Are freemium games illegal?

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Freemium

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

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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