Developers behind smartphone and tablet apps that offer and encourage in-game purchases in order to access hidden content, levels, accessories or tools, have come under fire from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in the UK, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US in a bid to crack down on the amount of revenue accumulated by children making in-app purchases without their parents’ knowledge or consent.
Following a detailed review of 38 apps available for download to smartphones and tablets last year – the names of all of which remain anonymous – the OFT released a set of ‘proposed principles’ for games development and pricing structures in September. The finalised version of this list, complete with a list of guidelines for parents to consider as well as developers, was published online iin January 2014 for public consumption.
The combined guidelines propose that up-front pricing information must be shown on all games within an app store – whether that be for Apple, Android or Blackberry – regardless of whether initial download and installing is free of charge, that parents be more vigilant in regards to settings on their devices that, when deployed, can prevent children from spending money in-game, or even accessing the option to purchase add-ons. The guidelines also ensure that the game makers details are freely available to users wishing to contact the business with complaints or questions pertaining to purchases, as well as suggesting that parents play the offending games themselves in order to gain an understanding of where and why in-app purchases are encouraged. At the start of this 2014, Apple were forced by the FTC to refund $32.5million (almost £20million) to American parents faced with huge bills as a result of their children making these purchases on their accounts.
One of the most important guidelines put into place in the finalised policy document is the prevention of the use of emotive language to persuade and entice children to download or purchase in-game extras. One game is reported to tell users “Your seagull is hungry! Feed him ice cream or he will be unhappy.” This ice cream, more often than not, requires in-game spend in order to keep their feathered friend content.
After April 1st 2014, the OFT has been granted access to any complaints made against app developers who have not adhered to their latest guidelines, and may use them as evidence in order to prosecute or fine offending businesses. However, the very development and innovation of the gaming industry relies on turnover created through things like in-app purchases, and 80 of the 100 top grossing Android apps available within the Google Play Store feature these micro-transaction based revenue models. Whether the OFT’s guidelines result in a gaming revolution, or just minor changes and tweaks in order to comply is in the hands of the developers.