Home Gaming Are freemium games illegal?

Are freemium games illegal?

2 min read


Recently, there’s been a stark increase in the number of games that ascribe to the “freemium” or free-to-play (but costly to master) model; games that are initially free, but cost real-money to stay competitive in. Publishers love them, because they allow for alternative streams of income. And they could be illegal.

According to the UK’s Office of Fair Trade, they could well be working against the law, by acting as digital bits of extortion, and is now investigating whether or not they’re strictly legal.

The group is now set to determine if freemium games are potentially  "misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair".

"As part of the investigation, the OFT has written to companies offering free web or app-based games, seeking information on in-game marketing to children."

"In particular, the OFT is looking into whether these games include ‘direct exhortations’ to children – a strong encouragement to make a purchase, or to do something that will necessitate making a purchase, or to persuade their parents or other adults to make a purchase for them."

Apparently, free-to-play games that feature big and bold, aggressive buttons urging people to “BUY NOW!” could stand in contravention of the UK’s Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act of 2008.

That doesn’t mean that the OFT is seeking an outright ban on the model, but their actions could have serious consequences on the future viability of free-to-play. The OFT is in the process of "speaking to international regulators," hinting that there could be global repercussions. It could lead to freemium games carrying an 18+ age restrictions, and a great deal more regulation.

"We are concerned that children and their parents could be subject to unfair pressure to purchase when they are playing games they thought were free, but which can actually run up substantial costs.

"The games industry must ensure it is complying with the relevant regulations so that children are protected. We are speaking to the industry and will take enforcement action if necessary."

Recent titles, such as EA’s mobile racing sim Real Racing 3 rely entirely on in-app purchases and microtransactions. As a result of the success of that game, EA is convinced that you all love freemium – and that those of you who’re against the idea are little more than a vocal minority.

Tell us! What do you think of the Freemium model? what games have you played that do freemium right – and which ones do it so, so wrong? Jetpack Joyride, for example, is excellent – and a ton of fun without any real need for purchases, but my kids have been suckered in to spending my money on in-app purchases for the game – so the OFT could be on to something.

Last Updated: April 12, 2013


  1. Jim Lenoir (Banana Jim)

    April 12, 2013 at 09:10

    The only freemium game I’ve bothered with is Planetside 2. If it had launched a little earlier in 2012, I would have instantly called it my game of the year for 2012. For an online free mega-war shooter, it’s damn near impressive. But obviously the criticism of play to win is equally valid there. Paying real money for boosters and equipment, generally leaves me with a tummy ache.


    • Sir Rants-a-Lot Llew

      April 12, 2013 at 09:32

      I’ve played Jetpack joyride till it’s coming out of my ears. Also Planetside2. Both of those do it right.

      You don’t have to pay to get anywhere. That’s the beauty. 🙂


      • Gavin Mannion

        April 12, 2013 at 09:52

        Jetpack Joyride isn’t free though? Well I had to pay for it at least


        • Sir Rants-a-Lot Llew

          April 12, 2013 at 10:01

          It’s free on the Google Play store


          • FoxOneZA - The Chosen One

            April 12, 2013 at 10:05


    • Admiral Chief Erwin

      April 12, 2013 at 09:37

      Try Frontline Tactics! Bloody brilliant. Although its Pay-no-to-grind


  2. Admiral Chief Erwin

    April 12, 2013 at 09:11

    Pay-to-win is a horrible, terrible, filthy thing.

    I say, bring back demos like the days of old!
    Duke3D demo made me WANT to buy Duke3D full game


    • That Tall Twit

      April 12, 2013 at 09:25

      I agree. I loved demos of old.
      The whole Pay-to-win model just erks me to no end.


    • Trevor Davies

      April 12, 2013 at 09:32

      They don’t want to release demos because their research found that people won’t buy crappy games after playing their crappy demos. Yes, the solution to selling more copies of a crappy game isn’t to make the crappy game better, it’s to make sure people can’t see that before they buy it.


    • matthurstrsa

      April 12, 2013 at 13:30

      I used to buy PC format and spend the whole weekend installing and playing demos. Back in my more naive days, I looked for a patch to convert a demo to a full game! :/


  3. Daniel Keevy

    April 12, 2013 at 09:21

    This is a pretty important discussion. Unfortunately it’s only for the UK.


