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?