In the wake of stories like this one, the United Kingdom has cracked down on the free-to-play industry. New guidelines introduced last month by the Office of Fair Trading seek to regulate F2P devs in the UK, aimed at doing away with misleading or overly burdensome pressure to spend, especially when directed at children.

While I’ll agree that smacking down exploitative F2P games is a good idea, at least in theory, I’m less than hopeful that this manner of regulation will work as intended. Though it gives plenty of examples of what is “acceptable” behavior for a F2P game and what is not, there will always be loopholes to exploit, verbiage to re-interpret, and companies (and their lawyers) who will work harder than ever to find new ways to keep raking in the money from their “free” games.

(While the regulations only apply to UK-based companies, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a similar proposal surfacing in the United States. Whether it would pass or not is another matter entirely. The examples given below mostly use U.S.-based companies as examples, since they’re what most of us are familiar with and could, if things went a certain way, be a sign of things to come.)

The very word itself – “free” – could, by some interpretation, be considered misleading by an overzealous attorney. We all know that free-to-play games need to make money, and we don’t overly begrudge companies for doing so, but as I’ve alluded to before, the word “free” is so overused and so prominently front-and-center in virtually all F2P titles that it wouldn’t take a tremendous leap for someone to sue a decent company, like Valve or Riot, if they felt exploited by rather generous games like Team Fortress 2 or League of Legends. As I’ve seen by reading comments on F2P-related articles, nearly anything can be considered “pay-to-win” by someone.

Principle 2 also smacks of the noble but impractical: “All material information about 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.” Does that mean you’ll need to fully list every item in your cash shop? Is it necessary or acceptable to list a summary of your economic policies in a pop-up? Is that even possible? Or is this all information that will be buried on page 14 of your 23-page EULA? “Hey, we warned you about it, right there in a 6.5-point font…”

However, it’s Principle 4 that, I think, could have the widest-ranging implications. It’s long been known that asking people to spend real money creates a bigger hurdle than asking them to spend a currency with indeterminate value, even if it’s known that the currency costs real money. That’s why we have Riot Points, Station Cash, Turbine Points, and so on.

Principle 4 doesn’t forbid the practice entirely, but requires games to explicitly state that such real-money currency costs, well, real money. If I hop into League of Legends right now and want to buy a new champion, the information under that champion’s image says something like “[RP icon] 975 / [IP icon] 6300.” Is that enough information? Does Riot need to better distinguish between the real-money currency (RP) and in-game currency (IP) before I click on the purchase button? Principle 4 might be construed that way.

And then there’s Provision 7, which talks about games that are “likely to appeal to children.” A note on page 20 says that “It may be reasonably foreseeable that a game is likely to appeal to children through its content, style, and/or presentation.” Considering the opinions of some that all games are for children, even M-rated shooters (to say nothing of the history of the comic-book industry), this open-ended label scares me as much as anything.

In all, the regulations require F2P devs, both good and bad, to be very careful about how they market their products and who they market them to. While it may scour the worst of the “free”-to-play abominations from the App Store and Internet, I’m concerned about the potential for misuse and litigation – which leads to expense, which could be passed on to the consumer. I don’t know if there’s a better way to deal with it than hope people become more educated – or stronger willed – and learn not to fall for exploitative “free” games, but if history is any indication, that may be a long time coming, if at all.

the author

Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.

39 Readers Commented

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  1. Aaron on May 28, 2015

    I love the idea of f2p games being forced to show the actual amount something costs instead of having to convert your money into some currency as well as the provision to clearly state that real life money is spent / required in this “free” product. As for provision 7 its going a little to far. If a game has a proper rating that corresponds to the gameplay then the style at which a game is made shouldnt even matter. Outside of that I hope this comes to America. +1 UK provisions to F2p

  2. Todoran on February 18, 2014

    Hellgate Global its free to play you dont need to pay anything!

  3. Razer on February 17, 2014

    Companies really do need to stop obfuscating the cost of their games, including fake currencies like NX or Station Cash or the old Microsoft Points. It’s disingenuous and underhanded. Yet another reason why F2P has been so maligned.

  4. TIFTU on February 17, 2014

    Google TAFTA

  5. Lolno on February 17, 2014

    My balls are free-to-play with but if you pony up $20 you get to swallow my gooch sweat. Flame me please.

  6. Phantasmagoria on February 13, 2014

    Clear branding of what you are spending is important. Point systems annoy me. You have to invest money into the system, and you’ll always have points remaining because nothing is a set price like that. It’s psychological disassociation of spending money to spending points. I’d like to see admonishment and removal of all point systems from games and to see clearly what you are spending.

    How much is 1 Riot Point/Turbine Point/Karma/Astral Diamond?

