OFT launches investigation into the freemium model

POSTED BY Windsor Holden
Not so very long ago – a month and a day ago to be exact – Sian Rowlands, of this parish, observed that Apple had refunded the parents of a boy who had racked up a £1,700 bill on premium purchases in a bid to kill* as many Zombies as possible upon his parents’ iPad.

Now the OFT (Office of Fair Trading) has stepped in, launching an investigation “into whether children are being unfairly pressured or encouraged to pay for additional content in 'free' web and app-based games, including upgraded membership or virtual currency such as coins, gems or fruit.”

As part of its investigation, the OFT is encouraging parents and consumer groups to contact it with any information on what they believe are “misleading or commercially aggressive practices” in this regard. The blue touch paper having been lit, the OFT will now retire immediately, at least until Friday June 28 which is the closing date for submissions.

My guess here is that there will be rather a lot of them. In-app purchases are now de rigueur, and can be facilitated via one-click purchase; parents increasingly offer their smartphones and tablets to their offspring so that the incessant, repetitive background noise dies away and they can watch Location, Location/have a nap/carry on a conversation. Taken together, these two factors provide a fertile breeding ground for extensive (and expensive) in-app purchasing, because a six year old child, presented with the opportunity to eradicate Bad Pigs or Zombies at minimal effort, will take that opportunity and will have no concept of that fact that one side-effect of a Space Eagle appearing on the scene is that his parents’ bank account is now somewhat less flush than it was a moment ago.

Cavendish Elithorn, Senior Director for Goods and Consumer at the OFT, was keen to stress that 'The OFT is not seeking to ban in-game purchases’ but added that the body “will take enforcement action if necessary”.  Quite what form such action would take remains to be seen, but if the games industry wishes to continue with the freemium model, then it may be that some additional safeguards are required.

The OFT has said that it will publish its next steps in October 2013 – assuming, that is, that it will have managed to sift through the myriad responses to its request that will now begin to flood in…

*Does one “kill” Zombies? Strictly speaking, as undead, they have already met their maker, so “kill” is perhaps not the most apposite term in this instance…