Office of Fair Trading warns devs on high-pressure monetisation

Drafts eight principles for free-to-play games aimed at children

The Office of Fair Trading has instructed game developers to avoid high-pressure monetisation techniques in games aimed at children.

The OFT's stance follows an investigation - which began in April - into free online apps and games for children. After examining 38 different games, the OFT has drafted a eight "principles" that developers should follow to avoid the possibility of coercing younger gamers into spending money on free-to-play games.

"This is a new and innovative industry that has grown very rapidly in recent years, but it needs to ensure it is treating consumers fairly and that children are protected," said Cavendish Elithorn, executive director of the OFT.

"The way the sector has worked with us since we launched our investigation is encouraging, and we've already seen some positive changes to its practices. These principles provide a clear benchmark for how games makers should be operating. Once they are finalised, we will expect the industry to follow them, or risk enforcement action.

"This is a global industry so we're also sharing our principles with our enforcement partners worldwide with the goal of achieving some common international standards."

The eight principles are still open to change, but they are strictly opposed to any monetisation strategies that put undue pressure on young gamers. They also mandate that games aimed at children should indicate any in-game payment options or advertising from the outset, and that all payments should only be possible with the informed consent of a parent or guardian.

The OFT has claimed that its investigation found a number of games that employed, "potentially unfair and aggressive commercial practices," specifically those that linked the inability to pay to, "letting other players or characters down." In general, the OFT found that developers could be doing more to make payment mechanics more transparent, and to distinguish between real and virtual currencies.

"All Ukie members take their responsibility to their players, particularly children, very seriously and are fully committed to complying with all legal obligations," said Jo Twist, CEO of the British trade body Ukie. "We welcome any guidance from the OFT to clarify how they are interpreting the law and shall be taking our time to digest the proposed guidelines before responding fully to the OFT's consultation.

"Consumers are now often able to download and play the latest games for free. In-app purchasing is optional within many of these games and is a way for millions of players to access the extra content that they want. The games industry takes its responsibility to children very seriously and most devices and digital marketplaces have safeguards in place, such as password locks and parental controls, that can prevent children from being able to access in-app purchases."

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Latest comments (8)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 4 years ago
In App Purchases are made with credit cards.
You can't have a credit card until you are 18.
So this is the government acting to try and protect parents from bad parenting.
As if the Ritalin epidemic weren't enough.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 4 years ago
I don't know about the situation in Whereveristan, but in Germany you just charge app store purchases onto your phonebill, since German Telekom acts as payment processing; same for Vodafone. Even "In App". Credit card is utterly retro.

Careful handing those smartphones to children, they do not need credit cards at all and you may end up in one of those weekly yellow press TV news segments called: my phonebill is 1000€..

On the bright side, at least they are not driven into prostitution for app store cards bought from retailers, so hold off on that Christiane F remake for generation iPhone just yet..

So yeah, if they claim to act globally, then considering forms payment across the globe is not overshooting the target.
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Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games4 years ago
Indeed platform holders have a different policy regarding forms of payment in every country.
Klaus I live in Berlin, and as far as I know from personal experience, apple doesn't allow charges on the phone bill in Germany. It requires you to either redeem an iTunes card or a CC. That is why I buy iTunes cards every now and then. (I don't like CC.) However Windows Phone allows that as an option, and I think Android does as well. Which is nice.

I believe that this situation although unfortunate for those who suffer it, and they should definitely be protected, it is mostly exaggerated considering the hundreds of millions of people who perform in-app purchases daily without problems whatsoever, and can be solved by educating the parents and providing clear indications at the store making sure that the game offers in game purchases and that it doesn't just say "Free" with huge letters right at the exact moment that it asks you to buy something. (Apple already offers such indication, perhaps it should be a bit more prominent.) Parents locking in-game purchases is a good strategy too. Perhaps they should be locked by default on a brand new device.

These cases however are not the majority. Not by far. i.e. one of the top most successful companies deals directly with money and not gems etc. Which I think it is a better approach and perhaps even the solution.
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Show all comments (8)
Adam Jordan Community Manager, Ubisoft4 years ago
I'm sorry but this is just a clear case of Parents either not caring or not knowing about things. Don't get me wrong, I understand that for children, it doesn't seem to be an issue as it is not a concept they are familiar with until they learn about it at an older age BUT surely, common sense should play a vital role here.

