No Such Thing as F2P Anywhere…?

The comments to yesterday’s post about a EU regulatory body’s intention to crack down on the use of “free” in game descriptions were rather illuminating.

As you may or may not have known through prior posts, I vastly prefer the “B2P” model (e.g. the default) to F2P because the latter is associated with (IMO) compromised gameplay mechanics that serve no intention beyond the enforcement of the payment model. Plus, I cannot turn off the parsimonious part of my brain when it comes to purchasing things, thus frequently leading me to extreme and, frankly, insane behavior to save a literal handful of dollars that would have been eagerly frittered away en mass in other contexts.

That said, both eyebrows were fully cocked at what I was reading yesterday:

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.

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.

No for-profit product or service should ever be generically described as “Free”. It breaks the language.

“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.

Regarding that last one, it is indeed true that Apple ended up settling their court case with the FTC for $32.5 million this year over in-app purchases (IAP). I suppose there is something to be said about “kids games” having IAP and potentially targeting children specifically, but I can’t help but wonder if companies other than Apple are being held accountable for the children of parents who hand them credit cards unsupervised. And to what degree court cases like this justifies the UK banning of porn. It just sorta seems like a concession that adults are incapable of being responsible parents by default; I mean, you’re either not monitoring their phone/game usage, or you’re not utilizing both Apple’s and Google’s ample parental controls before you hand over the small supercomputer to a seven year-old.

Let’s dial the politics back a bit though, as I want to focus on F2P. Or rather, how it apparently does not exist.

It was Bhagpuss that quipped that second to last quote, regarding how the term F2P “breaks the language” because it has free in the description when you can’t actually play for free. Or you can, but since the company is for-profit, it’s misleading. Just like those “free samples” in grocery stores. Or my anti-virus program. Or, I suppose anything at all from any for-profit company as we can assume they’re making money somewhere along the line. To be charitable, Bhagpuss suggests that the way games are labeled will be changed to accommodate the new rules, by making them say “Free to download, IAP optional.” Which they pretty much already do:

Just picking a game at random.

Just picking a game at random.

My question from the prior post still stands though: where are the EU-approved (no-IAP of any kind) free games? I poked around the Google Play store for a bit before running into an old stand-by that pretty much highlights the gaping holes in the EU commission’s logic: Where’s My Water?

It's worth getting the full version.

It’s worth getting the full version.

Hey, look! No IAP at all! EU 1, Disney 0. Of course, scrolling down a bit, we see…

Sneaky, sneaky.

Sneaky, sneaky.

I’m actually pretty sure that I’ve seen these sort of “free trials” or demos for game apps long before IAP were ever implemented, so there’s a certain symmetry to companies circling back to what worked before. Because, let’s face it, if in-app advertisements are fine, advertisements for the full version of the game you’re playing (and others) are fine too.

Feels almost like those old Shareware games.

Feels almost like those old Shareware games.

As you might expect, the completely and totally free version of Where’s My Water? is a severely truncated mess that plays full-screen video advertisements every 2-3 stages you complete, followed by level selector that ends with a link to a paid app and the Where’s My Water? 2 sequel. At least they’re not selling gems though, right? Sure. But there’s no reason to suggest that they couldn’t advertise the full, “Try Now!” version that is also free to download with all its microtransactions intact. Considering that even a child will burn through these IAP-removed “free” games within 20 minutes, and they can still navigate to the app store via handy in-app advertisements to purchase the “full” IAP game within moments, I have to start wondering if the language is worth saving. Seriously, I was three clicks away from purchasing either a new game or the unlocked version of the one I was playing.

I mean, what, will the EU disable click-through advertisements next? If they did, that would actually be pretty amazing. They won’t though, because they can’t, and since this entire concern is predicated on children being able to circumvent their parent’s (likely nonexistent) IAP prevention measures, it won’t stop kids from buying the entire App store.

In which case we’ve come full circle, minus the word “Free,” while doubling the number of ad-riddled Shareware in App stores. So… success? Or maybe they could have simply mandated that IAP (and ad-supported) filters be more prominently displayed, so that reckless parents have one last chance at sanity before they download just anything and let it babysit their child for hours.

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Posted on March 4, 2014, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. dachengsgravatar

    The Commission isn’t trying to prevent app developers from earning their wages. They simply want to make sure that where a developer is expecting to get paid directly by the purchaser, then he should say so, and not hide behind the unqualified word “free”. What’s not to like about that? As Bhagpuss said, what’s wrong with describing these apps as “Free to Download. Optional In-App Purchases”?

