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UK fair trade body lays out new rules for in-game purchases

A year after the UK's OFT planned to investigate free-to-play apps and games aimed at children, the consumer protection group has now ordered the online games industry to "get its house in order."

Mike Rose, Blogger

January 30, 2014

3 Min Read

Nearly a year after the UK's Office of Fair Trading said that it planned to investigate free-to-play apps and games aimed at children, the consumer protection group has now ordered the online games industry to "get its house in order." The OFT said last year that it was looking into whether children are being unfairly pressured into buying additional content or virtual currency for free-to-play games, or being wrongly encouraged. Following the investigation, the company said that it was planning to soon publish its list of rules. The company today published its final principles for online and in-app games, warning online game companies that they must ensure their games do not breach these principles by the deadline of April 1. The main crux of these rules revolves around consumers being told up front what costs are associated with each game, and what sorts of in-game advertising will be displayed during play. Games must also state clearly what sort of personal data will be required, and how it will be shared with third-parties. The rules also state that any in-game purchases must be authorized by the account holder -- e.g. a parent -- and that if informed consent has not been given, payment should not been taken. "Failure to comply with the principles could risk enforcement action," states OFT, adding that many of these issues are not compliant with the Consumer Protection (from Unfair Trading) Regulations set forth in 2008.

How these principles were laid out

OFT says that following research, consultation on these principles ran from September 26 to November 21, 2013. 40 written submissions from stakeholders were taken into consideration, while some oral submissions were also taken onboard. The principles laid out revolve around tackling a lack of transparency when it comes to in-app purchases in games, and misleading commercial practices, "including failing to differentiate clearly between commercial messages and gameplay." OFT says that some games are "exploiting children's inexperience, vulnerability and credulity, including by aggressive commercial practices... including direct exhortations to children to buy advertised products or persuade their parents or other adults to buy advertised products for them." These principles aim to cut this behavior out, the report says. A summary of the report can be found on the OFT website, although with the PDF version of the report itself. The PDF report is an interesting read, offering plenty of examples of game monetization that would be "unlikely to comply" with the new principles.

Ukie and TIGA respond

UK fair trade body Ukie responded to these new principles this morning, stating that it has been working closely with OFT to bring these principles to fruition. "We need to make sure we balance the opportunity and growth of innovative business models in the industry with sensible measures to protecting players," noted Ukie CEO Dr. Jo Twist. "We are pleased to see the OFT recognise that parents need to be more aware of and use parental controls that are available on devices. Protecting consumers is a shared responsibility across those who make and sell games, as well as parents and carers." Ukie has prepared a summary fact sheet of the principles for game businesses, which provides a nice, easy-to-digest round-up of the facts. Meanwhile, UK video game trade association TIGA also welcomed these new principles, with CEO Dr. Richard Wilson noting, "What is now essential is for the OFT to work with its counterparts in the EU, the USA and across the globe to adopt a common approach to the F2P market." He added, "The UK’s mobile and online games developers represent a small fraction of the global F2P development industry. To effectively protect both UK consumers and UK businesses, we must avoid these regulations becoming misaligned with the rest of the world, or risk damaging our culturally and artistically rich, high tech and highly skilled video game industry."

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