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European Commission want free-to-play to describe only games "free in their entirety"

Turbine kicked off an MMO revolution with their generous implementation of free-to-play in Lord of the Rings Online.

Turbine kicked off an MMO revolution with their generous implementation of free-to-play in LOTRO.

The European Commission - the tremendously important body which proposes and enforces EU law - are meeting with tech companies and national consumer protection authorities today and tomorrow to talk free-to-play. Specifically, they’re worried about the rising cacophony of complaints from parents who’ve incurred unexpected and quite dramatic bills thanks to in-app purchases in purportedly free games.

The Commission’s suggestion? If you call your game free-to-play, you really have to mean it. No IAPs, no nothing.

“Consumers and in particular children need better protection against unexpected costs from in-app purchases,” said consumer policy commissioner Neven Mimica in a statement. 

“National enforcement authorities and the European Commission are discussing with industry how to address this issue which causes financial harm to consumers,” he went on. “Coming up with concrete solutions as soon as possible will be a win-win for all.”

Decisive movement like this is clearly prompted, in the most part, by iPhone purchase mishaps - but any decisions made could send ripples through the PC free-to-play market too. Reassuringly, the EC don’t just intend to slap down developers who’re acting inethically - but also preserve the credibility of a “very promising market”.

Ahead of the talks, the Consumer Protection Cooperation and EC member states have released a list of ‘common positions’ on free-to-play. At the top of that list is misleading advertising.

“The use of the word ‘free’ (or similar unequivocal terms) as such, and without any appropriate qualifications, should only be allowed for games which are indeed free in their entirety, or in other words which contain no possibility of making in-app purchases, not even on an optional basis,” they wrote.

Other proposed safeguards include explicit consent for in-app purchases, clear contact information for customers to get in touch with developers, and an end to calls to “Buy now!” or “Upgrade now!” in games likely to be played by children.

The meetings are being held to establish a “common understanding” between national authorities and developers rather than to propose legislation - but the EC have said they’re prepared to follow through with the relevant consumer rights bodies to enforce standards in the future.

The consequences for PC developers aren’t clear: perhaps some will find it significantly tougher to make money from free-to-play down the line. Or perhaps they’ll simply need to attach a new name to the payment model (free-to-play-for-a-bit?).

Have any of you lot had a genuinely rough experience with a free-to-play PC game? I think the model's done wonders for making MMOs accessible in chunks, personally - though obviously not without some ongoing teething issues.

Thanks, Games Industry.

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Gwathdring's picture
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Go European Commission! I wish our regulators bothered to talk about video-games and technology with any sort of intelligence; agree with their conclusions or not, that this stuff is even part of the regulation discussion for the EU looks really fantastic from over here in the states.

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Dog Pants's picture
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I'm not a fan of state hand-holding, and I don't think free-to-play models are a big problem on the PC, but on the mobile scene it's becoming hugely exploitative. I absolutely agree that any transaction should be explicitly agreed to by the buyer, and I don't think some kind of transparency on pricing could ever be a bad thing, but declaring you can't call a game free-to-play because of microtransactions is pissing into the wind - it'll still say 'free' on the app store and they'll just call it a free client or something else instead.

I've never had a bad experience with free-to-play because I approach them with cynicism and very rarely buy anything. The worst culprits are awful games anyway, barely even games at all. The best ones give you the option of buying further content for a game you enjoy or limit their microtransactions to cosmetics and variety, and I think these can be a good way of managing how much you want to spend on a game.

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Belimawr's picture
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free to play should be free, they should be forced to call them self freemium if they are using microtransactions.

as microtransactions are the most dangerous thing to ever come to gaming, they are designed so unsuspecting people think "it's only a couple of quid" so it extracts the money slowly over a while so the person don't look at it and think "how much do they want for this?"

the freemium model is designed entirely to dupe people out of more money than the game would actually sell for and that to me is something that needs stopping.

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Sam_Fisher's picture
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As long as you stick with the big f2p titles your fine. LOTRO, EQ2, Neverwinter, TF2, DOTA2, etc.

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Belimawr's picture
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neverwinter is a bad example, they give you a purple loot item that you need to buy an item from the shop to open, if thats not trying to force people to pay I don't know what is.

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icheyne's picture
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The only reason this isn't a serious problem on PC is because there are barely any kids games on PC.

It's a nightmare with my kids and our Android tablet. They constantly ask for IAPs. They have got the message now, but it was a struggle I would rather not have had. The frustrating thing is that almost all the best games are freemium.

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