17
May
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You can't talk about mobile gaming without mentioning the elephant in the room: the free-to-play model. The bane of many a purist gamer and unwitting parent, an over-reliance on free downloads and hooks for in-app purchases has made mobile gaming a minefield of games based on upsell and addiction. Italy's had enough, and its antitrust authority is investigating app store owners Google, Apple, and Amazon, and game publisher Gameloft, for unfair commercial practices.

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According to a Reuters report, the authority is trying to determine whether advertising games as free when they require purchases to continue constitutes an unfair practice. The investigation is expected to take eight months, with a maximum fine of 5 million Euro (approximately $7 million) for each company found in violation. The European Commission launched a very similar investigation in February looking into the possibility of false advertising for "free" games.

I'm no fan of the over-reliance on in-app purchases currently flooding the gaming market, but it seems like there's a lot of room for confusion here. Italy's primary beef seems to be with games that are free downloads, but require an in-app purchase to progress past a certain point. In fact, very few of the current crop of games fit into this description, at least technically: most of the heavily-promoted "free" games make it difficult (but not impossible) to win or progress past a certain point without spending money. Alternately, games that use an "energy" system are free, but require players to wait before continuing or pay to advance right away.

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There are indeed games that are free to play, then require a purchase to advance, but these games tend to be less manipulative than the ones mentioned above. Most of them are using the in-app purchase system as a way to create a de facto demo - play our game for a little while, and if you like it, buy the full version! This is just a modification of the demo and shareware model that's been in place for decades, and as long as it's clearly spelled out in the app description, I don't really see any harm in using in-app purchases in this manner.

The bigger issue is games that are designed, at their core, to become a money pit: you pay real money for fake money or similar items that are consumable by the in-game system, allowing easier play for a little while before you have to pay again. This "freemium" model can be extremely lucrative, at least for a few publishers, but it's also manipulative, and it makes it almost impossible to enjoy a "free" game without spending real money. In contrast with the demo-style games mentioned above, these games are almost always heavily promoted with the "FREE TO PLAY" marketing system, despite the core of the game relying on in-app purchases. Gameloft is guilty of this on occasion, but there are far more indulgent developers and publishers, like Glu, Gamevil, EA and (just lately) Rovio.

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With the possible exception of Gameloft, even the maximum fine levied by Italy would be a slap on the wrist to these companies. It will be interesting to see if the Italian regulators can make the distinction between games that use in-app purchases as a more convenient demo system, and those that try to use in-app purchases as a limitless source of manipulative revenue. Without the distinction, here and in other places where the free to play model is being scrutinized, I fear we won't see any real shift in the attitudes of game publishers.

Source: Reuters

Michael Crider
Michael is a native Texan and a former graphic designer. He's been covering technology in general and Android in particular since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order.

  • http://www.deathbycone.com Jared Kotoff

    Energy based games are my favorite /s
    Once i hit the energy limit i usually go to play another game. A good portion of the time i forget the game all together since I never really get all the way into the game, hitting the energy limit in my first play though. It goes against everything i learned about web design. You want to keep people on your website not send them to competitors.

    • obviously

      Puzzle and dragons has made billions of dollars. What you learned was wrong.

      • http://www.deathbycone.com Jared Kotoff

        Websites make money by having customers buy from competitors? Is that how Amazon does it? I guess you're right.

      • AGD ZT

        Puzzles and dragons strikes a careful balance. At least initially, you'll find yourself very rarely running out of energy, yet the knowledge that energy is a finite resource still pressures you to play any time you have spare energy. It's a pretty effective way to build addiction.

      • primalxconvoy

        Games of that ilk are "casual" and the designer is happy for people to play it on commutes on a crowded train, say.

        Shamesoft and cronies have released games that appear as premium games (racing, fps, etc), which seem aimed at aspiring or migrating console and PC gamers. It's THOSE games, that lose mind-share when they force players away from their games. That's why I've never gone back to that angry birds reaching gave our whatever it's called.

        • tookieboy

          what the hell is shamesoft?

