OFT releases final guidelines for in-app purchases

Developers given until April 1 to ensure that their games comply with OFT's "principles"

The Office of Fair Trading has given game developers until April 1 to comply with its guidelines around in-app purchasing.

The OFT has now finalised a set of "principles" for in-app purchases that developers can follow to avoid breaching consumer protection law. A first draft of the principles was published in September last year, following a six-month investigation into the coercive monetisation practices found in some games.

Since then, the principles have been refined based on feedback from the British games industry. The full document can be found here.

"The OFT principles state that consumers should be told upfront about costs associated with a game or about in-game advertising, and any important information such as whether their personal data is to be shared with other parties for marketing purposes," the OFT said in a statement released today.

"The principles also make clear that in-game payments are not authorised, and should not be taken, unless the payment account holder, such as a parent, has given his or her express, informed consent."

The OFT has also published advice for parents whose children play games with in-app purchases. Among other recommendations, parents are advised to play every game first to understand what it asks of the player, to check each game on a regular basis to keep pace with any updates and additions, and to be in control of the "payment options" setting on their mobile or tablet device. This advice has been incorporated into that given by the Citizens Advice Bureau.

With the deadline for compliance only two months away, the British trade body UKIE has issued a response to the guidelines on behalf of its members. Dr. Jo Twist, CEO of UKIE, said that the potential problems with in-app purchasing in games intended for a young audience have been on the agenda for quite some time, and that a majority of developers are already implementing these payment mechanisms responsibly.

"We need to make sure we balance the opportunity and growth of innovative business models in the industry with sensible measures to protecting players," Twist said. "We are pleased to see the OFT recognise that parents need to be more aware of and use parental controls that are available on devices. Protecting consumers is a shared responsibility across those who make and sell games, as well as parents and carers.

"Done responsibly, micro-transaction based business models give choice and value for both players and businesses. Flexibility for companies to operate different business models is crucial, and it is good to see the OFT recognise this. We will work with the OFT on briefing sessions for games companies to better understand the application of the principles."

UKIE will host a briefing session for developers seeking guidance at its offices in London on February 20. For more information, visit the Facebook page.

To read the OFT's principles in full, follow the link.

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Latest comments (10)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 8 years ago
Protecting bad parents and fools from themselves.
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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital8 years ago
@Bruce: Banning hardcore drugs just protects weak-willed individuals from killing themselves and regulating the guns circulation only prevents those who cannot properly defend themselves from meeting their timely end. What a patronizing world we live in!

*sarcasm warning*

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jakub Mikyska on 30th January 2014 1:32pm

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Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe8 years ago
An overhaul in transparency and clarity of pricing is a step in the right direction. I'm still waiting for the F2P game (or variant thereof) that can actually tell me up front how much it's going to cost me to play, or how much the average player pays.

This is very clear information when you buy a game with a price sticker on the front of it and it's a very significant part of the decision whether to buy or not. I want to make an informed purchasing decision, not endlessly throw my money into a slot machine with no idea of whether I'm going to get value out in return. This is definitely a positive step for consumers already playing these games, and it may just convince a few fence-sitters that every F2P game isn't waiting to hook them and hypnotize them into handing over their wallets. Good stuff.
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Show all comments (10)
Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief8 years ago
@Jed Averages are meaningless in F2P. The average player might pay 3c. The average payer might pay $3. But some people might choose to pay tens, or hundreds, or thousands of dollars on things that they truly value.
What you are suggesting is like asking Tesco or Sainsbury's to put up a sign when you enter the shop that says "Please be aware that if you bought everything in this shop you would spend over 1 million."
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd8 years ago
Perhaps a warning label that the designers of this game think that individual players spending thousands of dollars is okay, then.
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Ben Gonshaw Game Design Consultant, AKQA8 years ago
There's a strong argument to say that we need to impose tighter self-regulation on the mechanisms behind F2P
and decide which monetisation strategies are acceptable and which should be restricted as they rely on the same psychological triggers as gambling.

The number big players who were formerly purveyors of digital gambling (I'm looking at you King and Zynga) should have red flags raised across the industry. They have taken the subtle pseudo-science of delivering dopamine hits at precisely the right moments and applied it to 'games'. These methods keep gamblers reaching for the wallet and they are effective ways of relieving game users of their money too (I don't use the word Player here, as there's little gameplay on offer, just randomness).

Just because these methods are a sure way to make money, doesn't mean that we should all aspire to use the bait and switch (transitioning a game of skill into a game of luck ala Candy Crush) or hang monetisation on variable reward mechanisms mechanics.

Look at to the terminology of F2P - it's drawn directly from that dirty business where the house always wins.
Just because only a small percentage of users will be whales (yes, a gambling term) and the majority will never pay, isn't a reason not to act.

In fact, the stats for ratio of non-paying to whale (and the steps in between) very closely match what you'd find in Vegas Casinos - with the same mixture of fun for the masses and devastation for the few that are wired to be unable to resist.

Yet there are clear laws on what makes something into gambling and what age you must be to take part.

It would be remiss of us as developers to ignore this murky grey area. We need to draw our own lines in the sand before it is done for us and a big "18 and Over" is slapped on F2P whether it's appropriate or not.

(final note, not all F2P uses these mechanics - look at Hero Academy for a great example - so there are other ways that you could variously call more ethical or perhaps less exploitative).
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"The principles also make clear that in-game payments are not authorised, and should not be taken, unless the payment account holder, such as a parent, has given his or her express, informed consent."

This is a great sound byte, but is completely impractical. There are two major issues with this:

1. How is this consent supposed to be collected beyond the current mechanisms? (Without inventing new cost prohibitive technologies to deal with it.)
2. How does this get enforced / is given oversight?

Right now, this is nothing more than a political statement that has no hope of being really enforced. I applaud what they're trying to do here by making the F2P payment mechanics more transparent to the end user, though there will never be a time when you can protect all idiots from themselves. This feels like something that is just going to implode on itself if they ever try to actually enforce it.

@Ben What about CCGs like Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, and their ilk? That same mechanic is found all over the place in the F2P world as well, and hits many of the same psychological trigger that you are describing. Do you feel that this also falls under your description of pseudo-gambling, and if not then where does the line get drawn? As you said, it's a very murky grey area, and personally I don't feel that a knee jerk over-regulation is the right solution.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
I'm with you Erin, only I don't even find it murky tbh.

Can anyone explain to me what exactly is the problem with a game allowing you to spend money on it?

It there's a problem here, it's with the platform holders not doing anything to verify the person making a purchase is mentally competent to do so. And I don't think that's the platform holders problem either tbh., they're mentally competent to buy a phone and enter their cc details. And to have a cc in the first place.
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Steven Dobbs programmer, thunderworks8 years ago
Well I hope the authorities clamp down on this. It isn't always a way to earn money, but to take it.
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Steven Dobbs programmer, thunderworks8 years ago
perhaps the way ahead is to only be able to pay for in game items with pre-loaded credits, rather than this slippery - just press here to pay sort of thing.

i don't actually play any of these mobile inapp purchase games - do they demand further authentication or is it just a matter of clicking, yes to pay?
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