Free to play? ‘No,’ says the ASA.
So the EA/ASA thing. For those who haven’t caught wind of this yet, essentially the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency ruled that Electronic Arts can longer advertise the free to play remake of Dungeon Keeper as being, indeed, free to play. Too many microtransactions, with too much gameplay dependent on them. It’s an unexpected judgement, and one that was started by a humble consumer complaint about being misled by the advertising. I recommend taking a quick look at the ASA’s decision itself, here. It’s not a long or confusing read, don’t worry.
This could be a huge deal for the free to play sector of the games industry, as the majority of free to play models are, by nature, anything but free. Considering microtransactions are becoming increasingly widespread in types of game that previously wouldn’t have even considered such a thing, the ASA’s verdict might give developers and, more importantly, publishers pause for thought. As Jim Sterling remarked in one of his Jimquisition videos, the advantage of free to play models for publishers is that there’s no upper limit. If you sell a full retail game for £100, people will balk and largely refuse to buy it. Though it’s not common, it’s perfectly feasible for free to play games to cost that much, but it’s done in the form of small, gradual microtransactions, bypassing the consumer’s feeling of having shelled out a lot of cash and allowing a publisher to be free of the limitations of reasonable product pricing. That’s what the ‘free’ in ‘free to play’ is really about – not freedom to play but freedom to charge without restraint.
EA’s free to play Dungeon Keeper was already controversial.
The ASA’s decision says no. It says ‘we see through this lie and it’s not on’. It’s just a quibble over advertising terminology but the terminology in question is essentially the word ‘free’. The ASA says you can’t claim that your game can be played for free if there are significant impediments to your progress that can only reasonably be alleviated by making payments. The fascinating thing about this decision is how qualitative it is. This isn’t a question of black-or-white, ‘can it technically be played for free’, political-style descriptive manouevring. That’s exactly what EA and other publishers of free to play games have relied on using – the technicality that, yes, a sufficiently determined and patient person could play the whole game for free if they don’t mind grinding for nine days to perform a simple action. It’s gratifying to see the ASA applying a principle that we see so often in law, but which advertisers have thus far mainly been able to dodge around. Have you heard the phrase ‘reasonable doubt’? In a criminal case, guilt must be demonstrated not with total unequivocal certainty but beyond reasonable doubt. There are many other areas of law where this principle of reasonableness pops up, as well (though it’s a long time since I studied law and I can’t name specifics offhand). The ASA is applying that same principle of reasonableness to free to play advertising, and I’m elated by it. The question is no longer ‘is it technical possible to play the whole game for free, gruelling though that might be?’. Instead it’s ‘could a player expect to make a reasonable degree of progress within a reasonable time for free?’ In Dungeon Keeper’s case, the answer is no. Eventually it would become just too time consuming and, as the ASA report deftly termed it, onerous to try and slog on through the game without shelling out real world cash. I applaud the ASA for not only applying the principle of reasonableness but for really paying attention. Clearly whoever at the ASA investigated this put real thought into the practicalities of going through this game free of charge, and put a stop to at least this one manifestation of advertisers being able to give any old misleading information about their product as long as it’s not technically totally untrue.
The ASA, telling it like it is.
The implications are twofold. Firstly, and most conspicuously, this endangers publishers’ ability to market their microtransaction-based games as free to play. That’s not to say that the ASA decision clamps down completely on describing microtransaction games being described as free, but the fact that they’ve demonstrated how a qualitative judgement can be applied potentially makes all the difference in the world. If the ASA decision begins to set a precedent not only in the UK but elsewhere, then we stand to see declining numbers of games that proclaim freeness but then demand money in exchange for basic playability. Games will have to be genuinely playable and completable within a reasonable time frame and with a reasonable amount of grind in order to be described as free to play.
The second implication is slightly more nebulous but no less important. It’s an implication of monitoring the quality of games advertising. Not, as has so often been the case, reigning in adverts that are alleged to be too explicit, too violent or in poor taste, but instead those that lie. Better yet, those that don’t simply lie but mislead without outright lying. It’s not the biggest advancement of the games industry’s legitimacy, but it’s a sign of changing times. As games begin to be held to the same standards of reasonableness and fair treatment of consumers as other industries are, rather than just teeth-gnashing panic about a kiddy toy being all adult and stuff, it’s one more small step towards the games industry taking the position that its finances and user numbers already demand, as a genuine entertainment industry that is not only accepted as legitimate but also held to the same standards as those it seeks to stand beside.