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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The Forgotten Shores of App Store pricing

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Monument Valley‘s Forgotten Shores expansion pack came out this week, a $2 in-app purchase that added eight new levels to the $4 game’s original ten. And not long after, the complaints—in the form of one-star app reviews—began to pour in. Plenty of people, including your correspondent, clucked their disappointment that people would write overwrought complaints about not getting the fruits of developer Ustwo’s labor for free.

But amid the Twitter counter-outrage, a few people were quietly making an unpopular point: This story isn’t just about ungrateful masses not appreciating the work that developers do. It’s about the expectations (misguided or not) of App Store customers.

I think one can believe that people writing punitive one-star reviews of Monument Valley1 are acting like entitled babies while also pondering whether this entire situation could have been handled differently.

Some apps constantly add features in free updates. While existing buyers get the features for free, theoretically the constant pace of updates enhances word of mouth about the product and entices new app buyers. I’m not sure this sort of approach makes sense for most developers—you’re turning away money you might charge your existing customers in the hopes of getting more money from new ones—but it’s one that many users are familiar with.

So if you’re in today’s App Store environment, and you’re the developer of Monument Valley, maybe you need to be extremely careful in communicating about what you’re about to do. If you tell your users that new chapters are coming in an update, when the update just enables the opportunity for them to buy new chapters, it’s easy to see how there’s room for a big misunderstanding.

I think this is one explanation for the negative reaction from some Monument Valley users to the update. Sure, some of them are entitled cheapskates. Those are the easy ones to roll your eyes at, or mock on Twitter. But some users may have reacted negatively because they had their expectations set incorrectly—both by the App Store practices of the development community as a whole and by the communications of Ustwo in particular. (And yes, even if Ustwo had communicated this all perfectly, some people would probably still be bent out of shape.)

So what were Ustwo’s options here? These seem like the most likely:

Make the release free. This makes your existing customers happy. If you’re planning on releasing another game in the near future and want to bank on customer loyalty, this might be a good move. If your app is so high profile that you feel that there’s a huge untapped market waiting to discover it, and adding to its value is going to just increase sales further, this might be a good move.

But Monument Valley was one of the most praised and written about apps in recent memory. Is there really much of a truly reachable audience out there for it? My guess is that Ustwo figured it was better to market to the existing (and presumably satisfied) pool of Monument Valley purchasers.

Make it a new paid app. In some ways this would’ve been the most straightforward choice from a business perspective. Creatively, Ustwo decided to make Forgotten Shores a set of levels that fall inside the existing story of the game. Would Forgotten Shores make sense as a standalone game?2 How would people with Monument Valley installed on their devices know that the new game exists? (Would Ustwo have updated the original app and added some sort of promotion for the new app? Is that a better experience?)

Make it an in-app purchase. This is what Ustwo did. New users don’t get to spend $2 to jump ahead and play Forgotten Shores. They have to buy the original game first, then pay for a second set of levels. Existing Monument Valley users give Ustwo $2 more for their trouble and get eight new levels out of the deal. Seems like a bargain to me. But you risk angering people who feel that in-app purchases are rip-offs.

Go back in time and make it freemium. What’s interesting is that these days the App Store is increasingly the home to free apps with in-app purchases. Almost everything, from games to podcast clients, is going with this approach. Maybe Ustwo should have originally made Monument Valley as a free game with a sample level or two, with an in-app purchase for additional levels.

It’s possible some of the anger regarding this new in-app purchase is because there’s a perception that once you pay for an app, you should get all the updates for free. Apps that are free, but with in-app purchases for extra content, send a message that new levels are worth paying for. Yeah, that’s kind of a junky experience. But it seems to be the experience that many app buyers expect these days.

Forget it. People make a lot of assumptions about other people’s business decisions, and those assumptions are often entirely wrong. If you asked Ustwo what they would’ve done if they couldn’t charge for new Monument Valley levels, they might tell you that they just wouldn’t have bothered. That’s sad, and as someone who enjoys Monument Valley, I’m glad they didn’t make that decision.

  1. Don’t let this be lost in the discussion: Monument Valley is a work of art, one of the best iOS apps I have ever experienced. If you haven’t bought it, I highly recommend it.

  2. The creative decision to make these levels happen between the final levels of the original game plays a role here. If this was a different character, or a prequel, it would make more sense as a standalone game. So one reason to put Forgotten Shores inside the original Monument Valley is probably to ensure that players have played the main game before they experience the new levels.

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