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Free-to-Play Gets Regulated

The UK's Office of Fair Trading has published a list of principles that free-to-play games and mobile apps must adhere to.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

One of the most common complaints and concerns about the free-to-play sector is how little regulation it has.

Some developers -- Valve and Riot Games are good examples -- exercise restraint by not nagging players to spend money, and by providing a satisfying experience for everyone, whether or not they are paying players. At the other end of the spectrum, there are numerous free-to-play devs -- mostly in the mobile and social games markets -- who make use of some rather unscrupulous tactics to exploit gullible players into spending more and more money.

Well, no more! says the UK's Office of Fair Trading, whose purpose is probably fairly self-explanatory. It's produced a list of "principles" for those designing "online and app-based games" that all teams publishing games under the UK's jurisdiction must adhere to by the beginning of April this year. Failure to comply will result in "enforcement action." Eep.

The main concerns the principles are designed to address include some games lacking "transparent, accurate and clear up-front information" relating to how much a game will really cost to download and play despite that apparently "free" price tag, and also the fact that many of these games make use of misleading or outright exploitative commercial practices, particularly when it comes to extracting money from children. The OFT is also concerned with the ability for some games to take payment without the account holder's knowledge, authorization or consent.

The principles are as follows:

"Information about the costs associated with a game should be provided clearly, accurately and prominently up-front, before the consumer begins to play, download or sign up to it or agrees to make a purchase.

Essentially, this means that developers should make the initial cost of signing up to, downloading or purchasing the game clear, along with subsequent costs that are unavoidable if the player wishes to continue playing. Optional extra costs must also be outlined explicitly, including the complete range of possible payments and a list of the ten most popular in-game purchases.

Games that involve wait timers (which typically involve the ability to use in-app purchases to "rush" otherwise time-consuming tasks) must be clearly marked, and games that gate content behind paywalls must also make this immediately clear.

"All material information about a game should be provided clearly, accurately and prominently up-front, before the consumer begins to play, download or sign up to it or agrees to make a purchase."

This includes not only a comprehensive description of the product, including device/OS compatibility, language, file type, size, requirement for Internet connection and any geographical restrictions in place, but also whether or not the game contains marketing such as advertising, terms and conditions of use, and how players' personal data may be collected and processed. Games with a social or online element that may allow players to come into contact with others should also have this explicitly stated.

Related to this is that when updates for a game appear, the user should be able to review any changes made to the game before choosing whether or not to accept the update. Some free-to-play games offer significant rebalancing or restructuring as part of an update -- PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies 2 is a recent example that has been severely negatively impacted in this way -- and thus players should be given the option of rejecting an update if they wish.

"Information about the game business should be provided clearly, accurately and prominently up-front, before the consumer begins to play, download or sign up to the game or agrees to make a purchase. It should be clear to the consumer whom he/she ought to contact in case of queries, complaints or to seek redress. The trader should be capable of being contacted rapidly and communicated with in a direct and effective manner."

Complying with this principle is a relatively straightforward matter of making it clear who you're giving your money to should you choose to pay -- and who to direct queries and complaints to in case of problems. At present, many iOS gamers in particular complain directly to Apple when they have difficulty with an iOS game, when in fact they should be contacting the game's creators or publishers directly.

Contact information required includes the company's trading name, geographic address, telephone number and email address.

"The commercial intent of any in-game promotion of paid-for content, or promotion of any other product or service, should be clear and distinguishable from gameplay. The younger he/she is, the more difficult it is likely to be for a consumer to identify the commercial intent of a commercial practice in certain contexts, and the language, design and structure of the game should take that into account."

In other words, players should not have their gameplay interrupted by exhortations to spend money, and where information that could lead to the player making a purchase appears, that should be made immediately clear. Free-to-play and paid options -- for example, an option to either wait a specified amount of time for something to happen, or pay to make it happen now -- should be given equal prominence.

"A game should not mislead consumers by giving the false impression that payments are required or are an integral part of the way the game is played if that is not the case."

Related to the principle above, this means that the option to do something for "free" -- perhaps by waiting -- should always be offered as a reasonable, equally-weighted alternative to paying real money.

"Games should not include practices that are aggressive, or which otherwise have the potential to exploit a child’s inherent inexperience, vulnerability or credulity or to place undue influence or pressure on a child to make a purchase."

No emotional blackmail, in other words, and no implying that you need to pay in order to do something. The principles give the specific example of a game telling the player that "your seagull is hungry! Feed him ice-cream or he will be unhappy" without making it clear that ice-cream is a premium purchase.

This principle also includes making implications that the player will be somehow "inferior" to others by not purchasing a premium item, and not making it clear exactly how long "limited edition" items will be available for.

"A game should not include direct exhortations to children to make a purchase or persuade others to make purchases for them."

Games more likely to comply with this principle will include the option to earn in-game currency at a reasonable rate as well as purchase it with real money or, in the case of trial versions of larger games, will simply make players aware of the existence of the "full" version rather than directly exhorting them to buy it now. Those less likely to comply will imply that paying is essential, or provide the option to "become a member" -- something that requires payment.

"Payments should not be taken from the payment account holder unless authorized. A payment made in a game is not authorized unless express, informed consent for that payment has been given by the payment account holder. The scope of the agreement and the amount to be debited should be made clear."

Some iOS developers have fallen foul of this recently thanks to changes in iOS itself that mean confirming a purchase now involves entering your password without seeing a confirmation dialogue box explaining exactly what you are purchasing and how much it will cost.

Games more likely to comply with this principle will require a password to specifically agree and consent to each and every purchase, but perhaps provide the option for a password to be "stored" for a period of time. This should not be the default behavior, however -- so players with children, for example, could keep the password requirement in place and keep control of their account.

The OFT's principles are an important step in the evolution of the free-to-play model, and are all very reasonable requirements for developers to adhere to. Free-to-play and related models have been unregulated for some time now, and this has led to a number of horror stories where children recklessly spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars of their parents' money on mobile and social titles. Hopefully these principles will help bring a bit of stability to the model and rebuild some trust -- in turn helping those who are using the model legitimately and fairly to perhaps attract more customers. It remains to be seen if other territories such as the US will follow suit in regulating this part of the industry, though the OFT notes that the principles were specifically designed to be consistent with the laws of "most key jurisdictions to help to raise standards globally."

You can read the full document outlining the principles here.

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