    • DumbNdumber on February 15, 2014

      No you dont have to buy anything, have you heard of a thing called Will power ,or just dont play said game

      When it says buy this and you have to enter in card details i think this is a big clue 😉

      • Phantasmagoria on February 15, 2014

        Please read my comment again, psychological disassociation of using a point system rather than simply using money specifically.

    • Trumbles on July 12, 2015

      In Warframe at least, the premium currency can be traded between players. This means that those odd numbers of points left over from a purchase are actually still useful for something. Even 100% free players can purchase cash shop items by trading with paying players.

      In this situation, a points system is completely reasonable to me, as directly trading real money within the game would be kind of weird. Points systems also allow for sales on that currency.

  7. Merkadis on February 13, 2014

    Well, why not.. let’s see what they can do about all those ‘Free To Pay’ games 🙂
    Cause frankly… the only game with real free to play atm is poe.. hands down.
    Others decent are only tf2 and rift… all other games i played always been trying to get into my pockets.. always, by any means possible and impossible.
    I think this BS needs to be fixed asap… cause if u say its F2P then fkin’ make it like so.

    • responsabily on February 15, 2014

      they are f2p up to the point you decide to pay
      if you pay then you have chosen not to play a f2p game
      but the choice for a f2p game is still there
      Shineys are not just for magpies 😉

  8. -_- on February 13, 2014

    This Article is Bad and you should feel bad.

  9. Novodvinsk on February 12, 2014

    I know you Americans are ultra paranoid about your government which causes much amusement for other countries but this article is so stupid. The law is 100% reasonable and the vast majority of UK people would agree with it which is what’s important in a democratic country. It’s ridiculous how you’ve managed to spin companies being made to openly display what something costs (not hiding behind points/gems/gold) as a bad thing. This law is all about transparency. I’d also suggest that you provide all of your legal qualifications before making an article like this so that we know you aren’t a hyperbole speculating drama queen who knows nothing about what he’s talking about. And your sources are eurogamer.net, usgamer.net, yourself and Wikipedia? 2 vague media organisations that are likely to dramatise things for views, yourself which really doesn’t count and a website that anyone and everyone can edit? This article really brings down the quality of the website.

    • Trenix on February 12, 2014

      Americans have the right to be paranoid with the crappy government that we have, but it’s people like this the reason our government and society is so crappy. They don’t understand that doing nothing wont change anything. I’m for whatever fights back these companies which only screw the people over. Remember that rich people will do whatever it takes to hire the least people possible and also pay you the lowest they legally can. Don’t defend them because they gave you a job, because they’re not helping you, you’re just taking advantage of you.

      • Zyx on February 13, 2014

        Go live in Africa for a while, see how bad you think your government is then.

        • Trenix on February 13, 2014

          So you’re saying that any government which is not like Africa, must be great. Go back to sitting on your computer all day thinking you live in paradise. I just think it’s funny that the strongest protest we as Americans had recently, was when the government attacked our internet.

          • Zyx on February 16, 2014

            Not everyone on the internet that can speak English is from America, idiot.

  10. Pedeobear on February 12, 2014

    That kid look sexy

  11. Name (Required) on February 12, 2014

    you know back in the dinosaur days before iphones or whatever existed, you could buy a whole game for 50 bucks. that’s right, THE WHOLE GAME…. FOR 50 BUCKS.

    ONE TIME FEE.

    and you get the WHOLE GAME.

    • Trenix on February 12, 2014

      And they also somehow had the money to even support online play, but yet they tell us that such things are not possible anymore. Weird..

  12. Zebu (@Overheten) on February 12, 2014

    The UK is big on ‘trying’ to solve issues their people face- but in the end, the UK leaders just like to usurp more and more power over the people’s lives and choices.

    Seeing TF2 made me laugh. Hands down the best free game to play with zero pressure to buy crap.

    • scnoob on February 12, 2014

      that is an image the article writer added. Nothing else.

    • Trenix on February 12, 2014

      They’re not taking control of people’s lives or choices, they’re regulating the gaming industry. Most developers now-a-days are only there to collect a paycheck that they don’t even deserve. So many unfinished games released, so many broken promises, so many games that are advertised to be something they’re not, it’s pretty sick. I wish they were regulated a whole lot better, I used to buy games weekly, now it’s only yearly because of all the disappointments. It doesn’t help that unlike other products, games can’t be returned.

      • itsuptome on February 15, 2014

        If i want to be stupid i can,i dont need some suit to tell me what to do
        “so many broken promises” you mean government yes 😉

        You sir are a socialist just like the nasty WW2 leaders

  13. Trenix on February 12, 2014

    Seriously what is the worst this will do, create more successful games? Seems like every developer is starting to call their game free to play, but you know that most of the time it’s a lie. It should be illegal, because they hook as if you’re gambling, and what’s worse is that they’re getting children involved.

    • tolshortte on February 12, 2014

      this is whats wrong with society. not everything needs to be governed. its called being an educated consumer. how hard is it to not spend money on a game? and keep an eye on your kids and don’t give them access to your credit card. problem solved. it doesn’t require government intervention at all.