    Nobody has any problem with app developers selling stuff, as long as one can look at a description of an app before downloading it and determine if there might be a cost incurred as a result of doing so. As I said yesterday, if you want the commission to strengthen their wording, then you should actually take up this issue with Commissioner Mimica, whose contact details I took the trouble to find for you yesterday. If there are grey areas you are worried about, bring them to the commissioner’s attention directly.

    “…reckless parents … “

    I infer from this and other comments you made about parents that you don’t actually have any kids yourself (or at least no kids old enough to download games). Would that be correct, or have I got the wrong end of the stick?

    • I continue to be mystified by the “unqualified word free” terminology. These games are free to play; the vast majority of users pay nothing. Given how the game descriptions have already had the IAP warnings for years, not to mention parental controls on the phone that can disable IAP, I’m confused as to how other people could be confused.

      To me, this entire thing is conflating two (or more) completely different subjects. The topic of when free is actually free stands apart from children being able to make unauthorized purchases. Would Apple have performed refunds on a paid app that had microtransactions purchased by a kid? Yes, most likely. They shouldn’t really have to, given all the controls in place, but whatever.

  2. I’m not really sure what all the fuss is about. I mean, language works as a communication device because we agree on the meaning of the words. “The sky is blue” is pretty clear, as we both agree that the sky is the place up there and blue is some kind of light in the shorter visible wavelength range.
    If you start to redefine stuff as it suits you it becomes more problematic. Now, nobody cares that much, language has always evolved, etc. etc. But things gets more complicated when money is involved, because if you redefine your terms too much your message becomes false advertising. Why this happens is because one of the requirements of our current economic system (at least on paper) is that buyers can make informed decisions. If words describing objects become meaningless, this is no different than providing false information. Remember Ryanair getting slammed for selling 0.99E tickets which magically turned out to cost 30E because of taxes/fees? It’s the same problem: if you advertise stuff with a given characteristic (say a 0.99E price), then something is wrong when it turns out later that it’s actually a completely different beast (say a 30E price).
    I don’t really see why it should be different for games: if you advertise as “free to play” it means you can play for free, it doesn’t mean you can play 10% of the game for free and with constant annoyance.
    This doesn’t mean that it should be illegal to create a demo version of a game with annoying ad banners, just that you should state it upfront (= at download time) what the limits of “free” are.

    • Again, seriously, where is the false advertising? Almost every commenter, to a man/woman, has been using their own squishy, philosophical terminology to describe what free “means.” Do you have similar objections to “buy 1, get 1 free” store advertisements? “It’s not actually free, because you spent money on the first one!” Or, hell, any store “sales” whatsoever because most likely the store marked up the price of the sale item before discounting it down to the normal price? Are Facebook or Blogger or WordPress free?

      The great irony in all this is I’m pro-consumer in every other respect. I think the default assumption of a Rational Buyer, the cornerstone of Economics, is a myth demonstrated by the existence of Buyer’s Remorse (to say nothing about Sunk Cost and other fallacies). Payslopes and other exploitative “game mechanics” are everywhere in F2P, and is a systemic issue with F2P that misaligns the goals of the developer and of the player.

      But in every other respect, the term F2P is supremely accurate. It is free to download, and costs nothing to play. The gameplay might not be fun without paying, but they didn’t necessarily call it Fun-2-Play, now did they?

      • Just a question: I open a travel agency, and advertise ‘free travel everywhere”.
        When someone comes in and asks to travel, I do a google map search, print it out (shrunk at 4 pages in 1), give it to him and say “ok you have the basic service, you can now walk to your destination for free”. Then I offer “premium services”, like a bus (which costs) or a plane (VIP mode!).
        Do you think that my description of “free travel everywhere” is accurate and this would be ok to do for a travel agency?

      • That phrasing doesn’t really make any sense. Maybe “Travel for free”? In which case, yes, I’d agree that that would be misleading just to get people in the door, as no one seriously considers walking somewhere to be “travel.”

        However, free estimate, free consultation, even free booking are all phrases that wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) imply that anything past that specific thing is free. You’ll book my hotel for free, but I still have to pay for the hotel. And no one seems to acknowledge how squishy their definitions of “play” become when they attach all these implicit qualifiers.

      • Thanks for the answer (BTW the fact that the phrasing does not make sense is irrelevant, the point is to get people in the agency). Now the second question: I still advertise free travel, and when you get in and ask, it turns out that you CAN indeed have your bus or airplane travel for free, but only after you spend some days in the agency. Now hard work to do, just chat with people about how wonderful your last travels where.
        Would you still consider this “free”?
        Because this is exactly what many games are doing, the “if you’re not paying you’re content” statement has been around for quite some time.
        Some interesting reading (like shamelessy stolen from some other blog): http://www.baekdal.com/insights/when-done-right-inapp-purchases-can-be-based-on-trust/

      • dachengsgravatar

        ‘Almost every commenter, to a man/woman, has been using their own squishy, philosophical terminology to describe what free “means.”’