  • XellossMetallium

    Honestly I'm not confident enough to explain my thought in english... the matter is too technical, but here my two cents in italian:

    La giustizia e più in generale la legge italiana sono piuttosto puntigliose sul significato letterale espresso..il problema, a prescindere dal contenuto effettivo dell'app (che sia una demo "camuffata" o un freemium), è la dicitura "GRATIS". Purtroppo le pratiche commerciali italiane da questo punto di vista sono sempre state piuttosto scorrette.
    In questo senso l'azione è comprensibile, a prescindere dalle intenzioni più o meno malevole degli sviluppatori: "Offre in-app purchases" non limita adeguatamente il concetto di "gratis", che è l'etichetta grande ed evidente che l'utente vede nei risultati di ricerca.
    Se gli inquirenti che si occupano del caso non sono particolarmente stupidi (a volte è così), l'indagine prenderà con il tempo una direzione molto più pratica, ed il modello "freemium" verrà di fatto assimilato al profilo di pratica commerciale scorretta.
    Ci metteranno più di otto mesi, questo è certo.

    • matteventu

      Quoto.

    • http://ridukkokun.wordpress.com/ Dukkokun

      Justice and (generally speaking) law in Italy are pretty strict on the literal significance of words. It doesn't matter what the actual content is (whether it's a demo or a freemium title), the issue is the "FREE/GRATIS" word. Italian commercial practice have always been pretty malicious in this regard, sadly.
      Considering this, the move is understandable, regardless of developer's maliciousness: "offers in-app purchases" doesn't balance enough the "gratis" concept, which is the big and clear label the user sees in search results.
      If the policemen who will deal with this aren't particularly stupid (sometimes they are, though), the investigation will take a more practical direction with time, and the "freemium" model will be linked to the "unfair commercial practice" model.
      It will take longer than eight months, rest assured.

      Not perfect English, but you can understand more or less what @XellossMetallium:disqus said :)

      • XellossMetallium

        Thanks, it looks accurate :D

        • sirtao

          Most likely scenario, IMHO, is "Cannot advertise as free-to-play if there is anything to pay"

      • AGD ZT

        I wonder whether Google is at all shielded from this by their decision to add a "Offers in-app purchases" indicator to the play store. It's not perfect (apps can switch statuses and then auto-update), but it may count for something.

        • Brittany Lawrence

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        • XellossMetallium

          Here in Italy I think not. When you search for an app you can click on "Free" and you are automatically prompted to install the app on the phone, no "Offers in-app purchases" is showed.
          By the way I think that the real plague are the "gems", "diamonds" and all other forms of "freemium".. in-app purchase should be used wisely to add contents in chunks (see Plague Inc.) or to unlock full features without bothersome cloned app (pro versions).. no more than that.

    • andy_o

      In Spanish also, "free" can mean "gratis" (as in free of payment), or "libre" (as in free thought, free speech). "Gratis" has a very specific meaning as you say.

  • John Smith

    You can add "Dead Trigger 2" to that list of games where it's balanced in such a way as to become impossible to play without spending real-life $

  • Ross Fisher

    Step 1: Root your device Step 2: Use a memory hex editor to skip wasting money on "in-app purchases" Step 3: ??? Step 4: PROFIT!

  • primalxconvoy

    If shamesoft are under investigation and get fined, then this is great news!

    Their systems effectively cripple any type of progression through their game without purchasing expensive iap's. You can't just grind away and/or get better to win. Shamesoft have seen fit to add expensive items or suchlike (ie: certain cars in Asphalt 8) that require you to buy them for one use (or thereabouts), therefore depleting your carefully saved in game money and requiring even more grinding to get minimal returns.

    Their games effectively take the fun out of gaming by distracting some players to waste time and energy looking for "loopholes" in the game structure (to find ways to utilise items more effectively), grinding the player down as they grind through the game or removing any sense of accomplishment by having to buy progression via iap's (and most of their iap's are not permanent ones designed to give a premium or fully bought feel and/or are too expensive).

