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Office Of Fair Trading Takes Aim At In-App Purchases, Proposes New Enforcement Guidelines

Jonathan Lester
In-App Purchases, Microtransactions, Office Of Fair Trading

Office Of Fair Trading Takes Aim At In-App Purchases, Proposes New Enforcement Guidelines

The Office Of Fair Trading has been investigating the practice of in-app purchases, "drip pricing" and aggressive micro-transactions over the last few months, following numerous cases of consumers and children racking up exorbitant bills. Their report concludes that many games are "potentially unfair" in the way they encourage extra payments - and to combat this, they've proposed several new principles that apps and games should adhere to or risk "enforcement action."

We've got the principles and details below.

The OFT investigation found that some games included potentially unfair and aggressive commercial practices to which children may be particularly susceptible. For example, games implying the player would somehow be letting other players or characters down if they did not obtain something by making an in-game purchase.

"'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," explains Cavendish Elithorn, OFT Executive Director. "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.

"In the meantime, we want to hear what parents, consumer groups, industry and anyone else with an interest thinks about our principles before we finalise them later this year."

You can read the report in full for examples and an in-depth explanation, but here are the proposed princples:

1: 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.

2: All material information about the game should be clear, accurate, prominent and provided up-front, before the consumer begins to play, download or sign up to it or agrees to make a purchase. ‘Material information’ includes any information necessary for the average consumer to make an informed decision to play, download or sign up to the game or to make a purchase.

3: Information about the business should be clear, accurate, prominent and provided 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 who he/she ought to contact in case of queries or complaints. The business should be capable of being contacted rapidly and communicated with in a direct and effective manner.

4: 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

5: 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.

6: Games should not include practices that are aggressive, or which otherwise have the potential to exploit a child’s inherent inexperience, vulnerability or credulity. The younger a child is, the greater the likely impact those practices will have, and the language, design, visual interface and structure of the game should take account of that.

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

8: Payments should not be taken from the payment account holder unless authorised. A payment made in a game is not authorised unless 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 to the consumer so he/she can give informed consent. Consent should not be assumed, for example through the use of opt-out provisions, and the consumer should positively indicate his/her informed consent.

The OFT is currently seeking feedback on these guidelines before ratifying them later this year - at which point, games that breach them could be subject to "enforcement action." It's worth noting that setting out guidelines and actually enforcing them are two very different things, especially since proving some of these points could be immensely difficult, but could this be a step in the right direction?

Add a comment6 comments
Quietus  Sep. 26, 2013 at 11:56

It would help if the whole thing were made clearer. For example, stopping games that are monetised from being listed under 'free' sections. If it's free, label it as such; if part of it's free, but has monetisation of any kind, DON'T list it as free. That way, parents have a very clear idea of what is actually free for their child to play at no risk.

Last edited by Quietus, Sep. 26, 2013 at 11:57
JonLester  Sep. 26, 2013 at 12:28

@Quietus: I think that could actually come under principle 1 in the report - here's one of their examples of a game that would contravene it:

"A game is advertised as ‘free’ and indicates that it is possible for players to make in-game purchases to access additional content. The consumer cannot, however, without making ingame purchases, access content integral to gameplay or play the game in a way that a consumer would reasonably expect, given the information provided up-front (also see Principle 2).

For example:

• A game based on collecting horses is advertised in an app
store for free. Screenshots from the game show the
stables full with horses. Having downloaded the game,
the consumer may access the stables but he/she
discovers that horses must be paid for with real money
and so has been misled by the use of ‘free’."

EDIT: I totally agree with you, though - I'd like to see clearer distinctions made between free, ad-supported, freemium and trial & unlock.

The OUYA is suffering from this issue at the moment - since you literally have no idea whether a game will remain free or force you to part with $15 without any warning!

Last edited by JonLester, Sep. 26, 2013 at 13:00
Quietus  Sep. 26, 2013 at 13:00

Most likely, but I'm thinking more of simplifying the process, rather than anything else. Parents want their kids to play games, and it'd be great if they could just load the store, click on the free section, and download whatever takes their fancy.

I wouldn't even restrict it to things that are integral to the gameplay. If it's completely free, label it as such, but if it's monetised in any way, even if it's just cosmetic stuff, then it shouldn't be allowed to be listed under 'free'.

JonLester  Sep. 26, 2013 at 13:01

Ah, literally just edited the comment above to agree with you on all points. It's a major issue on a number of platforms.

Last edited by JonLester, Sep. 26, 2013 at 13:56
X10  Sep. 26, 2013 at 17:55

Agree with you Quietus, free is free, not any of this other malarky.

I don't think parents 'want' their kids to play games (on their mobile device/tablet) do they? It's just bad parenting that allows it.
Go out in the real world and play with real people FFS...

Quietus  Sep. 27, 2013 at 08:40

Unfortunately, yes, they DO want their kids to play games, as it gets them out of their hair. God forbid they should actually have to spend time with their children, and, you know, raise them.oO


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