      • Trenix on February 12, 2014

        The government is trying to protect the people, which what the government is for. This isn’t doing anything besides stopping companies from screwing over the common people, like they always do. The way these companies are making their money is through deception, when they should be brutally honest with us. Maybe this could be alright for an adult, but not when you get children involved. It’s just disgusting how they lure people into this crap. It’s no different than the way the casinos call me to come back so I can play some more.

        If a company says it’s truly free to play, but obviously isn’t, then it should be sued to the ground. It makes perfect sense and I’m getting tired of companies doing whatever it takes to get inside our pockets.

        • LordHikaru on February 12, 2014

          Pretty much what the government is for. Its funny when alot of people go yelling about how they don’t want the government doing something and the government doesn’t and then something happens and the first place they go to complain is the government for not doing something about it. its what cracks me up here in the States where everyone yells about small government and such and when something happens they crawl to the government til they no longer need it til the next “crisis” hits.

        • redordeed on February 15, 2014

          Like commies ,just what starlin said

        • tolshortte on February 18, 2014

          how are they deceiving you? you can play the game cant you? they said you could play for free. not how much content, not what gear you get, not what costume you get or how fast you level. just because you don’t get everything you want for free doesn’t imply deception. if you choose to spend money its a choice. its not like they reached into your bank account and stole your money. nice try though. wait until that same government feels they need to protect your neighbor from you

      • Bic Boi on February 13, 2014

        “..educated consumer”

        I don’t know what planet you’ve been living on boyo, but have you looked at people today? The masses don’t want to think. They don’t want the stress. How many people have honestly read a book in the last year? Nowadays everything is streamlined and simplified. No one wants to take the time to slow down and..educate themselves.

        • spillsgetarealjob on February 15, 2014

          So you mean the government have ruined the schooling too,i agree they ruin most things they poke their noses into

          We learn by our mistakes,stupid people learn too you know 😉

  14. bastards on February 12, 2014

    theese bastards first our land, then our laws, then our women/men, some go as far as the children.
    now they want our “GAMES” ??? i had enough YOU BASTARDS CAN REGULATE MY SWEATY NUT SACKS
    this is bs no one should be able to control who does what with their own games this rule/law will fail and may even be removed
    such nasty laws of evilness.
    such sly selfishness.
    the companies shall show you the true meaning of 1 + 1
    they will find out.
    theese nasty bastards.

    • Rage. on February 17, 2014

      No need to rage mate, everything that say’s free, is not always free. Calm the fuk down, and get over the fact, your goverment, are hearthless, washed up, pieces of shit, you eat on a daily basis.

  15. Randyblythe on February 12, 2014

    It’s time to come up with a new term besides F2P.

    I say multiple terms… I don’t know what they’re going to be, but there are far too many varying degrees of “free to play”.

    A game like Path of Exile, that is entirely free and only cosmetic things can be bought (and stash tabs) should be in a category of ONLY COSMETIC.

    A game like… 99% of other F2P games out there should be labeled according to their degrees of pay to win-ness, such as Perfect World games where you HAVE to pay in order to succeed, and if you don’t, you WILL NOT be able to compete.

    • Mystika on February 12, 2014

      Perhaps this:

      Pay to win – Crucial gameplay is limited unless you pay (what is crucial depends on the genre – eg. an MMORPG would be pay to win if you had to pay to get certain equipment or abilities that are needed to fight in certain raids, while an FPS would be pay to win if you could only get decent and or overpowered guns by paying).
      Freemium – subset of Pay to win, as crucial gameplay is limited unless you pay a subscription.
      Free to play – Crucial gameplay is not limited in any form, with only non-crucial gameplay items available to purchase.
      Pay to get ahead – Crucial gameplay is not limited in any form, but can still be paid for.

      And here I would say LoL would be in the Pay to get ahead section, as you can grind IP to buy champions, but you can also pay to get them quickly with RP.

      However, there’s a few issues here. Many games will overlap in categories. Take games with Currency Exchanges – if you grind enough, you can switch your ingame currency for real life currency and hence a game that would normally be pay to win, would then be considered pay to get ahead.

      • LordHikaru on February 12, 2014

        Problem with Pay to get ahead is alot of people would still consider that pay to win.

      • RenTheRose on February 12, 2014

        I like that system but some games could be in the grey planet side 2 could be seen as pay to get ahead but its a week grind for 1 new and great weapon but with 10 bucks you get one in an instant and with the power some one needs for vehicles and so forth to enjoy the game I would put it closer to pay to win then pay to get a head personally I don’t think you can regulate this in any way games are all so different and all play differently that you would need billions of pages to even have a basic grasps so even though I like the list I don’t think some one can easily label a game.

  16. Arieswar on February 12, 2014

    lol and mounted.

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