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UK regulatory body rules that free-to-play  Dungeon Keeper  isn't really free
UK regulatory body rules that free-to-play Dungeon Keeper isn't really free
July 2, 2014 | By Mike Rose

July 2, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Smartphone/Tablet, Business/Marketing

Earlier this year, Electronic Arts found its mobile remake of Dungeon Keeper heavily criticized for its limiting microtransactions. Now the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK has banned a Dungeon Keeper advert for misleading consumers.

When the game first launched earlier this year, EA came under fire for microtransactions that severely limit the game unless you pay cash over and over again for premium currency.

The ASA received a complaint from a consumer regarding a specific email ad for the game, which stated that players could download and play the game for free. The consumer argued that the ad was misleading, as the game was not in fact free, due to the overwhelming number of in-app purchases.

EA argued that it had not misled anyone, and that the game is indeed free to download and play, while the in-app purchases are not required to play the game.

However, after consideration the ASA has agreed with the consumer, and has upheld the complaint.

"The ASA noted that the game software was available to download for free, and that it was possible to play the game without spending money," reads the assessment. "However, we understood that several mechanisms within the game took a significant amount of time to be completed, and that these would only be speeded up by using the premium Gem currency."

The ASA adds that, due to the significant time constraints in the game, players are likely to reach a position where they have to pay money to see any meaningful progression, thus meaning the game is not exactly free.

And the organization notes that the original email ad does not state anywhere that there are in-app purchases in the game. Taking all of this into account, the ASA has told EA that it cannot use the ad again.

"We told Electronic Arts Ltd to ensure that future ads made clear the limitations of free gameplay and role of in-app purchasing with regard to speeding up gameplay," it adds.

It's well worth reading the full assessment, as the ruling may well affect how free-to-play studios word their adverts in the future.

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Aaron Oostdijk
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"Free to Play Slowly"?

100+ hours of content!*

* without the use of in-app purchases.

Innes McNiel
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Much more than just 100+. Some of the cooldowns are more than 24 hours

sean lindskog
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Heh, nice Aaron.
I'll throw in an adjective.
"Free to Play Excruciatingly Slowly."

Daniel Jovanov
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More like free to wait!

Michael Joseph
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letter vs spirit

Ben Sly
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Claiming that the game can be gotten for free is accurate (which is technically all that the ad claimed), and it's not counterfactual to claim that it can be played for free either. But the ASA went beyond the inarguable facts and made a subjective judgement based on the gameplay experience, which is more than I would have expected.

Can't say that I'm unhappy about their choice of targets, but it does leave me wondering if this is going to be a precedent for stricter advertising standards. I personally wouldn't mind regulation mandating that the existence of in-app purchases be mentioned in advertising, especially in games claiming to be free - but the prospect of increased regulation does leave me a little uncomfortable.

Matt Robb
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" does leave me wondering if this is going to be a precedent for stricter advertising standards..."

One can only hope. There is a huge difference between games that are playable without in-app purchases and those that are crippled unless you pay. Sure, it can be subjective, but very few games straddle the line. Most are firmly in one camp or the other.

Ben Sly
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I do agree that most free-to-play games are firmly in one camp or the other. That may change with time if consumers get more aware, if advertising standards change, and if the craze over free-to-play dies down, or it may not.

I agree with this particular ruling, but the reason for my ambivalence over increased regulation is that regulatory bodies also often come with a bunch of other issues. For instance, indie developers in particular could be hurt by requiring legal approval of marketing or games prior to sale in the given country, especially if said approval takes a long time to secure. In any case, it's enough for me to prefer a cautious optimism over the sentiment "one can only hope".

Ian Griffiths
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[talking about gems] "the rate at which they could be accrued was slow in comparison to the amount needed to play the game at a reasonable rate"

Are we creating laws around game progression balancing? This is absurd.

The idea that legislation is defining what a game is, what gameplay is scares me. In Dungeon Keeper the core-loop is about raiding, which can be done relatively often. The meta-game of building out your dungeon is a part of gameplay, but not all of it. This ruling starts getting into the notion of defining what gameplay is and going down that road will only limit creativity.

Michael Joseph
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No. They're defining what "free" is for the purposes of advertising.

If I offered you Go Kart racing that was free to drive and then after you started driving one you realized there was a credit card reader inside that required you to pay $5.00 every minute in order to unlock driving over 5 miles per hour... you might agree the "free to drive" advertising slogan was far from being the whole truth.

Ian Griffiths
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I'm not unsympathetic to the assessment by the ASA - they want to ensure that the consumer is informed. EA haven't done themselves any favours with this advert but I think there is a real under-tone of anti-EA and anti-f2p sentiment here and I think that impacts on objectivity in a lot of the criticism I read. The smart thing for EA would have been to show, assuming it's true, that more than 50% of their top progression players hadn't spent money on progression skips - that would help show that a reasonable person doesn't have to spend (I know this is a big assumption on my end).

