Developers face OFT crackdown on in-game purchases

Developers face OFT crackdown on in-game purchases
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

September 26th 2013 at 10:20AM

Report outlines tough new guidelines to prevent aggressive use of IAPs against children

The Office of Fair Trading is threatening to take action against developers who aggressively push in-game purchases onto children in online and app-based titles, under newly proposed guidelines.

The OFT is looking to crack down on IAPs it considers misleading, and wants more transparent and clear information on their use.

After investigating 38 games from UK, European and international businesses, the OFT has laid out a number of its concerns it wants developers to tackle.

The report states there are worries about developers exploiting children’s inexperience, vulnerability and credulity through aggressive commercial practices.

Other concerns include a lack of information about in-app purchases before users sign up or download a title, and whether payments are taken from account holders without their knowledge or express authorisation.

The report noted that games advertised as free but require consumers to pay for content integral to gameplay may be in breach of consumer protection laws.

Eight principles to tackle unfair practices have been laid out, they are:

1.    Information about the costs associated with 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.

2.    All material information about the game should be clear, accurate, prominent and provided up-front, before the consumer begins to play, download or sign up to it or agrees to make a purchase. ‘Material information’ includes any information necessary for the average consumer to make an informed decision to play, download or sign up to the game or to make a purchase.

3.    Information about the business should be clear, accurate, prominent and provided up-front, before the consumer begins to play, download or sign up to the game or agrees to make a purchase. It should be clear to the consumer who he/she ought to contact in case of queries or complaints. The business should be capable of being contacted rapidly and communicated with in a direct and effective manner.

4.    The commercial intent of any in-game promotion of paid-for content, or promotion of any other product or service, should be clear and distinguishable from gameplay.

5.    A game should not mislead consumers by giving the false impression that payments are required or are an integral part of the way the game is played if that is not the case.

6.    Games should not include practices that are aggressive, or which otherwise have the potential to exploit a child’s inherent inexperience, vulnerability or credulity. The younger a child is, the greater the likely impact those practices will have, and the language, design, visual interface and structure of the game should take account of that.

7.    A game should not include direct exhortations to children to make a purchase or persuade others to make purchases for them.

8.    Payments should not be taken from the payment account holder unless authorised. A payment made in a game is not authorised unless informed consent for that payment has been given by the payment account holder. The scope of the agreement and the amount to be debited should be made clear to the consumer so he/she can give informed consent. Consent should not be assumed, for example through the use of opt-out provisions, and the consumer should positively indicate his/her informed consent.

The OFT said it intended to share the principles of the report with its international consumer enforcement counterparts to achieve consistency as much as possible across the industry.

You can view the full report here.

A consultation for the report is expected to last eight weeks. The OFT is taking comments on the proposed principles until November 21st.

You can email childrensonlinegames@oft.gsi.gov.uk to offer your feedback.

A finalised version of the principles will be published in late January or early February next year.

After April 1st, the OFT may begin action against developers and publishers found in breach of consumer protection law.

Develop conducted its own invesitgation earlier this year, looking at 400 apps across the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Our report found that less then a third of apps offer IAP warnings. Even fewer noted how these could be disabled.

55 per cent of the top 200 games on from the App Store also included IAPs worth £69.99 or more.

You can view our full investigation here.