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[Gamesbriefers] Are there upsides to the OFT investigation into F2P?

By on April 25, 2013
CC image by Anthony Kelly


Now that the initial surprise has passed, what are your feelings on the OFT investigation? Is this kind of scrutiny inevitably going to be problematic for the industry, or are there potential upsides to the investigation? What are your best (and worst) case scenarios with regard to the eventual report and recommendations?


ben boardBen Board Senior Product Lead at Boss Alien

To me (and these opinions are my own) this has arisen from a mix of tabloid-spun bollockry, genuine confusion in players and parents, and ‘robust’ sales techniques used in some games.

I fear the outcome a little. If these things were decided by common sense and dispassionate analysis alone I would think the facts are favourable: these games are produced and sold globally, making local restrictions a punishment only for UK industry and sales; rules around IAP fairness are surely hard to formulate and police; these games are manifestly making oodles of legitimate money and entertaining huge numbers of people (and I bet even MPs play Candy Crush); and while being a dullard in legal ways I wonder if the government will struggle to tell people what they can sell each other.

That rational conversation should conclude, in my view, that the problem is not the way games sell but the way they are sold: this is an App Store problem. Not to say it’s Apple and Google’s problem – the industry must help them to help punters understand what they’re about to download. After all, we have all but annexed the app stores. In our club we use the label ‘Free To Play’ or ‘Freemium’ for the free-plus-IAPs business model, although those three words don’t actually communicate that at all. But that’s not even what we call it in the stores: we just call it ‘free’, which is easily for the Daily Mail to describe as disingenuous, and I think that’s what’s going to have to change.

It’s also a platform problem in finding a way to limit access to sales for devices which are often lying around the house, and educating parents. That’s necessary but less our problem to fix.

As a player and parent and a Dev Who Cares I think it’s time we had a better name for games funded by IAPs, and a label or categorisation in the stores, while keeping their discoverability as prominent as such a dominant model deserves. (Today the top nine grossing apps are F2P games.) Something like ‘Pay what you like?’

All that said my fear is that the conversation will not be rational, but will be run by professional politicians with loud mouths, unground axes, emotive stories and and elections to win, at which point sense comes second and all bets are off.

Stuart DredgeStuart Dredge Journalist at The Guardian

I think this will ultimately be solved by the platform owners – Apple, Google etc – which will hopefully ease the risk of differences between countries. Creating a Kids category, defining clear rules for how apps use / market IAP within that category, and educating parents on how to lock their settings seems the sensible way forward.

Ultimately, it’s about responsibility – from platform owners, from parents and from developers too.

I’d go further than ‘robust’ though. I’d go with ‘scammy’, ‘manipulative’ and ‘dishonest’. I’ve yet to read a convincing reason for £69.99 IAP to be included in a children’s game. I’ve seen several children’s games that pop up a ‘would you like to buy some virtual items?’ prompt well within the first 15 minutes. And there are a growing number of kids’ games where the gameplay has clearly been designed around encouraging purchases (the ‘your pet animal’s sick, do you want to heal it?’ being one of the most obvious examples).

I feel like bad practices from a small but still significant number of developers have brought this upon themselves, and everybody else, so the OFT investigation was inevitable.

It’s also been disheartening this week to see the immediate response from some games developers and games industry bodies being far more focused on ‘how can we avoid regulation?’ than on ‘how can we protect children and educate parents?’

I also wish some of the industry bodies had seemed to care as much about these issues *before* the threat of regulation as they do now. Tax breaks might be an important issue, but these IAP issues aren’t new, and perhaps there could have been more leadership in terms of defining what is and isn’t appropriate in the children’s sector.

(Ben, none of this is aimed at you, btw, I’m just replying after your email, which I agreed with).

There are some grey areas – e.g. Temple Run, Cut the Rope, Angry Birds aren’t children’s games, but they are played by lots of children, so how regulation applies to those is anyone’s guess.

