Who: Advertising Standards Authority, Committee of Advertising Practice
When: July 2014
Law stated as at: 6 August 2014
The Committee of Advertising Practice or “CAP,” the sister body to the Advertising Standards Authority (“ASA”) that writes the CAP Codes of Broadcast and Non Broadcast Advertising (“CAP Codes”), has issued new guidance for those wishing to advertise so-called “free-to-play” (or “F2P”) mobile games often made available in the form of apps.
Such games are free to download, but are monetised through microtransactions (“in-app purchases” or “IAPs”) within the game.
The model has proved highly profitable, but has come under increasing scrutiny recently, particularly in terms of children making unauthorised IAPs using their parents’ accounts.
Last month, following a ruling of the ASA, CAP published guidance on “free claims in apps and games”
The complaint and ruling that prompted this advice concerned an email promoting Electronic Arts’ social F2P game Dungeon Keeper.
The complaint, which the ASA upheld, was that the email was misleading because it did not mention that gameplay available on a free app was very limited unless in-app purchases were made.
The regulator felt that the impression of the game provided by the promotional email was not an accurate reflection of the gameplay if the game was played without making IAPs. While the download page for the game mentioned IAPs, the email promoting it did not. The ASA therefore upheld the complaint.
New guidance on free claim in apps and games
The guidance which CAP issued following this ruling includes the following pointers to CAP Code compliance:
• advertising for F2P games should not overpromise and should “reflect the experience of the non-paying user”. If only paying players are able to experience aspects of the game which are portrayed in the ad, this should be made clear;
• a game featuring IAPs can potentially be advertised as “free”, provided that (a) the advertisement accurately reflects the free product and (b) it is not necessary for the player to pay to advance in the game;
• IAPs for games advertised as “free” should not be an essential component of satisfactory gameplay. The game should offer a “meaningful game experience” without purchases being made. Publishers of social games unwilling to second-guess whether the ASA will consider their game to provide a “meaningful game experience” without IAPs may therefore find it simpler to avoid any unqualified claims that F2P games with in-app purchases are “free”; and
• the type of disclaimer that CAP would expect to see in ads for games which, like Dungeon Keeper, involve countdown timers which a payment can be made to skip, would be along the following lines: “in-app purchases can be made to speed up gameplay and skip timers”.
Why this matters:
The position on apps and games with in-app purchase opportunities is developing at both national and international level. For example, following discussions with the European Commission, it was announced on July 16 2014 that Google has decided that it will cease to advertise apps as “free” if they contain in-app purchases.
It seems that the safest practice for developers going forward will be to ensure that:
• adverts for free-to-play products should be representative of the experience of a player who has not paid to enhance the gameplay; and
• if a game does offer players in-app purchases which alter gameplay, this is made explicitly clear on any advertisements which describe the game as “free” or “free-to-play”.
In addition to this new CAP guidance, anyone developing or publishing online and app-based games should familiarise themselves with the OFT’s Principles on the subject.
As of the dissolution of the OFT in April 2014, these were adopted by the Competition and Markets Authority and reflect the regulator’s views on which practices are on the right or the wrong side of consumer laws.