        I’m happy to agree with Commissioner Mimica’s definitiion. Surely that’s the position we’re discussing?

        ‘Do you have similar objections to “buy 1, get 1 free” store advertisements?’
        Yes I do! It isn’t free if you have to buy something! Don’t you see that? “Two for the price of one” is okay, but “buy one, get one free” isn’t. the same goes for boxes of cereals that say something like “50% extra free”. If that were really the case, I could cut out the free potion and take it away. In reality, this is just a way of saying “1/3 cheaper than normal”, but trying to make the number bigger.

        Are Facebook or Blogger or WordPress free?

        Yes.

        The very fact that you ask these questions shows that we don’t all have the same understanding of what “free” means, and that it is therefore a good idea for the EC to give a common-sense definition that will avoid lawyers profiting from arguing the confusion in court.

      • @ dachengsgravatar

        You just stated that Facebook/Blogger/Wordpress are free, but that is in direct opposition to Commissioner Mimica’s definition, as all three of those sites offer the equivalent of IAP and/or other microtransactions. Which demonstrates my point rather nicely.

    • Perhaps I see this differently due to not being a native speaker of English, but as I see it, something being free “to something” implies that it is not free to “something else”. Otherwise it would be simply “free”, without qualifiers.

      Thus if a game is free “to play”, it means that I can play it without paying, but with some unspecified limitation. Maybe I need to pay in order to complete it, or to play more than 5 minutes, or to remove obtrusive adds. I don’t think this is corrupting the meaning of the word “free”.

      • That is exactly the way I have always used the term, and why it’s driving me crazy when people assert that “free is unqualified.” If I said you would be free to watch me play this game, no one would assume that they own the game now. A game is free to play… what “play” consists of is left unspecified.

  3. Seems to me that this is just a crackdown on a deceptive marketing practice. Something like your “Where’s My Water? Free” example is a classic Trial or Demo, it isn’t a free game which is the strong implication from the title text. That it’s just a trial version shouldn’t be relegated to the fine print. Apparently the EU wants to fix that and it makes sense that someone should.

    The implication in Free to Play is that you can play the entire game for free, either because the game itself is actually offered without any revenue potential by the developer (America’s Army), is ad-supported or simply offers perks for cash but is functionally playable from beginning to end. That last part is obviously the contentious one but when major parts of the game itself (levels, planets, whatever) aren’t available unless you pay, I don’t think that makes the cut to be considered Free and thus shouldn’t be able to advertise as being Free. If WoW got rid of the subscription price and was able to exist solely based on store purchases and services (mounts, pets, server transfers, race changes, etc) then I would say it qualifies as free. Any game offering less than that in the free offering doesn’t, or should at least be open to scrutiny. It shouldn’t require fine print or research to determine what free games are actually free and which aren’t.

    Tennis is generally considered to be an expensive sport… equipment, court time, etc. From the F2P perspective I could argue that tennis is a free sport because you can grab any old racquet you have lying around (even free games require existing hardware to play it on so that’s a reasonable requirement even for a free game) and hit a ball against a wall at a local school… except while that looks kind of like tennis, it isn’t tennis. That’s the trial version. Saying that’s Tennis Free while upgrades get you things like shoes, opponents, courts, etc makes no sense, nobody would ever think to make that argument. Why’s it okay for video games? (I seem to be making this “why’s it okay for video games?” argument quite a bit lately on numerous subjects… what the hell is it about the video game industry that’s so damned broken compared to how the rest of the world works?) Offering a test drive of a car doesn’t mean a dealership can advertise Free Impalas! If car dealers wouldn’t think to do it… man, that sets a low bar for those who do to stumble under.

    That your local Costco offers free samples doesn’t mean you can just walk off with a few boxes of the same product for free. They’re specifically offering free SAMPLES. As with Trial and Demo, those are all more than adequate words to explain the situation. “Free” isn’t in many cases.

    Developers are entitled to make money on their efforts but they shouldn’t be allowed to deceive in the process. Since the industry itself is doing little to nothing to deter the practice (and if anything it’s becoming more common, not less), sometimes it does take an external entity to step up and take responsibility. Not an ideal solution, that would be more accurate labels to begin with, but it’s something.

