Industry professionals discuss what devs can do to regulate and improve the business model

Developers speak out on in-app purchases investigation

Self-regulation and educating parents are key to the future of in-app purchases in games, a number of developers have told Develop.

The Office of Fair Trading recently launched an investigation into the use of IAPs in children’s games after concern that some games had been using unfair practices to encourage users to spend money.

Speaking to Develop, Assyria MD Adam Green said that any controversy surrounding in-app purchases and free-to-play was less about games, and more about up-front parental controls and warnings.

He said that burying such crucial information in a menu was not enough, and that enabling or disabling parental controls should be a key part of the registration and login process.

“Additionally the ‘would you like to pay $x for Y’ should form part of the login box as kids will have clicked ‘ok-buy’ and got to the login page before they request a password off their parents, by which point there’s no way for a parent to see what the child is actually trying to do.,” said Green

“While we’re on the subject I also think there needs to be more gambling style restriction options for free-to-play games built into the OS such as spend limits per week (as most gambling sites cater for); as the majority the research shows gambling addicts are very rarely spurred on by the chance to ‘win money’ it’s the same psychological ‘highs’ we’re using in F2P games which I think at times can prey on the vulnerable and (in my view, and speaking as someone who makes F2P games) should have greater regulation.”

Microsoft UK marketing lead for indies Andrew Webber agreed that developers and platform holders should educate parents more on how free-to-play and in-app purchases work. He added that a better “one-two-three” step process could be introduced that “doesn’t require them to have a deep technical knowledge of their device OS”.

Mobile gaming evangelist Oscar Clark meanwhile said the situation surrounding IAPs and free-to-play was about trust and building long-term relationships, but said there are some game systems that overly focus on gaining short-term revenue “leaving many people feeling unsatisfied; perhaps even downright annoyed”.

“Normally, I think of this as a Darwinian thing,” said Clark.

“The weak (short-termist) games will eventually die out as players become increasingly cynical about their techniques. But in the case of marketing to children some clarity over what is acceptable behaviour may be sensible. However, there are ways to build good quality freemium games suitable for kids as long as you remember that the customer is the parent and that you have to respect their needs as well as entertain the child.

"There are a lot of overheads related to marketing restrictions, legal liabilities and moderation required if you want to make games for kids and I think its easy for even the most well-meaning developer to make mistakes.

“What worries me however, is the damage that short-term thinking design might do and how well meaning regulation might adversely affect the well designed games. I earnestly believe that free-to-play can help us make better games as art if done well.”

Clark questioned whether some potential answers to regulating IAPs, such as Green’s suggestions, may be more than is required.

He added a more practical solution could be to ensure that games that trigger a payment by mistake – either too early or ones that are poorly displayed – are removed from the App Store (or appropriate platform), with the developer required to pay back all of those transactions. He suggested it would be better even to not let those IAPs pass the approval process in the first place.

While many developers agree more should be done on the development and platform holder side, Kairos Games CFO Kurtis Richards said the majority of responsibility must lie with parents.

He explained that it was not entirely a developer’s fault if a child purchases £1,000 worth of goods, and said it was not a difficult task to teach children that purchasing virtual goods without parental consent “is no different from taking money form their parents’ wallet without consent”.

“Granted this is a new concept and something parents have never had to do before, but it’s not a difficult concept to grasp,” said Richards.

“There are however things developers could do to offer parents security such as implementing multiple user accounts and / or an effective ‘parental control system’ whereby you can put an upper monthly limit on IAP within a game."

What are your thoughts on in-app purchases and the OFT’s investigation into the business model? Let us know in the comments section below or join in on the LinkedIn discussion here.

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