a cognitive dissonance.
Games aren't generally like cups of coffee; they don't get used up. They don't provide immediate gratification, but ongoing challenge and reward. This is part of what Frank Lantz means when he claims that games are not media.
Yet, when we buy something for a very low price, we are conditioned to see it as expendable. What costs a dollar these days? Hardly anything. A cup of coffee. A pack of sticky notes. A Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. A lottery ticket. Stuff we use up and discard.