Am I correct in thinking that you *can’t* do a Moshi Monsters-style monthly subscription for a children’s game on iOS now?

I know Magic Town did it for their virtual reading world, but that’s in the Books category. As far as I’m aware, you’re not allowed to do it for kids’ games, yet this might be one solution – parents paying £1.99 a month, say, for a game that includes a certain amount of virtual currency given to kids every week?

It would be a different kind of game design, perhaps, but it might be a way of doing the FarmVille / Smurfs’ Village genre for children without encouraging purchases – and teaching them about managing their virtual resources.

My genuine hope is that at WWDC, Apple will have a decent 5/10 minute chunk of its iOS 7 keynote devoted to a new Kids mode / App Store category / parental stuff.

img_alice-taylor-2012Alice Taylor Founder of MakieLab

Correct, game subscriptions not currently an option.

Mark SorrellMark Sorrell Development Director at Hide & Seek

I’m largely in agreement with Stuart. We’ve both written at length about the more suspicious activities some developers have been engaged in and both warned that this would likely lead to investigation or regulation.

To leave the obvious aside, the issue of *also* for kids games is the one that seems to hold both the least obvious solutions and the biggest threats to the larger industry in the UK. The fact that delineating all apps into meaningful ‘For Kids’ and ‘Not For Kids’ categories is impossible means that solutions need to work across all titles. So Teut’s suggestion of kids mode makes far more sense than kids apps. Then the same app can configure itself to respond to who is actually playing it rather than who is supposed to be playing it.

I do think this is a problem Apple could solve very easily, and simultaneously solve the problems faced by legitimate developers and parents in one fell swoop. They have never recognised the way that parents especially use their devices in the real world, nor the way tablets are often used by multiple people. And they should.

Is this a good place to suggest that apps aimed at kids should be designed to give the kid *back* after a play session? Because they should.

ben boardBen Board Senior Product Lead at Boss Alien

I’m nervous even asking a heretical question – but do we have any hard non-Daily Mail evidence that children are mis-spending parents’ money at scale?

Not to diminish the significance of that problem if it is proven to exist – after all I’m a parent, and some of my best friends are children – but implying harm to kids is a great way to separate a discussion from rationality even if there’s no such proof. This week’s example: MMR.

Would happily accept reasonable evidence if it does exist, though.

CharlesChapmanCharles Chapman Director and Owner at First Touch Games Ltd.

Multiple accounts or device kids modes are the obvious, and relatively easy, solution here, and hopefully that will be the outcome of this.

To give some perspective from another entertainment area though – I’m on a family holiday at the moment and have spent a fair amount of time and money at Disney parks. It’s an accepted fact that after every ride/show/exhibit the exit flows through a shop selling branded merchandise. This is the theme park equivalent of IAP, except you’ve already spent $100 getting in, and if you do succumb to the temptation or tantrum, then you’re probably in for $10, $20 or more. The key obvious difference is that parental permission is needed, so solve the kids mode & permission issues for IAP and we’ve made a big step forward.

Of course there are still the positioning issues, but largely these are not too different from any other industry. Theme parks, as I’ve said, are the most obviously cynical example, but supermarkets and other retailers position product as impulse buys whether by kids or not. The extreme example of ‘buy gold to keep your pet alive’ would be cynical and somewhat nasty, but pretty un-policeable. However I can’t imagine it would be a particularly good retention mechanic either.

kristian_segerstraleKristian Segerstrale CEO of Playfish

Multiple accounts would be great but I’m personally not sure they would be used because of the inconvenience. My 2 cents would be:

1. Hardware manufacturers should implement a “Kid mode”. Much like an “Airplane mode” this would block some functions and create an additional authentication step around others. In addition to IAP I would personally I’d love for it also to stop messaging apps and making phone calls. I would find this a really useful feature not just for games but for avoiding random tweets, texts, emails, phone calls etc being made while kids are playing with the device.

