No Such Thing as F2P in EU

The European Commission is in the beginning stages of passing down a mandate on F2P games, with the following as perhaps one of the definitions:

“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.

Now, I am about as pro-consumer as you can possibly get, but this… seems a bit off.

For one thing, where is the confusion? It’s called Free-to-Play and all these games – even the one with really manipulative, coercive business models – are literally free to play. It seems like kids being lured into purchasing in-game items is the thrust of the legislation, but I’m not entirely sure what about that gets solved by labeling these games as “Freemium” or whatever marketing term fills the gap. They will still be free to download, parents will still be dumb and leave their credit card info auto-filled in or account signed on, and kids will still be manipulated to do things.

In fact, I’m kinda curious as to what possible games truly fall under the “unequivocally free” category. In-app purchases will disqualify you, but the game designers are getting paid somehow, so… what? Rampant and misleading in-game advertisements are okay? Maybe affiliate links to Amazon pages with one-push purchasing of an Angry Birds plushie? Do donate buttons count as in-app purchases? I mean, little Johnny might get confused and push the Donate $20 button a few times in a fit of youthful exuberance.

While I do not like the implicit design channels that F2P inevitably inform (payslopes, time walls, extra grinding, etc), I’m completely fine with the term itself. And it seems somewhat dishonest to put League of Legends into the same category as Clash of Clan derivatives, just because the former happens to have cosmetic purchases. Have a special “IAP-supported” filter criteria if you must, although I’m not sure if those searches will turn up anything these days. I mean, the last time I saw any truly free freeware was either on 3.5″ floppy disks or a random CD in my Captain Crunch cereal.

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Posted on March 3, 2014, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I don’t see how it’s a bad thing if games must be labeled to what they are. These games expect you to spend money, otherwise they can’t pay their employees. Describing something as F2P, which expects you to spend money is just wrong.

    Saying you can play LoL for free is like saying Spaghetti Bolognese is a vegetable meal because you can just choose to not eat the meat part. I’m sure the EU doesn’t allow you to label Spaghetti Bolognese as a vegetable meal.

    > the last time I saw any truly free freeware was either on 3.5? floppy disks

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_and_open-source_software

    • The analogy is more like saying spaghetti isn’t vegetarian because you could put meat in it. But eating around the little pieces of paper with pictures of meat on it is perfectly okay.

    • Funny choice of example – unlike many so-called “free to play” MMO’s, you won’t find the word free on League of Legend’s North American homepage, nor the English/French versions of EUW.

  2. I’m surprised it’s taking so long…. I mean, the entire “pay-to-open-lockbox” thing is identical to gambling, with the only difference that the prize you get is not cash. This kind of lotteries are quite well-regulated (ok, some may say “not enough”), so it only follows that the same practice is applied also in games, starting with a clear labeling of them.
    BTW WoW markets itself as “free to play”, since you can indeed play WoW for free (even if you’re limited to level 20 characters)…. F2P has become a buzzword added to everything, completely useless in providing information as if you can really play for free, so it’s not that bad if they force producers into labeling their games into something more informative.
    Not that it’s easy, since there are so many variants of F2P out there (zone/content locks, boosts, lockbox gambling, etc.).

    • Are there any mobile game apps that’d actually fall under the EU definition though? This is a scenario in which I find the definition perfectly accurate – you can download and play the game for free. That you CAN pay money doesn’t mean anything.

      I’m not a fan of gamble boxes or exploitative F2P designs (paywalls, etc), but I’m not sure the point of this sort of definition. It’d be nice if it encouraged more companies to move back to one-time $0.99 purchases, but I highly doubt they even could in such a flooded market.

  3. I like the thrust of the Commission’s wording. Their intention is to leave no room for expensive court cases that argue over whether a game is “free” or not.

    Your complaint that “… what? Rampant and misleading in-game advertisements are okay? …” makes me wonder. Are you really arguing here that the wording isn’t restrictive enough, and should be further strengthened to remove the possibilities that you mention? The Commission are in no way stating that such practices “are okay” in a free game. They just aren’t saying that they specifically disapprove of them. But if you want them to strengthen their definition, it would be better to write to them than to complain about it here.

    I suspect that you in fact don’t want the wording strengthened , but would rather have it removed. “Where is the confusion”, you ask. Lawyers are very good at finding the confusion. Leaving the definition to be argued in court would be sure to burden games players and EU taxpayers with the very expensive costs of both sides of such a court case.

    • I’m suggesting that “F2P” being limited to games with zero in-app purchases provides a false sense of security given how it allows in-app advertisements, especially given how the thrust of the legislation is to “save the children.” What happens when the ads link to a website that is basically the IAP store page, but looks identical to the game itself?

      If they were serious, they’d ban IAP and ads. And then there wouldn’t be any games labeled as F2P at all.

      • dachengsgravatar

        They are serious, believe me! As I say, the best way to bring about the changes you desire is to write to the commission directly.

