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I'd probably really enjoy this game if I could get past the ads


My intention was for what I'm writing right now to be a review of the new iOS game Small Fry. It's a game about a cute little fish that you have to navigate through the sea and air and it initially caught my eye because I have a serious addiction to Fish Out Of Water. But instead of writing about Small Fry, I'm writing about Small Fry's in-game advertising and what it means for the App Store.

To be perfectly clear upfront: I would prefer to pay for apps once at the time of my initial download and never have to worry about paying more to continue the experience down the road. That is my ideal App Store experience, but I'm not unwilling to compromise.

Anecdotally, I hear all the time that in-app purchases are the scourge of humanity, but the fact that so many high-profile apps are relying on this model means that it's paying off for at least some of them. I see game genres embracing IAPs that I never thought would, like racing games and shooters, and I realize that it's futile to push back.

I get it: Developers have to make money. If you get someone to download your app for free and then drop US$5 every few weeks on "gold" or "gems" or whatever, then it ends up paying more than a $2.99 upfront, one-time payment. That's fine; keep doing that. I'm not going to buy the crap, but I'm officially giving up my battle against the idea of in-app purchases because they're very clearly not going anywhere. That, and enough developers seem to have gotten the hang of the freemium model that I no longer fear it when I play a game being marketed as "free."

What I will keep fighting against is intrusive and obnoxious in-app advertising strategies. This is where Small Fry and so many other games get things shockingly wrong.

Here's how the offending system works:

  1. Opened the app? Launch a pop-up ad.
  2. Finish a level? Launch a pop-up ad.
  3. Hit the pause button? Launch a pop-up ad.
  4. Die or otherwise fail? Launch a pop-up ad.
  5. Exit to the main menu? Launch a pop-up ad.

I invite you to guess how many times I (intentionally) click on these types of ads. If you guessed "never," you are correct. The obvious reason I don't click on them is that I'm already playing a game and don't really want to switch, but this doesn't tell the whole story.

The more nuanced reason is that these types of ads -- the ones that relentlessly assault you at every turn -- are outright ruining the experience. I don't see an ad for another game pop up for the 18th time and think, "Oh, let me take a look at this for a second and possibly consider purchasing it." I think about how quickly I can find the "x" in the corner and how stupid the developer must be for thinking that I'm going to be more likely to buy its other game on the 18th time it's been pitched to me than on the first 17.

To put it another way: If I download your app, launch it and the first thing I see is a full-screen ad for a different game, I'm never going to play either of them. I'm not going to fight your app to let me play it, and if you insist on tainting your digital wares in such a way, I promise you I can't delete them from my phone fast enough.

It's not as though I'm alone in this line of thinking, either. Using Small Fry as an example, two of the top five reviews at the time of this writing mention how obnoxious the ads are. Read a bit further and you'll find players begging to simply pay for the app upfront rather than deal with intrusive ads they have no interest in clicking.

There are some downright fantastic games that are seriously damaged by horrible ad systems, and some of them are even paid apps (I'm looking at you, Flick Home Run). These types of games sometimes make an appearance on the top charts, but by and large the App Store's heaviest hitters have taken a much more measured approach.

I could be wrong, and people could be clicking on these ads every chance they get. I doubt it, but anything is possible. But personally, I'm done wasting my time on games that seem to be hell-bent on getting me to play something else.

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