European Commission Investigating "Misleading" Free-to-Play Games

European Commission Investigating "Misleading" Free-to-Play Games

Following the UK Office of Fair Trading's regulation of free-to-play games, now the European Commission is stepping in.

The free-to-play tide is definitely turning somewhat, it seems. Not long after the UK's Office of Fair Trading issued a list of principles for free-to-play games and mobile apps to adhere to, the European Commission is stepping in to offer its own thoughts.

The European Commission (or EC) is the part of the European Union responsible for implementing collective decisions across the Union and proposing legislation. It has been meeting with consumer protection authorities from the UK, France and Italy as well as Apple and Google in order to investigate what consumers have highlighted as the four most important issues about free-to-play games, particularly in the mobile marketplace.

Here they are:

Games advertised as "free" should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved.

A significant number of mobile and social games fall under this category, by prominently proclaiming those who download the app can "Play for Free!" or similar. However, actually trying to play the game without being heavily inconvenienced by any combination of unfair difficulty spikes, progress-throttling mechanics such as energy bars or enforced wait timers attracts a charge. Developers and publishers normally get around this by saying something along the lines of "all content in the game can be unlocked for free," conveniently leaving out the hundreds or thousands of real-world hours it would take to do so, compared to the matter of minutes it would take to purchase them.

Also under this umbrella is the question of free-to-play games that persistently charge players for consumable items rather than to unlock content -- the distinction between paying for a skin in Dota 2, which is yours to keep, and paying for a lives refill in Candy Crush Saga. Many free-to-play games -- particularly, again, in the mobile and social space -- do not make it clear that in-app purchases will be repeatedly required to remain successful in the game. This is particularly pertinent in the case of competitive games like Clash of Clans, where reports suggest the "best" players are investing thousands of dollars every month in order to remain atop the leaderboards.

Games should not contain direct exhortations to children to buy items in a game or to persuade an adult to buy items for them.

This was also highlighted by the Office of Fair Trading's guidelines -- children's apps that encouraged players to "Buy Now!" or "Upgrade Now!" are fairly widespread, and in many cases it's not always made clear that purchasing something is an option rather than a requirement. Some games and apps even make the "cancel" button deliberately difficult to find on the screen so unsuspecting players are led to believe that making a purchase is mandatory to proceed.

The OFT also highlighted the common use of emotional blackmail in children's apps -- implying that characters would be unhappy or hurt if you didn't spend money.

Consumers should be adequately informed about payment arrangements, and purchases should not be debited through default settings without consumers' explicit consent.

This is a direct response to the increasingly frequent reports of children spending thousands of dollars on supposedly "free" games without their parents' knowledge. This was also highlighted by the OFT -- particularly as recent changes in iOS in particular have meant that sometimes a game will ask for your password and then charge you without confirming what it is you're buying, or how much you're paying for it. The OFT also noted that the default behavior for games should be to ask for a password for every transaction, and to provide the option to temporarily remain logged in for a short period of time -- rather than the other way around, as it is now.

Traders should provide an email address so that consumers can contact them in case of queries or complaints.

Another matter also highlighted by the OFT. In many cases, it's not entirely clear who is operating a free-to-play game -- particularly in the case of mobile and social games which, as we've seen, are the aspect of free-to-play under the most scrutiny here. As such, should a parent find themselves stuck with a charge of thousands of dollars thanks to a tap-happy child, at present their only real resort in many cases is to go direct to Apple or Google. Clearer contact information for developers and publishers will assist in resolving problems appropriately and quickly. Of course, ideally these problems won't arise in the first place -- which is at least partly the thinking behind the other guidelines.

Lawyer Jas Purewal writes on his site that he believes the most likely result of the consultations is a simple statement of best practices. But, he says, another possibility is that the European authorities may decide to investigate further or even carry out enforcement action against those who appear to be breaching existing consumer protection laws -- or perhaps even to implement specific legislation regarding mobile and social free-to-play games.

He does, however, also note that the press release announcing the consultations -- which conclude today -- remains largely neutral in tone, praising the widespread success of mobile apps in particular, but also highlighting the importance of them keeping to European consumer protection law. It remains to be seen if this will bring about a significant change in the free-to-play market, but it's evidence that political and lawmaking bodies are at least taking an interest in a growing and, to date, largely unregulated part of the industry.

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