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Free Apps Aren't "Free" in Apple's App Store Any More

As they say in "Team America," "there's a hefty f--king fee" in free-to-play.


If you try to download an app like Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga from the iOS App Store, you may notice something different: They’re no longer called “free.”

They still are free, at least to start, but critics of the “free-to-play” business model (also known as “freemium”) have cause to celebrate. Apple has tweaked the download buttons for free-to-download games to say “get” instead of “free.”

An Apple spokesperson confirmed to Re/code that this is a worldwide change.

Free-to-play is the dominant business model in mobile app stores, representing 92 percent of all revenue on iOS and 98 percent of revenue on Google Play in 2013. But critics say free-to-play games can be designed in ways that hurt the gaming experience or, more seriously, manipulate players into making unnecessary purchases — a claim that has invited government scrutiny.

The “get” label doesn’t change any of that, but it might change users’ expectations of what they’re getting when they download something. App Annie VP Marcos Sanchez said he’s not sure if it will change buying habits.

“I’m not completely sure, but one could argue that it is a more ‘action’ oriented, pro-active word, which could have a positive effect as a call to action,” Sanchez said. “Small changes can sometimes have a positive impact.”

In July, Google stopped calling its free-to-download apps in Europe “free” under pressure from the European Commission. At the time, the commission lambasted Apple for not doing the same, which Apple rebutted by pointing out iOS 8’s “Ask to Buy” feature, which pings parents before a child can make an app or in-app purchase.

Here in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission has sued Apple and Amazon on behalf of parents who weren’t able to approve such purchases. Apple settled with the FTC earlier this year, refunding $32.5 million to parents.

Revenue in free-to-play games is largely driven by “whales,” very high spenders whose purchases subsidize the experience for those who buy little or nothing. Defenders of the model say whales are just customers who want more of a gaming experience than low spenders.

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