Free-to-play games have always existed on the edge of false advertising. After all, the very term "free to play" completely ignores the fact that people can spend seemingly limitless amounts of time and money on them. But a recent incident with Electronic Arts' hit Facebook game Sims Social describes a form of false advertising considerably less reliant on a game of semantics.
Last week, an ad in the game challenged players to get a Vespertine Cocktail Bar Reward that would churn out simoleans (one of the game's four primary resources) and collectibles every hour. Although the reward criteria can be met without spending a dime, impatient players or those who won't meet the task's deadline can speed things up by dropping real money for an injection of SimCash. But after the offer went live and the original ad went out, EA changed both the deadline and the reward. Instead of an hourly injection of simoleans and gifts for as long as the game runs, players would instead get a onetime injection of social points (another of the game's resources).
As one would expect/hope, angry players took to the game's message boards to complain about the switch. A number of players raced to get the cocktail bar only to find the reward they spent their time and money chasing had been switched on them. And those who completed the task before the ad was changed received neither the social points nor the advertised hourly rewards. And the only "official" word from EA in the thread is a moderator confirming that it's not a bug and that the players' complaints have been passed along.
On the surface, this looks an awful lot like fraud. But I suspect the virtual currency buffers placed in between the users' money and the Vespertine Cocktail Bar will in some way protect EA from any sort of consumer complaint. After all, players didn't spend their money for that in-game item; they spent their money on Facebook Credits, which were converted to SimCash, which could then be converted to energy, simoleans, and social points in order to meet the reward criteria.
But to focus on whether or not this protects EA from lawsuits and Better Business Bureau complaints is tangential to the point. The larger issue here that gamers should be up in arms over is that this represents a fundamental lack of respect for the customer on EA's behalf. They laid out a transaction for gamers with clear parameters and then changed the deal midstream, neglected to notify gamers of the change, refused to honor their commitment to people who had already completed the deal, and then ignored the resulting complaints.
EA laid out a transaction for gamers with clear parameters and then changed the deal midstream, neglected to notify gamers of the change, refused to honor their commitment to people who had already completed the deal, and then ignored the resulting complaints.
It's not the first time EA has skirted the lines of false advertising, either. Just last year, Battlefield 3 arrived with a previously advertised bonus that PlayStation 3 owners who preordered the game would be given a free copy of Battlefield 1943. That deal had been announced months earlier, but EA didn't bother to update gamers until after Battlefield 3 hit stores and people wondered where their free game was. On top of that, EA didn't take the initiative to inform people that the promotion had changed; a developer had to be asked about it on Twitter before public acknowledgement came. (EA eventually pulled an about-face and said it would honor the original promise, but only after it had been the target of a class-action lawsuit.)
And then there was NHL 09, which arrived on store shelves with cover art proudly proclaiming it "Winner of Seven Sports Video Game of the Year Awards." Obviously, it was the preceding year's installment in the series that won those awards, but unless EA wants to come clean and admit that one year's version of the game is the same as the previous year's, it doesn't get to advertise on those laurels. (EA didn't respond to a request for comment at the time of the game's launch, but more recent installments have similar blurbs that tout the franchise's award total instead.)
Whether these examples are the product of a publisher with a fundamental lack of respect for its customer base or a series of innocent blunders perpetrated by unthinking individuals, they are inexcusable. And EA needs to admit and embrace that fact, because if it isn't willing to respect the money, energy, and time people put into its games, those customers will just find better places to spend those resources.
As of press time, EA had not responded to a request for comment.
[UPDATE 3/9]: EA has responded to the issue in its Sims Social forums. A moderator posted the publisher's explanation, saying, "Unfortunately the information we gave you in terms of what the Aquabatix tubula reward actually did, was incorrect… We changed it as soon as possible, but some players saw the original messaging for a few hours." As a make-good, the publisher is offering 1,000 simoleans to players.