Ask a Developer

Parents, Kids, and In App Purchases

Almost every week we here at Vector Unit get a support email like this one:

I just received my credit card statement and realized that my child has made these purchases in your free game Beach Buggy Blitz.  These purchases were made without my permission, and I don't understand how your application can allow this.  I would respectfully request a refund on them.

Many parents are not aware that it is possible to make purchases within the "free" games they download for their kids.  Furthermore, they apparently don't realize they can protect themselves against this kind of unwanted activity.

In the interests of human decency (and hopefully as a way of cutting down on a few support emails) we'd like to share some thoughts on why these purchases occur...and what you as a parent can do to prevent them.

Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

First of all, it's important to realize why these purchases even exist.  Google Play and the iOS AppStore are crowded with hundreds of games that are free to download and play.  Obviously these are very tempting targets for most parents, since ... well, they're free, right?

There's only one problem:  They're not really free.

See, every so-called "free" game in the app stores has some built-in mechanism for making money after you've installed it.  There's a good reason for this:  game companies are businesses, and they exist to make money so they can continue to develop new games.  It just so happens that by attracting players by making games free, and then charging players in game for stuff later, developers can often make more money than if they just charge once for the game up front.

There are 3 main ways developers make money in a free game. (Some paid games employ these as well):

  1. Show ads.  These can be banner ads or full-length video advertisements for products such as apps, toys, or fast food restaurants.
  2. Present players with "offer walls" which prompt them to install yet more apps in exchange for, say, gems or coins in the game.  
  3. Offer a selection of "In App Purchases" or IAP.  These often take the form of bundles of in-game currency like coins or gems that can be spent within the game to unlock more content.  Prices on such IAP can range from $1 or $2 all the way up to $99 or higher.

It's the third option -- IAP -- that concern most parents.  (Although honestly you should be just as aware and concerned with #1 and #2).  Parents are sometimes shocked to discover that these IAP are so easily accessible within the games.  Indeed, many games repeatedly push the player towards the store where IAP can be purchased.  Some games are particularly aggressive about "monetizing their players" while others (like our game Beach Buggy Blitz) take a relatively hands-off approach.

But make no mistake -- if you download a free game for your kids, it almost certaintly will contain IAP.  It will try to encourage your child to click on those IAP buttons.  And it will try to make the purchase as frictionless as possible.  And once your kid starts clicking, there's nothing to stop them from clicking again, and again, and again....

So what can you do to protect yourself against a nasty surprise on your credit card statement? 

Password Protect Your Account

This is probably the most basic way to protect yourself.  Every app store has an option in the settings to require a password before somebody can purchase anything on the credit cards associated with the account.

For Android devices like the Galaxy S4 or Nexus 7:

  1. Open the Play app (aka Google Play) on your device
  2. Click the 3 dot menu button in the corner of the screen
  3. Select Settings
  4. Scroll down the list to the "User Controls" setting and turn on the item that says "Password: Use password to restrict purchases"

For iOS devices like the iPad or iPhone:

  1. Open the Settings app on your device
  2. Click on "General"
  3. Click on "Restrictions"
  4. Click "Enable Restrictions" and set a password
  5. Once restrictions are enabled, you can turn on password protection for lots of different behaviors on your device.  You can restrict all of iTunes, or just In-App Purchases, or even exclude particular ratings like "mature content".
  6. You may also wish to change the re-lock time limit from the default 15 minutes to "immediate".

For other devices like Kindle and BlackBerry 10, please see the support pages for those particular devices.

Once you have a password protection set up, any time your child tries to buy something, the service will bring up a dialog requesting a password.  Then your child can ask you for permission to make the purchase, and you can chose to allow it or not.

WARNING:  On those occasions when you agree to unlock the device for your child, be aware that on some systems (like iOS), the device will stay unlocked for a period of time and allow subsequent purchases without re-entering the password. On most systems you can change this time or even eliminate it.

Use Gift Cards

If you have older kids and you want them to have a budget or allowance for games, gift cards can provide another option.

You can use your Google Play or iTunes account without a credit card -- just go into your profile settings and remove the credit card on record.  Then if you want, you can buy $10, $25 or other gift cards and refill your account to some set limit.  As long as your kids don't exceed that limit, they can make whatever purchases they want.

Get gift cards for Google Play here and for iTunes here.

Play in Airplane Mode

Switching your device to Airplane Mode disables internet connectivity and thereby diables unwanted downloads and purchases.  This can work well as a quick fix for smaller kids, but don't be surprised if your three year old already knows how to turn the WiFi back on.

