In-app purchase controversy taints charity game

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Free online games with ‘in-app’ purchases have been successfully collecting big profits for nearly a decade. Now, somewhat controversially, the same revenue-collecting strategy is being employed by a free mobile game for the benefit of a charity: Sustainaville the Game.

Sustainaville was released for Android in July 2015, followed by an iOS version for Apple devices the following month. It has received largely 5 star reviews on Google Play (although the only one from 2016 so far is a one star). Can we chalk up this new type of freemium mobile gaming as a success?

Maybe, but there certainly seems to be a cloud hanging over both the concept and the game itself.

Almost as soon as in-app purchases appeared on the scene, stories unsuspecting parents getting shockingly-high charges on their payment cards began to surface. A £3,911 bill was racked up by a 7 year old on a Jurassic Park iPad game just last year. Reputable game publishers have procedures for dealing with these situations, and accidental charges are often removed very promptly, but not without causing a fair amount of upset in the process.

Sustainaville is squarely aimed at children, not adults. Both the animation style and vocabulary level of its language have been designed with younger players in mind. Adults may enjoy playing it as well, but there can be no doubting the makers and Save the Children are hoping to access parental wallets via their offspring. This is bound to make some parents uneasy.

And there can be no doubting that Sustainaville is following the standard ‘in-app’ purchase model. The purchases have been rebranded as ‘donations,’ but they still serve the same purpose. According to the website, sustainaville.org, ‘All of Sustainaville can be enjoyed for free, but there are various donation tiers available which unlock rewards such as a Save the Children aid worker character who provides useful in-game bonuses!’

And again, according to savethechildren.org.au, Sustainaville’s in-game currency is directly tied to making donations: ‘To boost your Sustainaville currency, you can make in-game donations to Save the Children.’

This means if the game becomes popular (something far from sure currently) the occasional parent will be surprised to find a massive, accidental ‘donation’ to Save the Children on their credit card – are Save the Children really comfortable with this?

There are several reasons to doubt Sustainaville will fail to catch on, however. The first is there has not been a stampede of other charity-supporting games entering the market. With competition for donations being so high among major charities at the moment, this indicates that Sustainaville’s model might be making other big names in the charity world uneasy.

The second reason is the Google Play app has not been updated since version 1.0 was released in July of 2015. No 1.0 is every perfect – why has it not been updated?

Even more worrying, the SSL certificate for sustainaville.org is either missing or expired. Before you can visit the site you have to click past several alarming warnings from your browser. Hardly what you expect before visiting a reputable game publisher’s website.

If our research is correct, Sustainaville has been flirting with controversy for some time. A game of the same name (which we suspect is an earlier version of the same product) was the subject of a European Union Ombudsman judgement in 2014. Although the judgement was in favour of the game developers, the dispute arose when a grant was awarded for a project that was very different from the one delivered.

In-app purchases have largely been a boon for mobile users, allowing free play of professionally developed games for millions of consumers. Whether or not they will be equally as successful in the charity sector, however, remains to be seen.

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