        But the intention isn’t to ban ads (except those that are misleading, which are already banned here) or payment methods for these games (except where illegal already), and deny the developers a living. It’s to prevent misleading use of the word “free”. Don’t think for one moment that because all the gamers you know understand what’s meant by F2P, everybody else must know, as well. That’s why Commissioner Mimica wants to make sure that if you call your game free, it really has to be free! And not just a gimped advertising tool for an in-app purchase.

        You raise issues like : “Rampant and misleading in-game advertisements are okay?” and “What happens when the ads link to a website that is basically the IAP store page, but looks identical to the game itself?”, and it’s good that you should think about these matters. I would mention that shady advertising isn’t linked to whether a game is free or not, and isn’t part of the definition of “free”. Secondly, most shady advertising is already illegal. Thirdly, you really should get in touch with Commissioner Mimica. He has an email address, you know. ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/mimica/index_en.htm will help you.

  4. There’s already been a slew of news stories about kids costing their parent a fortune playing supposedly “free” games. Even in in the UK, where this kind of prescriptive legislation tends to go down less well than in mainland Europe, public sentiment is running very much against app producers calling anything “Free” that isn’t literally free. Some companies have already made substantial refunds to such parents despite having no legal obligation to do so rather than take the PR hit.

    Advertizing revenues don’t come into this argument, at least not when they are pure advertizing, as in the kind of advertizing you get on YouTube or Amazon. If apps try to conceal their own cash shops behind click-through adverts, however, I think that would be covered by the word “possibility”. It’s just discussion document at this stage – when it finally comes to legislation I’m sure they will try and get all the loopholes closed and that seems like a pretty obvious one.

    I can’t see what the problem is anyway. “Free to Play” is as unfortunate an accident of history as “Massively Multiple Online Roleplaying Game”. No for-profit product or service should ever be generically described as “Free”. It breaks the language. If this means app (and games) developers have to come up with a more coherent description of their payment model then that can only be a good thing.

    I imagine we will end up with Apps being described as “Free to Download. Optional In-App Purchases” or some such. Can’t see a problem with that.

  5. And this (besides phenomena like Digital Dementia) is a perfect example of why there should be the same kind of age restrictions to the use of the information super-highway as there are for the regular kind.

    Instead they should be tackling the real issue at play here: parents giving their credit details to their unsupervised children (note that in many countries minors can’t technically make binding transactions, except under circumstances, which route people should follow imo) and then be surprised unsupervised children run amok.

    • dachengsgravatar

      they should be tackling the real issue at play here: parents giving their credit details to their unsupervised children

      How do you think the EC should try to tackle this?

  6. My comment is on my blog because I wanted to use pictures to illustrate. TLDR; I agree with you that banning the word free won’t prevent all future inaccurate advertising. I don’t agree that this is a reason why the word free should not be banned in situations where a reasonable person with access to all the information would find that misleading. Odd edge cases involving advertising (which can be handled separately if it’s fraudulent), affiliate links (if not abusing Amazon in a way that is both fraudulent and likely to get your affiliate link banned), and donation buttons (if not tied to an in-game reward as a “thank you” for your “donation”) are odd, but don’t actually muddy the water as much as you suggest.

    • Thinking about it more, there is remarkably little grey area where you describe – those cases would be unauthorized charges which companies will reverse NOT because of bad PR but because Visa will reverse them and charge the provider. (My most recent card agreement has a clause which suggests Visa is questioning whether a pattern of handing a cell phone with stored payment info to someone else can constitute authorization.)

      As I blogged, there is much more ambiguity in how little of the game must be playable for it to be called free currently. Is FFXIV free because there is an offline character builder? You can replay it as much as you want.

  7. From the quote, you would be able to call something “Free” with no qualifications at all if it was entirely free. For example maybe something that is entirely ad-supported, or someone’s hobby project that is not monetized at all, or some free open source thing.

    And for other things you could still call them “Free” if you also added “appropriate qualifications”. For example: “Free to play, with optional cosmetic purchases available”.

    Btw it is not too clear where the quote actually came from. The closest I could find to an original source is this:

    http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-187_en.htm

  8. I found the quote, which is in a PDF that is listed on the page I linked above.

    http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/enforcement/docs/common_position_on_online_games_en.pdf

    That PDF goes on to say:

    “The use of the word “free” (or similar) may be tolerated for games which are not entirely free, if it is complemented by appropriate qualifications characterising upfront in a clear manner what elements are for free and which ones can be purchased. In such cases, the consumer should be able to access discrete parts of the game that stand alone without the need to make purchases. “Free” may not be used where the consumer cannot, without making in-app purchases, access content integral to gameplay or play the game in a way that he/she would reasonably expect.”

    So a post title of “No Such Thing as F2P in EU” is rather misleading. Ironically, given the topic is misleading advertising.

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