Educate Yourself and Your Kids

If you've read this far, you may have already realized the single most important fact about giving your kid games to play on your phone or tablet -- there is no such thing as a free game.  Unless you've played the game yourself and have verified otherwise, you should assume that every free game on the market has IAP in it.  Just knowing that is half the battle.

Spend a little time to read the game descriptions and user reviews before you download them.  Maybe even search the web for a few reviews on blogs and websites.  Most responsible developers will tell you in the game description if the game contains IAP.  On the iTunes store you can see a list of the top 5 most popular IAP if the game has IAP.  On Google Play it's harder to know without actually downloading the game and trying it.  

It would be nice if all app stores had a little badge that alerted you whether a game has IAP or not, but we're not there yet.

Random thought:  Of course there are other benefits to knowing more about the games your kids are playing.  Not all games are age-appropriate for all kids, regardless of what they're rated.  Plus, let's face it -- some games are good and some games are lousy.  Just as with books or movies, you probably would rather your kids play high quality games. Right?

The other half of the battle is explaining to your kids how these devices work, and that clicking on buttons in the game can cost you real money.  Just like you wouldn't allow your child to take money out of your purse without your permission, explain to your child that they are not allowed to make purchases  or download games or stream movies or do anything on your tablet or phone without your permission.

Although even if you do explain all this, it's probably still a good precaution to require a password.  Not only will this act as a backup for your kids, it will protect you if your device is ever lost or stolen.

Developer Responsibilities

Although I firmly believe that the responsibility of monitoring and protecting children's digital activity ultimately lies with their parents, game developers and publishers can and should take steps to aid and assist parents trying to make educated choices.

First and foremost, developers should always clearly state in the game description whether a game contains IAP. 

Second, when parents do realize that there have been charges on the account they didn't expect, and request a refund, developers should give it to them.  No hassles, no hoops -- just give it to them.

At Vector Unit, we already take these precautions with our games.  But maybe we could do more.  If you have ideas or thoughts, please comment below or send your thoughts to  We'd love to hear them!

Advice on Getting Started in the Games Industry

One of the most common questions we get is what advice we have for people who are thinking about getting into the games industry.

Here's what I usually tell people:

1. That thing about parachutes and colors

First, realize that there are lots of different types of career paths into and through the games business.  There's game design, programming, art, animation, audio, marketing, advertising, testing (QA), project management, etc.   Even on small teams like ours games are usually made by multiple people, each contributing something unique.

Identify your area of interest:  What skills do you already have?  What are you passionate about?  What do you think you could be good at?  If you feel like you have options, you might also want to consider how hireable/desirable different professions are.  Programmers have an easier time getting hired and typically get paid more than, say, game designers.  But of course it takes more time to train up your skills in programming.

2. Edumacation

It's not a bad idea to get a college degree.  I know you hear stories all the time about people getting into the tech business without a degree, but trust me, it's easier if you have one.  Recruiters and interviewers will just take you more seriously, and in a competitive industry like ours every little bit helps.  It doesn't have to be from Harvard or anything -- there are a lot of vocational schools these days that have great game design departments.

Your degree doesn't have to be game-specific. I have found my B.A. in English to be extremely useful to me throughout my career; it helped me move from production artist to lead artist and creative director.  I would not be where I am right now without it.

3. Show your skills

Equally as important as a college degree (maybe more important) is your portfolio of work.  Of course that makes sense if you're an artist, but it applies if you're in other disciplines as well.  Looking to get into programming?  Roll your own rendering engine or physics demo.  Designer?  Create level layouts and spreadsheets with ability/stat balancing for an RPG.  Marketing?  Write up analysis of a popular game franchise and create marketing plans for how you would launch the next iteration in the series.

One piece of advice I have about portfolios:  It's better to have just a few really high quality examples, than a bunch of mediocre examples.  Be a ruthless editor and don't include anything that doesn't measure up.

When you're first getting started, you won't have a lot of on the job experience, so you need to create your own experience.  The best thing you can do is team up with other people from other disciplines and try actually making some small games. Mobile, PC mod, whatever.  Don't be too ambitious, just concentrate on small, quick, fun games that you can learn from, set aside and start a new one. Every game development experience, even the bad ones (sometimes especially the bad ones) is a learning experience. And employers in the future will love to see that you're motivated and creative enough to do stuff on your own time.

4. Job? I don't need no stinkin' job!

You'll probably ask yourself at some point:  Do you even need to get a job?  There are a lot of opportunities for small indie game developers these days.  You can make your own stinkin' job, right?!