We're not talking about something that forces a gun to your head or whispers in your ear "Do this without your parents knowing". It's clear case of a child not having a moral standing of "Ask your parent".

At a very young age, I was taught to ask permission for things. I was taught with the simple case of "Want and Demand" will not get you what you want but asking with "Could I have?" or "I would like" gives you a better chance of getting it. My parents were not afraid to tell me no and I learnt that if I wanted something without permission of others then I would have to earn it (In this case, if I wanted to buy a game then I did a paper round every week and saved up money until I could afford it)

If drafting principles comes into play then maybe they should do the same for TV and Movie providers, considering I used to work within one of the service providers call centres, it was appalling to find out that parent's had no idea their children were using the phone or box office to cause up to £100 and more charges a month.

One woman bless her had a £200 bill, each month it should only cost her £62 but after a large phone bill and about £35 worth of movies, she blamed the company, I explained everything to her and her reaction was "It couldn't be my kids, they only come here a couple of times a week and they wouldn't do that"....after a little "chat" with them, she apologised and asked if there was anything that can be done to avoid this in the future...I explained to her that we can put the credit limit for box office to 0.00 and disable box office plus reset the pin so that only she knew it. Also explained she could do all this herself and explained how.

Her reaction to that "Thank you so much, I never knew that was possible"

My point...the first instinct of a parent is to believe their child couldn't do these things and instinctively blame companies (Sure companies don't help themselves in the matter and some out there would push for more than they should) but I will always believe and stand my ground that parents should be held accountable for their children's actions.

Most parents would just hand their details over to their children and state only one purchase. Others will do it for their children to make sure it is only the one time. Others are also so blind that they would leave their details in places that children can get to them.

Sorry but you may think your child is an innocent little angel....if you continue to believe that and that they will never do anything wrong then you deserve everything that occurs. I'm not saying be paranoid or treat them like the spawn of satan but my parents knew every trick in the book, they knew how kids can be because they were kids themselves...being the youngest of 3 helped as well considering by the time I was in my teens, I was already 14 going on 42 due to the fact I was mature for my age.

Overall, I am saying the blame should be put on both sides. Parents should have more concern and say within their child's hobbies, interests and activities. They should also be weary because it's not always the game that pushes the transactions. There have been a few times where I have been contacted by parents stating "I understand it's not your fault but my child has used my card without permission and has bought items from your game, can we somehow get this reversed as I didn't authorise the transaction"

That in itself should be what parents are looking at...
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 4 years ago
Tapfish. Tapfish. Tapfish. That's all I'll say. This bill wouldn't pop out of thin air if there wasn't SOME truth to kids being able to run up charges without their should be MUCH smarter parents knowing about what was happening.

Oh, and Bruce: here in the U.S. of A. we like 'em YOUNG:

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Joćo Namorado Project Manager, Portugal Telecom4 years ago
I think the main issue here is about not pressuring or tricking children into buying. Just because parents can take steps to avoid unwanted purchases by their children doesn't mean that game developers shouldn't refrain from abusive practices and stick to these principles. I mean, saying to a child that he is letting his friends down for not buying just seems wrong.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic keyboard basher, Avasopht Ltd4 years ago
People shouldn't be given unexpected charges, period.

It is tantamount to robbery and theft. No ifs or buts.

So a parent shouldn't have to read through pages of terms and conditions to be informed enough to protect their credit cards against the decision making process of a child who cannot truly assess the decision and may not even really be paying attention to the details.

Worse yet is when this is done deliberately or negligently. Either way it would be imprudent to just leave things as they are because unexpected outcomes are taking place.

Making money is good, but protect the human first then profits second.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 28th September 2013 4:56pm

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
I wouldn't mind this so much if they maintained focus on more important things. Like all of these bollocks beauty products adverts that just lie and misrepresent, the toothpaste that whitens your teeth (all of them now) etc. Or the tubes of pringles with a yellow band covering 25% of the package but having 25g of extra crisps, the half empty tins of quality street. Or Lidl "bread" that is in fact just bread dough.

It just goes on and on.
People shouldn't be given unexpected charges, period.It is tantamount to robbery and theft. No ifs or buts.
You might get people listening if you keep the hyperbole out. The charges are always optional and it's nothing even remotely like robbery or theft. I get that you have an axe to grind, but don't turn it into a light sabre please.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 29th September 2013 9:06am

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