UK Regulates Free-to-Play, And It's a Little Scary

Jason Winter
Jason Winter February 11, 2014

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.

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About the Author

Jason Winter
Jason Winter, News Editor
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.

Discussion (39)

Aaron 6 years ago
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

Todoran 7 years ago
Hellgate Global its free to play you dont need to pay anything!

Razer 7 years ago
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.

TIFTU 7 years ago
Google TAFTA

Lolno 7 years ago
My balls are free-to-play with but if you pony up $20 you get to swallow my gooch sweat. Flame me please.

Phantasmagoria 7 years ago
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?

View 2 replies
Merkadis 7 years ago
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.

View 1 reply
-_- 7 years ago
This Article is Bad and you should feel bad.

Novodvinsk 7 years ago
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.

View 1 reply
Pedeobear 7 years ago
That kid look sexy

Name (Required) 7 years ago
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.

View 1 reply
Zebu (@Overheten) 7 years ago
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.

View 2 replies
Trenix 7 years ago
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.

View 1 reply
bastards 7 years ago
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.

View 1 reply
Randyblythe 7 years ago
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.

View 1 reply
Arieswar 7 years ago
lol and mounted.


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