OPINION: Office of Fair Trading’s F2P scrutiny mustn’t be a witch hunt – but must be honest

Forgive me for opening with an ‘As a parent’ introduction.

But as a parent, I know all to well the perils and concerns about children and content found on screens and online.

My son, not even three yet, knows his way around an iPad. There are some games on there we’ve introduced him to, and video and pictures (either home movies or actual TV shows) that he watches and laughs at. And hopefully learns from in some way.

But we’ve had to regulate his use. We’ve had to check the apps we buy. We’ve had to delete the YouTube link, as it can be just one button press to go from an Elmo video to a subversive Elmo video dubbed with swearing or strange imagery.

As a result I am wary if he were to ever get into into online games when he gets older. I know they are a bold part of the industry’s future. I know they can be compelling, well made, and artistic.

I also know how they make their money. And how they will structure their content around that. And that, at some point, he’s going to really want more Smurfberries, magic coins or a new digital sword because of that. And that we’ll have to pay for it.

That’s a bit rich, right? As the EIC of two games industry publications, I am in supposed to be a champion of the global community and the many innovations it throws up, year on year, to excite and engage consumers.

From an industry perspective I understand the scaremongering threat posed by today’s announced Office of Fair Trading investigation into the dubious side of in-app purchases aimed at children.

The result could (although it is unlikely) lead to regulation and stricter rules.

The OFT even has the power to legally pursue those who have been unfair or misleading.

The simple threat of OFT action could undermine this as a business model. Maybe investors will be concerned, or maybe publishers will be less willing to sign these games, maybe wider stories about it will put off parents.

It’s also a great issue for those against F2P, be that consumers or developers, to coalesce against.

All of which sounds costly or prohibitive to any company in or eyeing the digital goldmine that is free-to-play games.

The video games industry is broadly against regulation and government interference (except, er, when it’s in the trade’s interest, like tax breaks…).

The games industry says it is pro-free speech, and its trade bodies are the first to jump in and say that games firms are responsible in how they run and operate.

The last thing they want is to be hounded by the OFT, a tabloid crusade, or a government-commissioned review into age ratings. We’ve been there before numerous times before, and that put everyone on edge.

Just think back to the Byron Review, and the at-times-vile political climate that existed in the UK trade when games were threatened with BBFC ratings.

Yet the real motivation might really be that an OFT investigation, regardless of outcome, could leave some games firms out pocket.

For the more insipid users of this model, the ones who exploit it, that’s actually darkly ironic – how do they like it?

Because at the end of the day, this is not an issue without incident. It is about genuine exploitation.

The problems around in-app purchases do not simply come down to parental action, despite what I’ve said about the proactive view I personally have on what my young kid sees on screens.

Pointing to parental controls is futile. Like PEGI, the tension doesn’t come from the structures in place to stop something happening. The tension comes from what people actually do. And in terms of PEGI, despite all the best will in the world we know that kids will play 18-rated games – sometimes they are bought by their parents. In some places, parents just don’t know what is right. The same is true in IAP.

And you can’t always be there to watch your kid. In that period when he’s still under my charge but allowed some independence I don’t want to be looking over his shoulder and deleting the YouTube app or taking away the internet. I won’t always be able to turn off Facebook. I don’t actually want to have to regulate him.

I will try my best to raise him well and smart, and guide him away from dubious and shallow games, but I want to be able to place some trust in whatever content he is put in contact with.

No, instead I see this as much about an industry looking the other way as much as it might about parents looking the other way.

We’ve simply seen too many headlines to show that the unmeasured world of online payments can confuse to real extremes, and bamboozle parents who know nothing about games and business models and freemium and virtual goods.

It’s not an exaggeration to say some game developers have in some cases created games for children with a view to highly scaled monetisation – and have designed that into games in a compelling way.

The iOS App Store’s managed funnel of apps is is packed with thousands of games that target kids and appear free but want cash at crazy extremes. There are hundreds of identikit dress-up apps designed to convince girls to buy meaningless assets under the guise of doll-style dress ups. Hundreds of action games with cute characters that operate with the typical dual-currency, timed-play mechanics that not everyone completely understands the potency of.

Granted there’s a lot of good stuff in F2P, and a lot that is it well balanced and value-oriented. Most games you can play without spending a penny. And when F2P games are starting to offer better graphics, better gameplay and better value than some boxed games, it makes sense from a business POV to expect some cash back at some point to pay for that, and then to make a profit.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t games that create undue pressure on players, or become unplayable without some cash put into them – and whether that was expressly designed as extortion or not, it certainly feels like it, or looks like it.

It’s the industry’s responsibility, as this investigation begins, to understand that and learn what is right and wrong here.

The fear is that when an external force like the OFT casts its eye on games it will do so unfairly. Industry people are scared ‘they’ won’t get ‘us’, and that such outsiders with legal powers will harm us. And yes, prior encounters will get senior execs’ backs up. But this issue has too many grey areas for that, I am afraid – and some clear examples where games (or at least: apps purporting to be games) are guilty.

The OFT investigation could actually be useful for the industry, keeping it honest and mindful of its actions.

Educating the industry may be even more important than educating parents and consumers. Because what’s the other option: Ignore it, and let the more dubious corners of mobile and web stores keep chancing it with kids? That would prove more damaging to both the games industry and its precious new business models than any outside scrutiny.

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