Technically this is true.  But remember that are 1000's of games released every day on mobile and PC, and 99% of them don't make any money.  Of the remaining 1%, 99% of THEM maybe make enough money to buy themselves a coffee every day.  I know it's tempting to skip getting a job and go straight to founding your own mobile development studio.  And that might work for you.  But if you can manage it, getting a job at a major company like Zynga or Kixeye or EA or 2K is an invaluable experience, and one that will give you a big leg up on the competition if you ever do decide to try the indie thing.

5. Woohoo!

When you do get a job, here's some random bits of advice:  

  • Be humble and realize that there's a lot to learn even from the most basic or mundane-seeming gigs in the industry.  
  • Look up from your desk and absorb as much as you can about the process of making games that's happening all around you.  
  • Meet people outside your discipline or department.  Learn what they do.  
  • Ask questions. 

Above all be patient, it's a competitive industry to get into but it can be an incredibly rewarding one!

Ask a Developer: Finding a Publisher

"Mr. Johnson" wrote to us recently with this question:

As a Developer, how do you go about getting a publisher for your game (publishing services only)?  Do you send out letters to game publishers requesting for publishing services, and wait for a response containing instructions or do you send in a package with a demo of your game and request publishing services?

Is this something one can do on their own, or should they have a lawyer (if so, what kind)?  I’ve looked all over the Net for info on how to contact and deal with a publisher, but have found nothing.

If you have dealt with publishers yourself, what can someone doing so for the first time expect?

You're not alone, Mr. Johnson -- a lot of new game developers (and experienced ones) grapple with this question.  

There are basically two things you might want a publisher for:  One is to provide funding for your development.  If possible you should try to avoid this -- typically a publisher that pays for development will want to own the Intellectual Property (IP) rights to your game, and will take the lion's share of any royalties.  It makes sense for them, but is not a great deal for the developer unless you really have no other way of funding your game.

The second -- the one that you asked about -- is to help you with distributing and marketing your finished product.  Marketing is something that smaller devs have a hard time with, and many publishers can do really well.  You have to negotiate the rev share, but typically we've heard of deals where the publisher takes maybe 30% of the net revenue in this kind of deal.  Generally you get to keep the IP.

The best way to contact publishers is to have somebody on the inside you can contact directly -- this is why networking at GDC, Games Connection, and other such events is really important.  If you don't have a direct contact, you can go in through the front door with everyone else.  Most publishers have email addresses on their websites for submissions, along with guidelines for submission.  

You don't need a lawyer to contact a publisher, but if a publisher is interested in your game, you'll need to sign a distribution agreement, and you might want to have a lawyer look at that before you sign it to make sure you're not giving away more than you expect.

As far as what to expect, realize that most publishers see dozens of game submissions a week -- maybe even hundreds.  So you need to show them something that stands out, and that seems like it would fit well with their existing portfolio.  I don't think any publishers these days are signing games based on a paper pitch or a powerpoint deck -- you really need to have a playable demo, and if you're new to the industry you might have to have a completely finished game before any publisher will talk seriously to you.

There's a lot more to say about this subject, but there are resources out there to help you.  You can find great info about pitching ideas and negotiating with publishers on game developer websites such as GamaSutra and 

Good luck to you, Mr. Johnson!  

Vector Unit Game Engine

Ask a Developer!

Ben Wei, currently attending Purdue University (go Boilermakers!), asks us about our game engine:

Can you tell us more about it?  What is it called?  What sort of third-party tools and components did you use (things like physics, sounds, and even modeling programs interest me)?  Does your engine run on more than just the Xbox 360?

These days we refer to our engine simply as the Vector Engine.  When we first started our company, we explored using various middleware solutions, but none of them were a great fit for what we were trying to do.  Our most important requirement for an engine was content creator efficiency.  We chose this as our number one feature because we knew that as a small developer we would need to get the most out of our relatively small budgets to be competitive.

Our engine is able to achieve this efficiency with rapid iteration, a short learning curve, stable and intuitive tools, and keeping things simple.  Some examples of specific engine features which allow us to do this:

  • Real-time telemetry between our tools and the game - when a content creator makes a modification in our game editor, the change can be seen instantly in the running game, on any platform.
  • Assets are 'baked' on-demand by the game engine running on the target platform.  This means that there is no complicated set of processing tools to run on the PC after an asset is exported.  If a texture is modified, for example, the game itself will process this texture when needed.  No need to bake a bunch of assets that are not even in the part of the game you're working on.
  • Game shaders run in hardware inside the Maya viewports.  Allowing artists to work directly with our game shaders saves a ton of iteration time.
  • Visual scripting.  This is an intuitive way to create game logic.  If things get complicated enough where more control is needed (give me some lua!), then we might as well write it natively (C++).