I would argue that the game is still free even if it has somewhat excessive appointment mechanics, particularly when the minute to minute gameplay is largely unaffected by that.

On to your analogy, I think it's inaccurate - as I mentioned we are talking about the core game as separate from the meta. In this instance it would be more that you can drive all you want on the first course but need to finish a significant number of laps before moving onto the next one - alternatively, you can pay to get there now.

My concern remains that a government body is making objective statements about subjective elements in an art form.

Yama Habib
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At no point was there any mention of an attempt or semblance thereof to define what a game is.

However, the ASA felt the need to assign a definition to what "play" is, and came to the conclusion that being unable to perform any actions in a game pending a paywall or "significant" wait time did not fall under that definition:

"The ASA noted that the game software was available to download for free, and that it was possible to play the game without spending money," reads the assessment. "However, we understood that several mechanisms within the game took a significant amount of time to be completed, and that these would only be [sped] up by using the premium Gem currency."

I fail to see how this limits creativity in any way, shape or form--especially considering that the only implication of this is the potential for some regulated credence in terms of games advertising which, pardon my subjectivity, is something the games industry currently *severely* lacks.

Ian Griffiths
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Legal rulings always have I intended consequences.
While I agree that the advertising was bad I disagree with the notion that the game is not free based on this subjective assessment. From what point of view does the ASA believe it has the ability to define he importance of meta game progression within a game?

Even as a game creator I think it is foolish to think the you define all elements and interpretations of what play is within your game. We've all played games where we've said, don't use character x or weapon y. Some peoe even go as far as to create play and games within games in a way the creator never intended for. A great example, I urge any designer to watch this, is Achievement Hunters's GTA V heist Let's Play videos -

Players define what play is for them. Sure, most will follow the intended path but in an increasingly service based world
We will see growth in a more collaborative relationship with your players. I know this is a bit off topic but my point remains, the state should not define what games are, the players should. But it would definitely help if we didn't have to get them involved in the first place through some poorly phrased advertising.

Mike Jenkins
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It's not going to limit creativity, it's going to require a boost in creativity from marketing departments to lure in new victims without disingenuously using the word free.

Ian Griffiths
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My concern is that we will see developers afraid of going free. What if the next League of Legends or DOTA 2 never appears because the creators were afraid to offer the entry price at 0? They wouldn't get the big audience needed to hit critical mass.

This is where it's potentially bad for creativity, not in that it hampers the next generic mobile title but that it could genuinely stop entirely new and innovative genres like MOBAs before they even get started.

Alexander Symington
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If the ASA's problem with Dungeon Keeper is that the premium gem system hampers 'free' access to the game, it doesn't seem likely that this ruling would have a negative impact on games like DotA2 where the game mechanics are disentangled from monetisation. Rather, it seems like it might create a competitive advantage for these games, as they would presumably be able to market themselves as 'free' while P2W games could not.

Also, while I see your general point, the invention of MOBAs specifically was due to the RTS mod scene, and wasn't contingent on there being a F2P market.

Robert Green
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Ian - why would developers be afraid of going free? On mobile, the enormous majority already are, and this ruling places no limitations on using that model at all, only on the unqualified use of the word 'free' in advertising. And since everyone presumably has to play by those same rules, I'm not really sure how this would affect someone else's choice of business model.

Curtiss Murphy
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Dungeon Keeper exemplifies BAD monetization. And, kudos to the UK board for adding a little bit of bite to their position.

Katy Smith
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I'm really torn on this. On the one hand, I agree that Dungeon Keeper's monetization is...not good. I tried to play it for three weeks doing a "no buy" strategy and the game was basically unplayable. Advertising the game as "free" walks the line of disingenuous for me.

However, it seems like the ASA is making a judgment call on what constitutes gameplay value. I worry that it will lead to more consumer complaints against games that are doing F2P in a good way. How is the ASA going to place a value on gameplay? If EA were to rebalance Dungeon Keeper to bring the required number of crystals and time way down, would they still not be allowed to advertise as "free-to-play" (after adding IAP available in the ad, of course)?

I agree with the the ASA that DK's monetization strategy is poor, but I really hope they aren't setting a precedent where game balance is under scrutiny from external agencies.

Michael Joseph
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They aren't entitled to use the sexy word "free" in their advertising when the product they are selling is not actually 100% free.

They can simply call it " à la carte pricing" or something. If they don't use the "free" doublespeak then the problem is solved.

Where people are being split on this issue is whether the "to play" portion of "free to play" is a clear enough qualifier to the word "free." Everyone already agrees that these games are _not_ 100% free. So does "free to play" make it clear that the games are not 100% free? On it's face I'd say absolutely not. The real meaning of the phrase only becomes clear after experience. Combine this with casino tactics in game, cartoonish visuals that appeal to children, and you have predatory games.

