Greedy App Developers Smurf Themselves

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Since its launch late last year, we’ve been hearing rumblings that the Smurfs Village app for smartphones and tablets was swindling customers out of big-time cash. The Smurfs? These guys? Really? We found it hard to believe until this piece came out last week in Forbes. Turns out Smurfs Village, which is free to play and download, charges actual currency inside the game for precious “Smurfberries.” From $5 bucks to $100 bucks, Smurfberries can end up costing parents a bundle. Now the happy little blue creatures and their iPhone app have consumers and marketers both questioning the values and motives of smartphone apps.

Smurfs Village, which operates much like Farmville, encourages players to help the Smurfs decorate their village and mushroom houses. In order to get certain things, players need Smurfberries, which can be earned with more game play or bought with real-life money for players who don’t want to wait. Smurfs Village maker Capcom claims the warnings about in-app purchases are clearly marked. But parents like Madison’s beg to differ. Madison is an 8-year-old girl from Rockville, Maryland, who racked up more than $1,400 in Smurf purchases. Ouch.

We could go back and forth about if kids should be allowed to play with smartphones (uhm, no) or if in-app purchases are a good idea (hell, no) but we won’t. Instead, what’s interesting about this little “Smurf-up” is how it really puts the microscope on our intentions with smartphone apps. Are we developing smartphone apps as extensions of our mobile marketing plans or do we want the apps to be money making products that contribute to our brand’s vision? Capcom is suspected saying something is free but then charging for extras once you’re inside the game. But this isn’t really that different from brands with free apps that are helping themselves to user info for demographic and advertising purposes. Yet these little app games with users are not bound to last: Apple has wound up in court due to claims that the company has sold user information to app developers and advertisers.

Apple itself reportedly is fuming at Capcom and other companies for in-app purchases. The Smurfs, who have a new movie coming out, should tread lightly with Mac because Steve Jobs is certainly a more formidable enemy than that silly old Gargamel.

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