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.