UK Office of Fair Trading investigating 'unfair' in-app purchases

Regulatory body looking to hear from parents affected by games aggressively marketing in-app purchases to children.

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Free-to-play smartphone games featuring "unfair" in-app purchases have come under the scrutiny of the UK's Office of Fair Trading.

EA's popular Real Racing 3 offers players numerous in-app purchases.

The OFT investigation is specifically to determine whether certain games are misleading and pressuring children to pay for content, and is seeking a response from parents who have experienced such issues.

The regulatory body is not looking into the practice of selling in-app purchases, but instead is looking at the way these are marketed to young players. The OFT is attempting to ascertain how aggressively certain titles encourage users to buy additional content, noting that certain actions could potentially be unlawful under UK law the 2008 Consumer Protection (from Unfair Trading) Regulations act.

"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, the OFT's senior director for goods and consumer.

OFT statistics report that 80 of the 100 top-grossing applications on the Android market are free-to-play titles that make revenue through in-app purchases. Common methods of incorporating in-app purchases include selling virtual currency, consumable items, and new characters.

In February this year, five-year-old Danny Kitchen made headlines after running up a £1,700 bill playing the free-to-play game Zombies vs. Ninjas on his parents' iPad.

Elithorn says that the OFT is not looking to ban the act of in-app purchases, but that "the games 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 OFT says it will report on its findings in October 2013 and cannot currently name the companies and titles that are being investigated.

Discussion

54 comments
91210user
91210user

Reading this makes me admire the World of Warcraft players a bit more!

xwestsdeaznx
xwestsdeaznx

I mean you can't fully blame the game companies. Sure they make long wait times for items that are only sped up through "special coins" that cost real money. BUT, the parents have a responsibility as well. Put a password on settings and disable in app purchases! I mean c'mon, as parents you have a responsibility too.

rey2
rey2

EA: Uh oh, they're on to our scam microtransaction practices. 

Timmy_Gwar
Timmy_Gwar

It's called discipline and explaining to your kid what marketing is and how not to be a sheep. I really fear for the future.

Yulaw2000
Yulaw2000

At least they're doing something.

Thanatos2k
Thanatos2k

Good.  Sue EA out of existence.

TheSkyrimStatue
TheSkyrimStatue

In other news, the Huayra is possibly the sexiest car ever

CommodoreRaslin
CommodoreRaslin

Are the they talking about legitimate games or about rote task simulators?

Because most of the FTP games on iPhone and Android are really just rote task simulators which lack any of the elements needed to be classified as games.

StickyJr1
StickyJr1

All told, this has nothing to do with freemium games. The systems they run on have the options to override the sale of their in-app content without any difficulty.

At the very minimum, iOS has had the ability to disable in-app purchases in the settings for at least two years (iOS 4, or maybe even version 3)  Paired with Parental Control settings, no unexpected iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad purchases should be possible.  Beyond that, Apple has started indicating on app info pages if the option for in-app purchases is available before the app is even downloaded.

I can't speak for Android specifically, since I don't use one, but I'd be surprised if similar settings can't be configured.

It all comes back to the fact that you can't fix stupid and you can't make lazy people do anything to help themselves.  Governments don't need to get involved when the companies at the heart of the issue are doing everything reasonable to prevent problems.

Bond_Villain
Bond_Villain

Just turn off in-app purchases. And when the lazy .. err I mean the responsible parent wants to buy something, turn it back on.

Problem solved.

Apastron
Apastron

It's about time too.  Why it has taken them so long is beyond me.

nurnberg
nurnberg

Please, just ban F2P altogether.  It's a huge scam.

blackothh
blackothh

"casual gaming"..................muahahahaha sounds a little expensive no?

OuTLaWzGamer
OuTLaWzGamer

EA game: The Simpsons: Tapped Out   knows how to sell you pixels at an overpriced ridiculous costs.

Jedilink109
Jedilink109

Well they should start by talking to Squareenix.

Gallowhand
Gallowhand

Incidents like this highlight yet again that not enough adults fully understand the technology in their possession, and that many of them misinterpret the term 'free to play'.  This is not simply a parental issue - it is an issue of grown adults not taking the time and effort to thoroughly familiarise themselves with the way certain technology works.

It saddens me, because 20 years ago I was teaching adults how to use computers.  Back then, so many people were 'users' of technology, but were essentially clueless as to how it functioned.  Not much seems to have changed in the past two decades.

SicklySunStorm
SicklySunStorm

two things;-


1) the parent should never have entered his password and left it with the kid

2) the fact that doing the above means the password is still valid for X amount of time should be made much, much clearer in the device guide, and to anyone selling these to people who are clearly not in the "tech-savvy" category


so I see both sides... the parents did a stupid thing, and equally, Apple should take responsibility in making it clearer, as there are plenty of people who aren't tech savvy making up their sales numbers.

deathblow3
deathblow3

my 10 year has had a phone for a year and we havent had any issues. why? how you ask? simple i didn't put my credit card info on his account pasword or not no card info no way to charge it.