    I honestly hope Italy throws the book at them.

    • http://www.youtube.com/crisr82 Kristian Ivanov

      Yes, because the IAP in $60 console games are so much better, or te DLCs in PC games, or paying for monthly multiplayer also on consoles

      I won't bother arguing with you, by your picture I see it'll be pointless...I'll just ask you - ...why are you forgiving towards Glu, Gamevil and EA? Doesn't that pretty much make you a hypocrite?

      • Cheeseball

        The examples you cited are not consumable (e.g. once you use them, you need to purchase more) purchases. The IAP in the console games are permanent DLCs that will stay in your online account as long as the service is running. Basically, permanent expansion packs that you digitally keep (much like classic Quake's expansion packs back in 1997, or the Atomic edition of Duke Nukem 3D).

        • http://www.youtube.com/crisr82 Kristian Ivanov

          Oh really?
          So you're saying that in the new Forza ($60 game) game paying $20 (if I recall correctly) to unlock some car is worse than paying $3 in Asphalt 8 for a whole tier of cars? Or maybe the weapon DLCs (like the ones for XCOM Declassified, for example) in some games are that much worse than weapon IAPs in Modern Combat?

          • Cheeseball

            Nope, Forza 5 was (and may still be) Turn 10's attempt on gouging the customer out of their money. The DLCs offered there may be permanently attached to the account, however they are grossly overpriced (for the amount of tokens they require). I didn't play The Bereau due to the stupid FPS system they made.

            A couple of good examples are Borderlands 2 (with the 12+ DLCs) which added 50+ hours more of single player content, which can potentially be more than 100+ hours in multiplayer. Or (this is an EA game, which is awkward) Battlefield 3 and 4 which had or will have the expansion packs out which adds more content.

          • http://www.youtube.com/crisr82 Kristian Ivanov

            Gran Turismo 6 also features IAP, I think Tomb Raider also had weapon DLCs (not sure), World of Warcraft having cash-exclusive pets AND monthly payments...I can get you a big list if needed to prove my point that what Gameloft does is not by any means the worst (and again, Glu and Gamevil do it much more anyway).
            Also, we're not talking about story addons here, we're talking about paying for skipping progress, or IAP-exclusive items

          • Cheeseball

            I'm pretty sure Gameloft, Glu and Gamevil are all in the same boat with equivalent abuse of microtransactions. Gameloft does have consumable credit IAPs in their Modern Combat and NOVA series, which doesn't make any sense in a FPS.

    • godutch

      If a game sucks without iaps and you don't want to spend money on iaps simply don't play the game. Find something else to do, sports or read a book or whatever...

  • symbolset

    If there is some play to be had for free, then it can be called free to play. I don't like how little play some games give for free, but that is a different issue.

    • http://www.modminecraft.com/ Nick Coad

      symbolset, no one is arguing that the words used are technically accurate, it's whether the words used are misleading thats at issue here. Free to play, barring a particularly literal reading, implies it's free to jump in and enjoy the game as much as you like. Look at REAL free to play games like DotA 2, TF 2, Loadout, League of Legends etc. You can actually jump into any of those games and play them as long as you like for free, the only thing you pay for is *extra* features.

  • Helio

    Why didn't anybody mention Candy Crush Saga?!?

    • http://www.modminecraft.com/ Nick Coad

      Yeah that was the first one that jumped into my mind.

  • http://www.youtube.com/crisr82 Kristian Ivanov

    Ok, how do Glu and Gamevil get a free pass while Gameloft takes a possible hit?
    Don't get me wrong, all have their share of free to play issues, but Gameloft is not nearly as bad as the others

    • http://www.modminecraft.com/ Nick Coad

      I agree, Gameloft is not even close to the worst offender.

  • godutch

    Government has no right to decide this If you don' t want to pay for the game just stop playing it, it really is that simple. But Italy is broke, so they look for any excuse to steal money from easy victims like big corporations.

  • http://www.fabrizioroscini.com Fabrizio Roscini