2. More content-based business models. One of the most interesting things to me about Candy Crush is that the content gating business model works. I always find that great kids apps tend to be highly polished but very shallow in terms of content (thinking Kapu Forest or Toca Band for example). If either of those apps had unlockable additional areas I would consider paying a fair amount for them. If I got a notification that a new song is available in Toca Band, or a new animal in Kapu Forest, that would be a great little event to show my kids and I’d likely want to pay as a parent. I haven’t seen anyone nail this yet. But it does feel doable.

3. Understanding the size of the problem. Many content makers I know regularly talk to their high spenders and the vast, vast majority of them are aware they are spending a lot and are content that they are getting value for that spend. Unwanted transactions by kids or other people than the account holders clearly do happen – but I haven’t seen any data on the magnitude of the issue. Judging by customer support tickets by type in companies I’ve seen it hasn’t popped as a significant category of complaint (but then I haven’t run an aggressive kids apps company). Would love to hear any data on it. I do think it needs fixing for industry PR alone but I also think it’s important to understand how big the problem really is to put it into perspective.

Oscar ClarkOscar Clark Evangelist at Applifier

The ideal that we are being forced to reconsider the way we approach games design is a great thing. Not least when we shake out the issues and probably find as Kristian (and other have said) the level of incidents seems to be relatively low. That doesn’t mean that any of us think its an acceptable behaviour to trick people into paying because we ask before the password time-out or colour code buttons to encourage mistake purchases and its obvious that we all feel this way from all the discussions on these subjects we have had on this forum.

But the problem is not one of direct impact, its a problem of perception. Players of F2P games are so often coming away feeling disappointed, or manipulated after their experience. Rather than delight. This is the ‘Social Games Hangover’ many of us have talked about for nearly two years. So I’ve been thinking about why this has happened; and again Kristian talks about it below. The focus on the money detracts from the focus on the content. Actually I’d go slightly further. The focus on the Whale (Truefans who spend $100+ each month) makes it really hard to avoid it being all about the money. We (Applifier) did a survey of players recently and found that the people willing to share not only showed greater spend, but also a greater contribution to the discovery and retention in a game. So why don’t we instead segment our target audience to those ‘Sharers’ and maybe stop just hunting Whales. Perhaps that will be a little more human.

So what do we do? Well I am a little concerned about the unforeseen consequences of what I fear will end up being well meaning but relatively crude solutions,. Looking at the proposals made here and elsewhere like settings for switching off In-App purchases or even the ‘Kids-Mode’ as discussed below; I’m not quite convinced. Its partly because of the inconvenience factors of switching, partly because I’m nervous about how they might be circumvented by smarter people than me. However the bigger issue is the knock on effect on how this will limit positive creativity for the good experiences. Perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence that short-term designers in it for the quick buck have on those of us who aspire to making better games.

Maybe its from the ‘Collated Experience’ days of running an operator deck, but I still feel it’s the responsibility of the Store to have minimum behaviour standards and if games breach those, don’t let them on the deck. They have other rules about how they control marketing activity that means they pull other ‘competing stores’. Why not have rules that protect against this circumstance? Indeed I’d argue that to an extent they do. There are penalties if Apple have to refund your customer, it doesn’t come out of their pocket in the end after all. But what I hope in that in the end the biggest penalty will be that behaving in this short-term money grabbing way will go the way of the Dodo. It will become extinct in the end not because of an OFT investigation, but because that investigation is a symptom of an audience who no longer trusts us.

If there is a good thing out of this I believe it is that it makes us pay attention to that. We need to rebuild trust if we want to avoid F2P becoming a footnote in history.

I hope that this OFT investigation means that all those talented game developers out there who leave the console space to set up their own studio to make ‘Games for their kids’ will realise that this isn’t an easy or safe target for game development.  Its complicated, regulated and requires a much higher level of diligence than almost any other aspect of the industry, with the possible exception of Gambling (and rightly so).

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