Kyle Redd
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"If EA were to rebalance Dungeon Keeper to bring the required number of crystals and time way down, would they still not be allowed to advertise as "free-to-play" (after adding IAP available in the ad, of course)?"

EA doesn't have to change the game one bit. The Advertising Standards Authority doesn't care about games. They care about misleading ads.

All EA would have to do to make this ad completely innocuous is to say something like "Try the game for free today" instead of the current "Get it for FREE." That is such an extraordinarily minor adjustment that I can't believe anyone is raising any objection at all.

Ian Griffiths
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I'd love to know, according to the ASA, the appointment time at which a game no longer becomes free - is it an hour? A day? A week?

For other titles, at what point does grind become 'not free' if it doesn't involve mandatory periods of 'not playing'?

The most interesting will be games like DOTA 2 where the game is basically free, you can only buy cosmetic (also custom audio) items. What is the tangible difference between progression and the desire to collect all content? Both have considerable value to the player, so does that mean cosmetic only purchases also have to be had for free?

Katy Smith
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@ Kyle

From the ASA Report (wall o' text incoming!):

"The ASA noted that the game software was available to download for free, and that it was possible to play the game without spending money. However, we understood that several mechanisms within the game took a significant amount of time to be completed, and that these would only be speeded up by using the premium Gem currency. We noted that, although some of these actions could be done simultaneously, there was a limit to how many actions could happen at the same time and that the length of the countdown timers increased according to how far the player had progressed in aspects of the game. We therefore regarded it as extremely likely that players would reach a position where they would be unable to take any further meaningful or progressive action in the game until a timer had finished or been skipped, and that these periods would become longer and more significant, and the cost of skipping increasingly higher, as the player progressed. Although some of the features in the ad did not require waiting for a timer, we noted that these were either incidental or brief (such as ‘slapping’ the imp characters) or were dependent on other actions that were gated by a timer.

We acknowledged that the game could be played without bypassing the countdown timers. However, from the information available in the ad, players would expect the gameplay progression and their ability to advance to be unhindered by unexpected and excessively onerous delays, and we therefore considered that the length and frequency of these countdown events was beyond that which would be reasonably expected by players. We consequently considered it likely that many players would regard the gameplay experience as unexpectedly curtailed and as a result would need to spend Gems in order to achieve the form of gameplay anticipated.

We acknowledged that the Gem currency, through which the timers could be skipped, could be obtained for free through normal gameplay and that the game could therefore be played without spending currency to bypass the countdown. However, we understood that the rate at which they could be accrued was slow in comparison to the amount needed to play the game at a reasonable rate, where the delays did not significantly impact on the ability to continue playing. Given this, we considered that players were likely to find themselves in a situation where they wished to bypass timers to achieve the expected gameplay as above, but were unable to do so without making a monetary purchase of the Gem currency. Although the game activities were available without cost to the player, we considered that for players to achieve the gameplay experience that was reasonable for them to anticipate, it was likely that they would need to spend money on the premium currency."

This decision was subjective to the amount of time the player could spend playing the game. That is what worries me. If the ASA is going to start regulating timers and "value", it's going to turn into a nightmare for both sides. the ASA isn't going to have the time or the resources to play every game to see where the value lies. What happens to a game like League of Legends when someone complains that they don't get all heroes for free? The game is completely free to play, but there is locked content. Does locking content behind a paywall mean it is no longer free? Maybe it's no big deal and can be fixed by changing the wording in the ad, but the details in the ruling are concerning if you are making a F2P game.

@ Michael

"Everyone already agrees that these games are _not_ 100% free"

I guess I disagree with you there. I'm not sure how much of an understanding we can come to on the issue, though. It seems that you are arguing that using the word Free at all is misleading. I don't think it is. There are a lot of things that are advertised as "Free" that involve spending money. When I bought my couch, I got free delivery, but I still had to buy the couch. When I got my Panera Rewards, I got a free latte, but I had to buy a bagel. I got a free toy in my daughter's Happy Meal, and I got free address labels for donating to the Red Cross. In F2P games, I get gameplay for free, but I have to spend money to get "more" game.

Colin Sullivan
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I think people are worried about this more than necessary.

The ASA suggest that stating there are in-app purchases is enough to make it compliant. In addition, I sort of think if the add said "free-to-play" instead of "FREE!" then it might have been a harder decision to make since that phrase comes with added baggage.

Also this is all based on the expectations of average consumers. I remember reading reviews of this game by game journalists that were shocked by how monetized the game was. If an experienced industry insider is shocked then imagine how the average consumer feels.

