Now European Commission investigates free-to-play games

"Games advertised as free should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved."

After the UK's Office of Fair Trading investigated in-app purchases and free-to-play games, it's time for the European Commission to get involved.

The European Commission is meeting with consumer protection authorities in the UK, France, Italy and other countries as well as Apple and Google to investigate four of what it considers to be the most important issues raised by consumers about free-to-play games.

These are:

  • Games advertised as "free" should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved;
  • Games should not contain direct exhortations to children to buy items in a game or to persuade an adult to buy items for them;
  • Consumers should be adequately informed about the payment arrangements and purchases should not be debited through default settings without consumers' explicit consent;
  • Traders should provide an email address so that consumers can contact them in case of queries or complaints.

In-app purchases in free-to-play games have come under fire in recent years after a number of high-profile cases of families running up huge bills. In the US, Apple refunded $32.5m (£19.9m) relating to 37,000 claims as part of a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The decision sparked a change so that in-app purchases require a password to be typed in every time a purchase is made.

Last month, following its own investigation, the OFT drew up a new set of guidelines for free-to-play games with in-app purchases to follow. It said in-game payments should not be authorised without the express permission of the account holder, and if there were any hidden costs associated with the game, they must be stated upfront. In-game advertising must be declared, as must any use of personal data.

The European Commission wants to "reach a common understanding" with the industry to address the concerns raised by consumers.

Video games, entertainment and tech lawyer Jas Purewal wrote on GamerLaw.co.uk that one likely outcome of the investigation is the publication of a statement of best practices. But, in Purewal's view, it could go further.

"Another possibility - and it is just a possibility - is that the EU authorities  may decide to carry out further investigations or even enforcement action against anyone involved for alleged breaches of existing consumer protection law which the authorities identify," Purewal said.

"There's no reason at this point to believe that they have identified such breaches, but on the other hand clearly there have been consumer complaints motivating this action."

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