1 April deadline for online games industry

31 Mar 2014

There have been recent reports in the news relating to children incurring large credit card bills for in-game purchases, when playing app based or online games. This has lead to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) publishing a set of principles for this growing sector.

The principles are a reminder to the games creators of their obligations under consumer protection law and they have until this Tuesday (01 April 2014) to comply.

The OFT identified five areas that they felt were of concern:

  1. Lack of transparency in relation to costs and other information influencing a consumer’s decision to play, download or sign up to the game;
  2. Misleading commercial practices;
  3. Exploitation of the child’s inexperience, vulnerability and credulity;
  4. Direct exhortations to children to buy advertised products, or persuade an adult to buy for them;
  5. Payments being taken from an account holder without knowledge, express authorization or informed consent.

The OFT has responded with eight Principles for games developers to abide by:

1. Information relating to the costs involved with the game need to be clear, accurate and displayed prominently up-front prior to the consumer beginning play, download or sign up to the game or agreeing to make a purchase. The costs should be broken down to clearly specify:

a. The initial costs of signing up/downloading/purchasing the game;

b. any subsequent costs that are unavoidable should the consumer wish to continue playing the game; and

c. any optional extra costs.

If the costs cannot be identified up front then an indication needs to be given as to their nature and price calculation manner.

2. All material information about the games should be provided clearly, accurately and prominently up-front, prior to the consumer beginning play, download or sign up to the game or prior to the agreement to make a purchase. This “material information” needs to include the game’s main characteristics and any other information necessary for the average consumer to take an informed decision to play, download or sign up to the game or make a purchase.

3. The game must provide, clearly, the details of the game business prior to the consumer beginning play, download or sign up to the game or agreeing to make a purchase. It needs to be clear to the consumer who they are to contact in the instance that there are any queries, complaints or when they wish to seek redress. The business should ensure that they are capable of being contacted rapidly and communicated with in a direct and effective manner. Additionally, these contact details need to be permanently accessible where the consumer has been placed under an obligation to pay.

4. The commercial intent of any in-game promotion of paid-for content (or promotion of any other product or service) should be clearly identifiable and distinguishable from the gameplay. 

5. The game should not mislead the consumer 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. The game’s language, presentation, design and structure should take account of the likely age of the children playing the game.

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 or to place undue influence or pressure on a child to make a purchase. The game’s language, presentation, design and structure should take account of the likely age of the children playing the game.

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

8. Payments should not be taken from the account holder unless fully authorised. Any payment made in a game is not authorized unless express, informed consent for that payment has been given by the payment account holder.

Compliance with the principles will no doubt mean game developer will need to amend their terms and conditions and be much more transparent. The deadline for compliance is 1st April 2014, the same date that that the Competition and Markets Authority will take on its new consumer enforcement role.