    • Rincethis: Spellalicious

      April 12, 2013 at 09:41

      I would think that any new policies made in the UK would affect the global community. As Geoff said “The OFT is in the process of “speaking to international regulators,” hinting that there could be global repercussions”


      • Daniel Keevy

        April 12, 2013 at 14:03

        Possibly, but the US is notorious for playing by their own rules. And they have an army of lawyers tasked with plastering over this loophole.


  4. Nicholas Hall

    April 12, 2013 at 09:30

    They (the UK) has also looked at classifying these sorts of games, or at least a subset of them, as “gambling” games, which would lead to a host of other issues. I’m going to give it a bit of a think, but the Consumer Protection Act and Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, while not making it illegal would certainly put some restrictions on these sorts of games in SA (whether you could enforce your rights is a whole other issue)


  5. Sir Rants-a-Lot Llew

    April 12, 2013 at 09:30

    Very important decisions here.

    On one hand it can be good if they come down on the market in regards to this and make it unviable for EA to go the freemium route (which we all know will end up in AAA grind-to-progress or pay-to-progress)

    But it could really damage the casual game market. So catch 22. I hope they can find a good balance that can make freemium worth it but only in the casual scene and not in the AAA market


  6. Eric Viljoen

    April 12, 2013 at 09:32

    I hope it dies a horrible death along with paid DLC. Give me expansion packs dammit


  7. Johan du Preez

    April 12, 2013 at 09:36

    This is just a phase the industry is going through, Planetside 2 is already suffering because its pay to win and they are starting to give allot of xp cert bonuses because people realize it and move away.

    It just takes 1 person to have a bad experience with any one of this freemium games then usually they stay away from them after that,


  8. Rincethis: Spellalicious

    April 12, 2013 at 09:43

    Kill pay-to-win with fire!


    • That Tall Twit

      April 12, 2013 at 10:05

      Just to be sure.


  9. Hondsepop

    April 12, 2013 at 09:43

    You can look, but cannot touch unless more mula – sounds like a stripp tease pub. In that case I would like to pay for the whole thing up-front, thank you.


  10. umar bastra

    April 12, 2013 at 10:11

    well Infectinator is amazingly great, the IAP is not infringing and game hindering at all. . I for one hate the freemium model … yes I’m looking at you , you disgustingly ugly beast, Final Fantasy all the bravest. I find the worst type of freemium games are the games you pay for but have infringing IAP’s like ark of ages where you have to pay to warp out of a dungeon, wha ?? … I just want a complete game, If I pay for it, I don’t want to be forced to use IAP … I hate freemium,IAP,DLC,DRM,Online-passes and all of that shizz that’s killing gaming


  11. Greg Quinn

    April 12, 2013 at 10:14

    As a game developer with extensive research into the different monetization models, freemium or free to play is here to stay and is considered the de facto new standard. Some games that have done freemium wrong are some tower defense games on Android, that make it impossible to pass a level without buying coins to upgrade your units, so instead of each level being about skill to pass a level, it now becomes pay to win.

    One game that has done freemium very well is Star Conflict. Even if you don’t buy anything battles are still quite fair with in-game purchases only accelerating your progression or giving you novelty items or special unlocks . Any weapons/ships you do buy with the premium currency are only 5-10% stronger than the free items.


  12. Slade Boender

    April 12, 2013 at 10:21

    I hate it more than veggies


  13. Wyzak

    April 12, 2013 at 11:19

    I enjoy the freemium model to test games, but I’ve only ever bought anything once. And that was galaxy on fire 2’s expansions after having a ball.


  14. David Anthony Stanley

    April 12, 2013 at 17:11

    Makes a good point. I understand the companies need to make the money somehow but aggressive and blatant advertising in-game can be illegal and sleazy, games where it is F2P and said that buying from cash shops does not give unfair advantage to cash players, while at the same time having exp boosters, weapon packs, or other attribute enhancers in the shops are straight out lying. I have seen some games where you will have a blinking button in a corner of the screen or get scrolling banner messages at times to join the “paid” elite player status or purchase a booster pack today! What could be ok would be a “message from our sponsors” commercial at log-in or giving loading screen ad space, then there is legitimate advertising, minimally invasive, and legal. anything hidden, pushed, or “worded slyly” shows what the developers and game creators really think of their creations: meal tickets. I would have no problem watching a 30 second to 1 minute commercial each time I log into a game so the company can make money and pull in sponsors, although it would kinda suck to have Purell dictating game content.


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