“Dollars to donuts” a real concern for “The Simpsons: Tapped Out”

Players can construct and customize their own version of Homer's hometown in "The Simpsons: Tapped Out." Image from Touch Arcade.
Players can customize their own version of Homer’s hometown in “The Simpsons: Tapped Out.” Image from Touch Arcade.

Freemium games have proved popular (at least for certain bubbles of time), but an Australian watchdog organization is calling their fairness into question.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recently announced its plans to examine the 300 most popular free mobile apps among Australian children to see if children and their parents are being misled about in-game purchases.

One game the ACCC is looking at is The Simpsons: Tapped Out, a city-building game with a freemium business model. Tapped Out was released for iOS in February 2012, and the Android version was released a year later. As of May 2013, Tapped Out has earned $50 million net revenue for EA Mobile, a division of Electronic Arts.

In Tapped Out, players build their own towns in which the Simpsons and their fellow Springfield residents go about their daily lives. Players need donuts—the in-game currency—to buy premium upgrades, such as certain buildings and new characters.

Players can earn donuts by completing tasks, like building new areas or playing the game for several days in a row. Alternatively, players can buy donuts with real money.

The prices for bundles of donuts range from $1.99 to $99.99. Screenshot uploaded from my iPhone.
The prices for bundles of donuts range from $1.99 to $99.99. Image uploaded from my iPhone.

Undoubtedly, the game owes its success to real-world branding. Despite frequent criticisms of the show’s post-heyday seasons, The Simpsons has a massive fan following with many die-hards.

As such, EA Mobile has gotten away with steep prices for the game’s premium content. A recent addition to the world of Tapped Out was popular ancillary character Disco Stu, who costs 180 donuts, which is equal to $15.

For a single character in a mobile game, that price point strikes me as awfully expensive. After all, four Disco Stus cost the same as a new game for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 or WiiU.

The ACCC’s point of contention is that children may be spending a non-trivial amount of money on in-app purchases without realizing they are playing with real, not in-game currency.

Earlier this year, Apple agreed to give more than $100 million in iTunes store credits to settle a lawsuit filed by five parents claiming Apple did not set parental controls to keep children from buying extra content for third-party video game apps.

As some of these apps are designed for young children, the ACCC’s concern is warranted.

Another concern is the fairness of premium content cost compared to players’ ability to earn the content by playing the game.

A spokesman for the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network informed the ACCC of one scenario in Tapped Out in which players must wait 90 days for a crop of corn to grow or spend 1,060 donuts ($48.58) to complete the task instantly.

I used my real age when starting "The Simpsons: Tapped Out," but nothing would have stopped me from doing otherwise. Image uploaded from my iPhone.
I used my real age when starting “The Simpsons: Tapped Out,” but nothing would have stopped me from doing otherwise. Image uploaded from my iPhone.

In my limited experience playing Tapped Out (I love The Simpsons but don’t care for city-building games), I found the distinction between spending donuts and spending real money to buy donuts clear, but I can see why kids might have a problem telling the difference. And when the waits are long for completing objectives, the option to get them done more quickly will be particularly enticing.

The argument of whether the gameplay is fair is up to the market. Like other freemium games, Tapped Out does not require players to purchase extra items to advance through the game, but progress will be slower if they do not.

Some will pay. Others will play the game without premium content or paid advancement. If enough people do not like the game, its popularity will decline.

However, the issue of whether freemium games are marketed fairly warrants legal discussion.

Tapped Out requires players to input their age, but there is nothing keeping children from typing whatever they want.

Of course, parents need to monitor their kids’ Internet use, but Apple, Android and makers of apps for these platforms should not be free from accountability for allowing potentially misleading apps.

The ACCC investigation is part of the development of the platform. There was a time when newspaper and TV advertisements could say whatever they wanted, but as those media evolved, restrictions became tighter, especially in ads geared toward children.

Mobile apps are still fairly new, so the rules of fair marketing need to be further worked out.

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