Free-to-play isn’t evil, but the practices that surround it are seriously questionable

It’s time to get our house in order on free-to-play

The latest announcement that the European Commission is investigating concerns surrounding free-to-play highlights the lack of action taken by platform holders, developers and publishers on the transparency of in-app purchases.

Free-to-play is an easy target. It’s easy to say developers and publishers using the business model are crooks. Sliding their grubby and greedy hands into your wallet to take all your money. Convincing you to get those 500 virtual gems to match three fruits or dig out a new square for your dungeon.

But free-to-play isn’t evil. It works, and is proven to do so. Supercell has found a great balance with Clash of Clans and Hay Day. The time delay mechanics of these games can get ridiculous and bring the game to a grind, but the developer is always clear and upfront about costs.

But other developers and publishers aren’t as careful or transparent.

A quick look at the top 20 most grossing apps on the App Store shows some flagrant abuse of the term free, and a lack of openness on in-app purchases prior to download.

Of the 19 listed as free, eight describe themselves as “completely free”.

No matter how you wrap this up, this is simply not true. Yes, often the very core of a game can be played for free, perhaps endlessly. The majority of the title could even be free.

But completely free? The in-game stores with purchasable items state otherwise. Some may call this pedantic, but fact is, if a consumer sees something described as “completely free”, that’s what they expect. They don’t want surprise or hidden costs. 

Of those 19 top grossing games, seven of them do not explicitly state the game contains in-app purchases.

You should bear in mind this is just the top 20. The store’s most successful games businesses. With just a few companies dominating it.

And this lack of transparency is one of the European Commission’s most important concerns:

"Games advertised as ‘free’ should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved."

Some of these games are far more concerned with telling users at length about in-game advertisements, or the fact the title cannot be played offline, rather than telling consumers about the payments that await.

The UK’s Office of Fair Trading recently outlined principles clarifying the interpretation of consumer protection laws in relation to games and in-app purchases. The OFT then told games businesses targeting children’s apps they have until April 1st to “get their house in order”, and appears to have left the responsibility for displaying costs and IAPs with the platform holders, such as Apple and Google.

Principle 1 states:

"Information about the costs associated with a game should be provided clearly, accurately and prominently up-front, before the consumer begins to play, download or sign up to it or agrees to make a purchase."

Both the App Store and Google Play do state whether titles offer in-app purchases. Google however does not state what costs could be incurred, such as those notorious £69.99 IAPs – or higher.

This does not appear to be in line with the need to provide “information about the costs associated with a game clearly, accurately and prominently up-front before the consumer begins to play”.

I’ve heard the industry wants to take the lead and self-regulate when it comes to in-app purchases. But it has shown a lack of urgency and cohesive approach in doing so.

Developers, publishers and platform holders should have nothing to hide. All in-app purchases should be displayed upfront on the store page, and not just the top ten or 25.

The descriptions should tell users not in the know how to turn off in-app purchases step-by-step. And we need to abolish the term “completely free” from all free-to-play games.

When developers and publishers aren’t transparent – whether the legal blame could technically lie elsewhere – it creates a sense of distrust. There should not be anything to hide here, or even a sense that there is.

Free-to-play is not evil. But the current practices surrounding it from the most prominent games companies are seriously questionable.

The UK’s Office of Fair Trading is right – it’s time to get our house in order.

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