ClaudiusCaesar
ClaudiusCaesar

Most parents still don't know what is microtransaction. They let their kids play with their phones and tablets without knowing about that, like the example on this article. Will take time until parents learn about it and block their phones.

SteamyPotatoes
SteamyPotatoes

What was that loud bang ?

Oh wait that was the sound of EA & Zynga employees feinting.

Zynga's Development Cycle

1. Rip off everyone elses idea

2. Reskin said idea several times

3. ???

4. Profit

Stupid Cow clickers need to die, there not games.

sssephiroth
sssephiroth

Dumb parents sure like to put blame on others. Dumb parents who give their credit card details to their dumb kids blame the app. Dumb parents who raise dumb violent children blame violent video games.

I see only one problem here.

Sydrum
Sydrum

yes! yes! YES! YES! If only I was investigating those soulless bastards.

JimmeyBurrows
JimmeyBurrows

Kids shouldn't even have smartphones... Would you trust them with your credit card? I think not, so why let them have your credit card details.

presidentali01
presidentali01

theres a reason they are free

this is that reason

moonlightwolf01
moonlightwolf01

To be honest much as I dislike in-app purchases this is pretty unfair on developers, I  heard an interview where they asked what devs would do to prevent kids paying for apps where parents had given their children their credit card number and parental control password. I mean seriously and this interviewer actually considered that a legitimate question.

mattcake
mattcake

What's that smell? Oh it's Zynga ****ing themselves.

A max price per app would make the most sense. Or even a way of paying the full amount upfront and getting the entire game for that... hang on a rootin' tootin' second...

kagento
kagento

I believe this should have been done from the start. Many games appeal to a younger audience and it can be problematic because they are far more vulnerable to marketing techniques that could be considered inmoral.
Problem is, how do you regulate a market which is already spinning out of control? 

demondogx
demondogx

Mobile f2p games that suck up money ?
Thats like oh i dont know 99% of them ?

Aengelus
Aengelus

Never, I repeat, never have kids. They are living money pits. 

Zloth2
Zloth2

@xwestsdeaznx Maybe not "fully" but you can sure lay a big hunk of it at their feet.  They know exactly what they are doing.

Zloth2
Zloth2

@StickyJr1 How many people who own the devices actually know how to use those features?  I'm not being sarcastic here - I really don't know, but a lot of people I know don't know how to use half the features of their phones.

Gallowhand
Gallowhand

@nurnberg At the very least the term 'free to play' should be changed, because it is misleading.

deadpeasant
deadpeasant

@OuTLaWzGamer I'm playing that at the moment becuase I'm a fan of the simpsons only. The game doesn't really contain any gameplay at all really.  Its just an excuse to get money out of people.

6orange6
6orange6

@sssephiroth for somebody calling a large proportion of the gaming community dumb, you are not exactly the sharpest tool in the box, are you. Are you seriously telling me that the game assets for a mobile game are actually worth one thousand seven hundred UK pounds? Are you that stupid? It is called a scam. No video game on earth is worth that money.

deathblow3
deathblow3

@sssephiroth correction to the second part its dumb parent that give there kids there itunes password cant buy anything without it.

deathblow3
deathblow3

@mattcake then these crappy games would not sell. lets be honest almost all apps that are free suck

CommodoreRaslin
CommodoreRaslin

Easily.

Disallow ingame app purchases across the board.

Gallowhand
Gallowhand

@Aengelus Having children is an incredible responsibility, but it's also incredibly rewarding. :P

StickyJr1
StickyJr1

@Zloth2 @StickyJr1 Your point is valid, but it doesn't address my own.  The game apps with in-app purchase options are not the issue here.  The person wielding the device is the problem and legislation can't easily fix that.

Suppose someone who doesn't know how to drive bought a BMW with a Bose sound system in it (not likely, but bear with me).  When they get into an accident because they were playing with the stereo, do you blame Bose?  What about BMW?

In this case, the smartphone is the car and the various apps are the stereo.  If you want to use a product or device so as to achieve your desired outcome, you need to learn about it.

I bought a motorcycle.  Before I did, I took a MSF course to prepare myself.  If I were to ever buy a gun, I'd take a safety and maintenance course.

Ignorance is never a valid excuse and governments can't prevent lazy people from being stupid.

Zloth2
Zloth2

@Gallowhand @nurnberg Hehe, I wonder what the bill would be called in congress?  NOTHING beats the names for bills when it comes to misleading the public - so what misleading name do you use for banning a misleading name?

Ayato_Kamina_1
Ayato_Kamina_1

@6orange6 It is a scam, but at the same time they're free to market their in-game items for as much as they want. What's being investigated is how aggressively these items are being marketed at the people using the apps... and if it's over the top, then they will be punished. 

I'm usually quite sickened when I'm in a F2P app and within 2 or 3 mispresses on the screen I'm brought to a checkout with £65 worth of pointless in game currency almost bought. But then children not knowing what they're doing and having access to this is the fault of the parents as much as it is the greedy, misleading company's