    • See, I don’t think that the EU rules would actually stop Where’s My Water? Free, at least as written. While you and I might say it’s a trial/demo, where is that line exactly? Does selling extra content automatically make it not F2P? What about expansions or DLC?

      The car analogy doesn’t work because no one is offering free cars. A free test drive on the other hand…

      Ultimately, I find it perplexing hire much emphasis people are putting on the philosophical term of “free,” as if there are numerous examples of 100% legitimately free things around. Open-source software was about the only example I’ve seen this far in this discussion.

      • dachengsgravatar

        “I don’t think that the EU rules would actually stop Where’s My Water? Free, at least as written.”

        You may well be right, and I strongly urge you to write to Commissioner Mimica to explain how he should strengthen the wording.

        I think the EC’s suggestion is a step in the right direction. Sure, it doesn’t prevent all misleading practices as it stands, but it’s at least an attempt to prevent many of them, which is better than preventing none of them. You can help to improve it.

        “as if there are numerous examples of 100% legitimately free things around

        There are plenty of examples of things that are free. For instance, air is free, watching a full moon rise is a free pleasure, swimming in the sea is free, chatting with friends is free, water falls freely from the sky. This is what “free” means.

        For-profit organizations, of course, want to make money, and they can often do so by giving out free stuff that we desire, accompanied by advertising messages from which they derive their income. For instance, Google’s search results are free, Blogger and WordPress are free, TV and radio is free (except for subscription channels). The companies offering these free services are not charging me a cent, for which they have my heartfelt thanks.

      • There are plenty of examples of things that are free. For instance, air is free, watching a full moon rise is a free pleasure, swimming in the sea is free, chatting with friends is free, water falls freely from the sky. This is what “free” means.

        I would argue the exact opposite. No one would state that “air is free” because there is no alternative to that state. Same with watching the moon, talking with friends, and so on. The use of “free” implies that the default is not free, or that its cost is in question. Someone has to specifically tell you that a free sample is indeed free, because the default assumption is that it is not. Conversely, stating that watching the moon is free is redundant, unless you were specifically contrasting it with something not free.

        Indeed, I consider the EU commission’s aim as harming language more than F2P game operators, as I see only two outcomes: A) they leave obvious loopholes that provide false sense of security (advertisements is a big one), or B) the definition becomes so convoluted and exacting that it doesn’t describe anything that actually exists.

        In any case, I still have a serious problem with someone asserting that a game I have spent 30+ hours playing isn’t actually free somehow. For example: Dungeon Keeper. Have I spent money somewhere that I don’t know about? How am I not playing this game for free?

      • I guess my fundamental issue isn’t just with the word “free” but what’s being offered for free. “Free game” vs “Free game demo” is, IMO, an equivalent analogy to “Free car” vs “Free car test drive”. You don’t see dealerships advertising “free cars” when they mean test drives because they don’t, it’d be silly… but the gaming industry doesn’t seem to have that level of self-policing, they’re perfectly willing to advertise a free game demo as a free game. This, obviously, brings up the discussion of “what is a game?” but I don’t think it’d be difficult to set a general standard and handle each case as required… consider the fully purchasable whole, determine what’s included and excluded in the free version and if it meets the criteria of “enough” being included, it can be considered a free game.

        Pretty much every movie that’s released gets an MPAA rating… not everyone agrees with the ratings (how do you differentiate between a hard PG-13 and a soft R?) but they still exist. That there’s the potential for some grey area, likely some significantly grey area, doesn’t mean you just ignore the issue.

        It’s no different in sports when penalties are discussed, you always get a range of opinions on whether something should be a suspension or not and if not, how long it should be for.

        Deceptive descriptions are used all over the place and they SHOULD be held accountable, and not just in the marketplace… these are the types of things that governments can and should hold companies accountable for. False advertising is false advertising regardless of the industry.

        As I said, this is how the rest of the world works, I don’t see why the gaming industry should think itself any different. Self-policing almost never works because for-profit companies act in a for-profit manner, not in a “best for the industry” or especially a “best for the consumer” manner. Whatever criteria are used to determine what constitutes a free game I’ll be fine with, whether it meets my personal definition or not, I’d just like to see some clarity offered.

        Any comparison between F2P and actually free things like open source software (I’ll use MPC as an example) is that the former actually expects and needs to be paid while the latter does not, it’s done on a purely voluntary/educational/service-to-humanity basis. That’s why I made the specific example of America’s Army, that was offered entirely for free because they hoped to get some peripheral interest in the Army out of it. When classic games are offered for free it’s because someone is hoping to get some secondary action out of it (a studio looking to generate some interest in the later games in the series, or a service looking to get someone to sign up with them, etc).

