New rules concerning in-app purchases take all responsibility out of consumers hands and place it firmly with developers of free-to-play games. Rightly so?
Following a ‘large number’ of complaints in EU countries concerning in-app purchases, the European Commission joined forces with national authorities and studied the free-to-play business. On July 18, they released a statement with their findings, including a number of new rules. EU Commissioner for Consumer Policy Neven Mimica calls the outcome of the study “significant for consumers”.
Vice President responsible for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes states the Commission’s support for the innovation in the app sector and confirms that in-app purchases are a legitimate business model, “but developers need to respect EU law.” Control Magazine asked various people that are involved in free-to-play how they feel about the findings of the Commission.
Eric Diepeveen, co-founder of Stolen Couch Games, currently working on free-to-play title Castaway Paradise, finds the new rules unclear or even redundant: “Why make platform holders or developers responsible for the consumer’s ignorance. By user demand, Google and Apple offer settings to make purchases easier, but there are also easy-to-apply options to block or limit in-app purchases. If users are too lazy to find or use these options and hand over their unprotected smartphone or tablet to children, they only have themselves to blame if things go wrong. Moreover, app stores clearly indicate if games are fully free or require extra spending to play.”
CEO and founder of leading mobile gaming company flaregames, Klaas Kersting, shares a similar view: “Mobile games will probably be in the textbooks of future business science studies as the hardcore example for a buyer’s market: games are not a necessary good, they are available in abundance, they are free or available for less the cost of an espresso. That said, I know that games attract kids, yes, but to keep kids from buying virtual goods is very easy. Don’t tell them your iTunes password. That’s all. Why in this market, where the consumer holds all the trump cards, further regulation is needed, is beyond me.”
Separate good from bad
But there are also developers welcoming the new rules. One of them is Alex Kentie, co-founder of Gamistry, developer of free-to-play hit titles Gold Digger and Scrap Tank. He says: “Free-to-play is an honest business model, but some games abuse their player base by making games that are designed to coerce players to spend money, without giving back something of equal value. A stricter legislation against ‘bad practices’ is important for both the consumer as well as the industry.” Niels Monshouwer, CEO and co-founder of WeirdBeard Games agrees with Kentie but he emphasizes that these bad practices are an exception. He adds: “It might help educate players in finding the right content and weed out the crack games to make the market more interesting for quality game developers.”
None of the developers see any necessary changes for their own games. Kersting: “We don’t target kids at all. Royal Revolt 2 was positioned even darker and grittier then Royal Revolt. In fact, more than 90% of the players of Royal Revolt 2 are 18 years and older.” Same goes for Gamistry. Kentie: “We haven’t implemented any mechanics targeted specifically at children or their parents to make an in-app purchase.” WeirdBeard abandoned the free-to-play model for their latest release 99 Bricks Wizard Academy, but that wasn’t due to any regulations. Monshouwer: “During soft-launch, we were very consciously trying to find an honest way of free-to-play. That didn’t monetize and the only way we found to make it monetize was by becoming less nice. That’s why we chose to go premium and drop free-to-play.”
The European Commission has invited the industry to reflect on concrete measures to address the issues. Kersting doesn’t see much fault on the developer side: “We cater to a mature audience in a very competitive buyer’s market, we use a valid business model. For the protection of kids, it might be a good compromise to set the age ratings higher. Apple rated Royal Revolt 2 with 9+, we could certainly live with with 16+. If the EU wants to take measures and Apple/Google want to help, this might be a good tool — and it’s already in place.”
Gamistry’s Kentie comes up with a different rating solution: “Stores should implement a way for players to see what kind of in-app purchases a free-to-play game has. Do they alter gameplay experience, give competitive advantages, offer extra game content or disable ads. By adding those indications, the player has more clarity on expected costs.”
To Monshouwer preventing whaling might be a solution: “People spending thousands of dollars on a game isn’t normal. As a developer you can easily put a cap on spending in a game. For instance, when you’ve spent a hundred euros – still much more than a console title – the rest of all the content is free.”
We’ve only just begun
Even though the European Commission came up with rules, this is probably only the start of the discussion, because said rules aren’t always clear. Especially the one on exhortation to children. “Although I understand that the protection of kids is a clear priority,” says Kersting, “We also need reliable rules for that. Is the claim ‘Gems are available in the Gem store’ exhortation? Can we offer rebates? Can we use time-limited offers? All of those are common practices with many other industries.” Time will tell. •