EA Must Change Dungeon Keeper Ads Calling It "Free," Rules UK Ad Regulator

The Advertising Standards Authority issues a ruling regarding ads for the maligned free-to-play game.

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The agency in charge of regulating advertisements in the United Kingdom has decided Electronic Arts may not continue to run ads describing mobile game Dungeon Keeper--widely criticized for its in-app purchases--as a "free" game.

This is the judgment rendered today by the Advertising Standards Authority, the independent regulator of advertising in the UK. It deals with an email ad for Dungeon Keeper that makes repeated mentions of Dungeon Keeper being "free," which technically is true. But as anyone who has downloaded the iOS and Android game since its launch earlier this year will tell you, its free-to-play model makes it virtually impossible to play the game in any enjoyable way without spending money on in-app purchases.

A complaint was filed with the ASA over the ad by someone "who understood that gameplay was severely limited unless in-app purchases were made," but "challenged whether the ad was misleading because it omitted significant information."

EA's response to the ASA was to claim that "gameplay without in-app purchasing is not severely limited. [It] also stated that all the features referenced in the ad were available during free play and that not all of them were gated by a timer." EA went on to note that it's possible to earn all three types of currency in the game through "normal in-game engagement and activity over time." Again, while this is technically accurate, many of the game's players would take issue with the amount of time it takes to earn any significant amount of gems, the premium currency that players can choose to buy with real-world money.

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This isn't a simple matter of players not wanting to pay for the game--Peter Molyneux, designer of the original Dungeon Keeper, spoke out against the game shortly after its release. "I felt myself turning around saying, 'What? This is ridiculous," he said in February. "I just want to make a dungeon. I don't want to schedule it on my alarm clock for six days to come back for a block to be chipped," he added, referencing the long waits players are subjected to unless they spend gems.

The ASA says EA provided data suggesting non-paying players have managed to make significant progress in the game and pointed to other games that use similar models. EA also indicated that a "timing mechanism" would be in place even if the game were not free-to-play.

Apparently EA's defense wasn't strong enough, because while the ASA acknowledges it is possible to play Dungeon Keeper without spending money, it "regarded it as extremely likely that players would reach a position where they would be unable to take any further meaningful or progressive action in the game until a timer had finished or been skipped, and that these periods would become longer and more significant, and the cost of skipping increasingly higher, as the player progressed."

Additionally, it feels that, based on the ad, "players would expect the gameplay progression and their ability to advance to be unhindered by unexpected and excessively onerous delays, and we therefore considered that the length and frequency of these countdown events was beyond that which would be reasonably expected by players."

What this all means is that the ad in question "must not appear again in its current form." EA has been told "to ensure that future ads made clear the limitations of free gameplay and role of in-app purchasing with regard to speeding up gameplay."

EA CEO Andrew Wilson recently discussed Dungeon Keeper, stating the company "misjudged the economy." He also said, "For new players, it was kind of a cool game. For people who'd grown up playing Dungeon Keeper there was a disconnect there. In that aspect, we didn't walk that line as well as we could have. And that's a shame."

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