One of the most common criticisms of free-to-play games is that there's no upper limit on spending, which means it's easy to end up spending way more than you would on a traditionally packaged game.
It seems that this is something of a growing concern, particularly when it comes to young people. We've all heard the horror stories of parents getting back their iPad from their kids, only to discover an in-app purchase bill extending into the hundreds or thousands of dollars waiting for them, after all -- some might argue that said parents should learn to use the parental controls facility on the device before handing it over, but that's perhaps a little beside the point here.
These concerns have been expressed by consumers and industry commentators for quite some time now, but finally some developers are starting to respond rather than plugging their collective ears and pretending everything's just fine. The first developers to take a prominent stance and limit microtransactions for young people are Tecmo Koei, who have a number of successful online mobile and social games in Japan, and GungHo, who are behind the phenomenally successful -- and immensely profitable -- Puzzle and Dragons.
Tecmo Koei is limiting players under the age of 15 to spending no more than 5,000 yen (about $50) per month, according to Siliconera, while those between the ages of 16 and 19 will be limited to no more than 20,000 yen ($200) per month.
GungHo, meanwhile, will be instituting almost identical policies for its popular game Puzzle and Dragons, according to VentureBeat, though at present it looks like these restrictions may be limited to the game's Japanese audience rather than Western players.
Meanwhile, UK-based developer Big Bit has also implemented spending restrictions in its new iOS endless runner game The Snowman and The Snowdog, an adaptation of the Christmas-themed animated movie. The game features in-app purchases for boosts and upgrades, but caps out at £20 (about $33) -- after you've spent this much all game content unlocks without any further payment required.
Big Bit's boss Nick Baynes told our sister site Eurogamer that the restrictions had been put in place in order to appease the UK's Office of Fair Trading, which will be implementing a new set of guidelines on in-app purchases in the UK next spring. It's possible that Tecmo Koei and GungHo's new restrictions have been put in place in line with similar guidelines in Japan, though neither company has confirmed this as yet.
Mobile and social games are huge in Japan -- even more so than in the West -- and as such they've been subject to intense scrutiny. Last year, the country's Consumer Affairs agency banned the implementation of "kompu gacha" mechanics -- a controversial and exploitative monetization tactic in which players could pay small amounts of real money to acquire in-game items, with incentive to spend more provided by the promise of a "grand prize" if a complete set of items was accumulated. Naturally, the chance of successfully acquiring all of said items was very low, which was causing some players to spend hundreds of thousands of yen on certain games in the vain hope of winning the grand prize. The practice was banned under Japan's Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations and the country's Law for Preventing Unjustifiable Extra or Unexpected Benefit and Misleading Representation on the grounds that it was "significantly increasing the passion for gambling" and that this was "not appropriate to the education of children." Quite.
As free-to-play continues to grow as a business model and some companies continue to push the boundaries of what consumers will put up with, we can likely expect official bodies in various countries to start taking more and more of an interest in protecting young players from potentially exploitative game mechanics. In other words, this probably isn't the last we'll hear of free-to-play games implementing spending restrictions.