Ok, got a little side-tracked there, but I guess the point I am trying to make is that content creation is king:  A game engine and tools are supposed to enable creation, not hinder it.

As for the next part of your question, the two pieces of middleware that we integrated for HTH are FMOD for audio, and Bullet Physics Library to handle collision detection and rigid body physics.  On the content creation side, we used Maya, Photoshop, and Crazy Bump.  For version control we're all about Subversion.

And yes, our engine is designed to be cross-platform.  Currently the two platforms we support are PC and Xbox360, but it will not be a problem to extend to more platforms when the need arises (e.g. PS3, Wii, iPhone, Android, Mac, whatever...).

PSN, DLC and Blood Wake XBLA

Ask a Developer!

Steve asked us three (three!) questions.  Which I would say is greedy but I like his questions and in this place I AM GOD so there are no rules except the ones I make.

Are there plans for a PlayStation Network version [of Hydro Thunder Hurricane]?


People ask us this all the time, and unfortunately the answer is no.  Microsoft Game Studios licensed the game from Warner, and as you can imagine Microsoft is not generally all that gung-ho about making games for the PlayStation.  

I say "unfortunately" because some of our best friends are PlayStation owners and we'd love nothing more than to trounce them soundly in HTH multiplayer on PSN, until they cry like scared children.  But it ain't going to happen this time around.

If sales are good, do you plan on doing any future DLC?  In regards to licensing and Warner Bros owning the IP, is it possible to do more DLC?

I don't know the particulars of the licensing deal between MGS and Warner, but I would guess it probably allows for multiple DLC packs.  

We'd love to do more; we have all kinds of ideas for new boats, new tracks, the whole shebang.  But the first part of your question hits the nail on the head:  it's all about the sales.   If you want to see more DLC for HTH, the best thing you can do is go out there and make everybody you know buy a copy of HTH and the Tempest Pack.  

Given the chance, would you ever want to re-release Blood Wake as a XBLA title?


Just a side note here:  Everybody who asks us a question about Blood Wake gets a free hug.

We would totally work on a Blood Wake XBLA port.  And it's not entirely out of the question, since last I checked Microsoft owns the rights to the game.  Of course, there are a lot of things that we would want to change or do differently, so it would probably be more of a sequel than a straight port.

Multiplayer balancing

Ask a Developer!

Ed Drake from Pensacola, Florida asks:

Why are the boost powerups in Hydro Thunder different in multiplayer than they are in single player?  What made you decide to go with the handicap silver powerups?

The "loser helper" powerup system in HTH's multiplayer mode was something that we added later in development, after months of playing online with each other and the team at Microsoft.

Originally the powerups were identical in SP and MP races.  Not surprisingly, the best players (cough *RALF* cough) consistently won most of the multiplayer matches, while noobs and, shall we say, the more joystick-challenged players, almost never climbed up out of the bottom half of the pack.

You might say, well that's how it goes.  Skillz winz.  

The problem we noticed was that the less skilled players quickly grew frustrated with their inability to compete and dropped out.  Again, not entirely surprising.  The surprising thing was that it was actually less fun for the best players as well -- there's no sense of challenge when you're 10 seconds ahead of everyone else and you know you can just cruise to an easy victory.

To maintain a rich online experience, you need as many people playing as possible.  If players -- especially new players -- are too easily frustrated, they just say screw this and drop out, which reduces the number of players and the number of available online games.

Originally we were skeptical when our producer at MS proposed the loser-helper boost system.  We feared it would take all the challenge out of the game, and frustrate skilled players.  Once we implemented and tuned it a little, however, we realized the opposite was true.  Giving players at the back of the pack more boost kept the races close and exciting.  Even if you're really good, you have to watch your back all the way to the finish line.  

There's still plenty of strategy and skill; you have to drive well, but you also have to carefully manage your boost for that final sprint to the finish line.  When you play online, you'll notice that the best players still win almost all the time, but they don't win by 10 seconds or 5 seconds, they win by half a second, or sometimes less.  And the new players feel like they at least have a chance at the top three.

I think the decision to include the loser helper boost system has worked out well.  There are lots of multiplayer games on XBLA, but good luck finding anybody to play with in most of them.  Hydro Thunder Hurricane has been out for 3 months, and you can still regularly find online games to join.

Loser helper FTW!