he OFT draft follows a six month investigation into ‘free’ apps designed for children, in which 38 games were examined in order to design appropriate guidelines for developers.
Cavendish Elithorn, executive director of the OFT, said that it was necessary for developers to stay within the confines of the guidelines to avoid the possibility that youngsters may be coerced into spending money in games presented as “free-to-play.” “This is a new and innovative industry that has grown very rapidly in recent years, but it needs to ensure it is treating consumers fairly and that children are protected,” said Elithorn.
“The way the sector has worked with us since we launched our investigation is encouraging, and we’ve already seen some positive changes to its practices. These principles provide a clear benchmark for how games makers should be operating. Once they are finalised, we will expect the industry to follow them, or risk enforcement action.
“This is a global industry so we’re also sharing our principles with our enforcement partners worldwide with the goal of achieving some common international standards.”
The eight principles are still open to change, but are strictly opposed to any monetisation strategies that put undue pressure on young gamers. Games aimed at children must indicate any in-game payment options or advertising from the outset, and payments should only be permitted with the informed consent of a parent or guardian. Contact details for the business behind the app should also be clearly displayed.
It was also important that the distinction between real money and ‘virtual’ or ‘play’ money was not blurred, the body noted. During the investigation, the OFT says it uncovered some games that employed “….potentially unfair and aggressive commercial practices,” specifically those that linked an inability to pay with “letting other players or characters down.”
Developers could be doing more to make in-game payment mechanics more transparent, and to distinguish between real and virtual currencies, the OFT commented.
The British gaming trade body Ukie was quick to respond to the OFT guidelines, saying that its members take their responsibilities to gamers, and especially younger users, seriously and comply with all legal obligations.
CEO Jo Twist said that the OFT guidelines would be welcomed, and that her organisation would study the guidelines before commenting in detail. “Consumers are now often able to download and play the latest games for free. In-app purchasing is optional within many of these games and is a way for millions of players to access the extra content that they want,” Twist said.
“The games industry takes its responsibility to children very seriously and most devices and digital marketplaces have safeguards in place, such as password locks and parental controls, that can prevent children from being able to access in-app purchases.”