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Freemium games could be unlawful says Office of Fair Trading

Sam Loveridge


Apple App Store
Apple App Store

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is investigating freemium web-based games and apps aimed at children to determine whether they are misleading, unfair and entirely lawful.

Speaking to a number of currently unnamed companies, the OFT is undertaking a major new investigation to determine whether freemium and free-to-play games are putting undue pressure on children and their parents to fork out for additional content.

“As part of the investigation, the OFT has written to companies offering free web or app-based games, seeking information on in-game marketing to children,” said the OFT in a statement.

“In particular, the OFT is looking into whether these games include ‘direct exhortations’ to children – a strong encouragement to make a purchase, or to do something that will necessitate making a purchase, or to persuade their parents or other adults to make a purchase for them.”

Many of the apps and games currently offered for free require or ask players to pay for in-game content allowing them to progress through levels more quickly or unlock further levels.

Part of the OFT’s investigation will include determining whether these games are “misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair.” What the OFT calls a “direct exhortation” is something that could include the direct “Buy Now” option for freemium content offered by free-to-play games, which could be interpreted as “unlawful under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act of 2008.”

Although the OFT has the power to remove freemium elements from games if they are found to be in violation of the law, it has also said it “is not seeking to ban in-game purchases.”

“We are concerned that children and their parents could be subject to unfair pressure to purchase when they are playing games they thought were free, but which can actually run up substantial costs,” said Cavendish Elithorn, Senior Director for Goods and Consumer at the OFT. “The game industry must ensure it is complying with the relevant regulations so that children are protected. We are speaking to the industry and will take enforcement action if necessary.”

The investigation has been the result of several media reports telling of children accidently running up huge bills from in-app content, including five-year-old Danny Kitchen who racked up a £1,700 iTunes fee playing the free Zombies v Ninjas game on his parents’ iPad.

Via: CVG

Mike Paterson

April 12, 2013, 10:07 am

Whilst this is being looked into iOS users have the option of adding protection in the form of 'Restrictions'.
You simply turn on restrictions then turn off 'In App Purchases'. From then on whenever you attempt to purchase an item inside the game a warning box will pop up saying you are unable to purchase content within the game.


April 12, 2013, 11:21 am

There seem to be three separate issues at risk of being confused here.

Firstly there is (sometimes) the issue of deception - you think you are getting a game
for one price (maybe even for free) when in reality you are getting just enough to get you hooked before exhortations for money begin. It is not dissimilar to how airlines etc used to pile in the "booking fee" or whatever right at the last moment.

Another issue is purchases made inadvertently, as by kids using their parent's phone. Spending money needs to involve more than pressing one button, it needs to be made impossible for a child to get there by mistake.

Lastly, there is the issue of “direct exhortation” - so that even if it is not possible to make a purchase by mistake, the pressure is on to make that purchase, especially when children are the target.

Perhaps it should be possible (default) to lock a game into a "no in app purchase" mode, whereby there is simply no reference within the gameplay to in app purchases - i.e. solve both the second and the third issue together.

Hamish Campbell

April 12, 2013, 2:18 pm

On a more selfish note, I would love to get rid of the freemium model as I would much rather pay up front and then not have the pressure to buy more all the time....and more than that, if I buy something in the game I feel like I've cheated, so the satisfaction of achieving something in the game is completely gone for me. Now whats the point in playing at all?

It really ruins mobile gaming for me.

You may all begin your outpourings of sympathy.

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