Finally, remember that this doesn't affect game design at all, this only affects marketing. All of the same mechanics can be put in, the advertisements just have to make it clear that there are in-app purchases. I don't think that is a huge burden.

Kyle Redd
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"If the ASA is going to start regulating timers and "value", it's going to turn into a nightmare for both sides."

The ASA isn't going to start regulating timers and value. The ASA doesn't care about games at all; the only reason they are involved in this is because a complaint was made about a misleading advertisement.

"What happens to a game like League of Legends when someone complains that they don't get all heroes for free?"

If someone submitted a complaint about how they have to pay for heroes in League of Legends, the ASA would just toss it in the trash, because the ASA only cares about ads, not games.

"Maybe it's no big deal and can be fixed by changing the wording in the ad, but the details in the ruling are concerning if you are making a F2P game."

Why would it be concerning to F2P game makers? Because those game makers are planning on creating an ad that attempts to mislead the customer into thinking the game they have made is completely free, when in fact it contains a litany of microtransactions and wait times designed to hinder the players' efforts at every conceivable opportunity? I feel strangely unmoved by their plight.

Jeff Leigh
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Imagine I advertised a free Taxi service on TV. Imagine people get into my taxi, and 2 miles down the road I pull over and tell them that they must wait for 24 hours before I continue. I also offer them the option of paying me $100 to go to their destination immediately.

Am I running a free taxi service? If I advertise my taxi as "Free to Ride", is being honest to customers? Technically it is possible for them to ride for free, so that makes it "free to ride", right?

I have to agree with the ASA myself. Calling something "Free" with the deliberate intent to slow or stop unless a payment is made is not being honest.

Jennis Kartens
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Quite honestly? This is rather common in advertisement and not so really new.

You get free stuff all the day, when doing this or that which in the end will cost you money, time, a lawyer or all of it. The term "free" has been killed by capitalism a long time ago.

While I like that ruling, I think it is a bit of a "farce"

We all know the little *

Jeff Leigh
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Heh... Now that you mention it, when I ask myself what does the word "free" mean, my immediate jaded thoughts are "'free' means something is either a trick or it is crap."

"Hello Sir, would you like to win a free iPod Min..."
"Ahhh!!! Get away from me!!"

Robert Green
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I think what this highlights is that we need an agreed-upon term for F2P, preferably one which isn't based around the word 'free'. While both iTunes and the Play store note when apps offer in-app-purchases, they're still in the same category as apps which are actually free, and if you've ever played a game with interstitial ads for other games, you might have noticed that almost without exception they're not called 'free to play' or 'free to try', they're just called FREE.

Adam Bishop
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It's worth noting that the text of the ad as described on the ASA web site does not say "Free-To-Play", it simply says "Free". Even if "Free-To-Play" were not false advertising, the term "Free" certainly is.

James Martin
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The ASA is overstepping its bounds, and here's why. The ASA is justified in overriding freedom of speech to require truth in advertising for only one reason: to prevent fraud. What is fraud? When I sell something to you, we agree that some amount of your money belongs to me if and only if I give you some agreed upon product or service. But if, after the purchase, that product or service turns out to be not what we agreed on, then the agreement is invalid and the money isn't mine—yet I am walking around with it, because you've already paid me. This is theft: a specific form of theft known as fraud. As long as the customer receives what he or she agreed to pay for, then there is no fraud. If the customer did not pay anything, then there is no theft, and thus no fraud.

Consider the case where the purchasable in-game gems could not be used for the advertised purpose. Then it would be fraud, and it would be the ASA's responsibility to censor those ads.

If anyone thinks that the ASA should be allowed to censor ads for free software, please justify why freedom of speech does not apply to those ads.

Hakim Boukellif
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According to the Fraud Act 2006:
"Fraud by false representation
(1)A person is in breach of this section if he—
  (a)dishonestly makes a false representation, and
  (b)intends, by making the representation—
    (i)to make a gain for himself or another, or
    (ii)to cause loss to another or to expose another to a risk of loss.

(2)A representation is false if—
  (a)it is untrue or misleading, and
  (b)the person making it knows that it is, or might be, untrue or misleading."

Incidentally, "gain" and "loss" "extend only to gain or loss in money or other property"

The ASA is asserting that representing the game as "free" is misleading and that that false representation was made with the intent of gaining money. Both are true, so I'm not really seeing the problem here.

Jeff Alexander
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By this argument, advertising-policing agencies should have no power to act against ANY company that lies about its products if those products cost nothing to acquire. Definitions notwithstanding, I think that's a dangerous technicality to leave open for exploit.

Ian Griffiths
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I also wonder where this puts paid games. If I buy a game based on an advert, nothing explicitly tells me that I need to be skilled enough to get through it. If I get stuck can I get a refund for the bits I didn't play? ;)