        F2P is a flawed concept, either it needs to be turfed entirely or it needs to be clarified. Since turfing is unlikely we’re left with clarified and that’s what the EU is looking to do. I have no issue with that.

      • [...] but the gaming industry doesn’t seem to have that level of self-policing, they’re perfectly willing to advertise a free game demo as a free game.

        Because it technically is. And making F2P unusable as a term only exacerbates the issue, as in the case of Where’s My Water Free. We would get more of those kind of “games” considering how the EU wants to move all the microtransactions off onto a second client. Nevermind how I have (and continue to) played Dungeon Keeper for almost a month now without paying anything. How is that a demo or not F2P? What part of the “full game” am I missing?

        As I said, this is how the rest of the world works, I don’t see why the gaming industry should think itself any different.

        I’m not particularly sure what you mean by “this is how the rest of the world works.” Is “buy 1, get 1 free” illegal in the rest of the world? It is unbiquitous here in the United States – I heard two grocery store advertisements on the radio on my way to work this morning talking about all the free things I could get (after purchasing something). Or a free month of HBO when I sign up for cable.

        It’s funny when you use examples like MPC and other open-source pieces of software, because many of them probably wouldn’t qualify as being “free” under EU rules because they ask for donations (usually with a button inside the software). If there’s indeed a donation loophole, I’m sure game companies would sail right through it.

        The bottom line for me is that I find it ridiculous the extent to which the EU wishes to redefine the word “free,” injecting all sorts of extraneous meaning into an otherwise simple concept. These games ARE free-to-play. I’ve been playing Dungeon Keeper for almost a month now, having spent no money. Could you or the EU explain how that is not free? Or how the existence of completely optional microtransactions makes it not-free, but advertising linking to store pages (or the “real” version of the game) somehow maintains the game’s free-ness?

        Were you able to download and use the software without spending money? Then it was free. Whether it is a demo, crippled piece of adware, or the complete and total game is completely irrelevant to how much money it cost to acquire it. Perhaps next the EU should look into how I picked up a chair on the side of the road that had a “free” sign on it, but ended up spending $10 to have it fixed. “That sign was misleading because I spent money on it from my own volition!”

  4. I agree with you that what they are setting up will not help much. This is targeting “free to play” as a title which will just change to “free to try” (or whatever is required) and nothing else will much change.

    That said, I think you may be oversimplifying the parental potion and it’s not as black and white as “children of parents who hand them credit cards unsupervised”. As a parent I think there does need to be something a little bit better in place to help identify a skinner box. Even if you have not given your child unlimited access to funds you will still have to explain to him/her why that game has stopped them progressing and why you are not going to pay infinitely for them to play a video game at a “fun” pace. They may not be able to actually purchase the item but it’s not like parental controls hide the buttons that say “pay here to keep having fun”.

    Some better way of identifying paywalls and progress showstoppers would come in real handy these days as many developers that were B2P are now starting to shore up these F2P bait and switch messes. I don’t think name layering is going to help this at all though as all the smart companies will just get some smarter layers to come up with new catch phrases not caught under whatever law is made.

    • dachengsgravatar

      “you will still have to explain to him/her why that game has stopped them progressing and why you are not going to pay infinitely for them to play a video game at a “fun” pace.”

      Indeed, and you will still have to put up with much weeping and wailing and gnashing of baby teeth. This is why I like Commissioner Mimica’s suggestion. I very much want to identify games with paywalls in them before downloading them, for the same reasons I want to go to the checkout that has no sweets at it. I want to avoid putting temptation in the way of children, rather than letting them be tempted and having to deal with the consequences.

      • Which is fine, aside from how your children will be bombarded with advertisements for sweets because that is perfectly allowable under Mimica’s rules. So instead of perfectly ignorable IAP store pages, we’re stuck with unignorable ads everywhere.

  5. As you can, I hope, tell from my original comment that you quoted, my interest is a linguistic one. The phrase “Free To Play”, without further qualifiers, really can only have a single meaning because the lack of qualifiers mean the words default to their absolutes. That would mean “No cost of any kind to take part in”, which, as you can see, is in itself too vague to be meaningful, because “Play” is an even slipperier concept than “Free”.

    You find the meaning clear because you are applying your considerable understanding and experience of the context in which it is being used to fill in the qualifiers which are absent from the promotional material itself. The EU legislators, presumably, want to avoid the requirement for customers of these Apps to approach them having done prior research, in the confidence that regulatory authorities have already prepared that ground. That’s what legislative bureaucracies do.

    I’m not really very interested in that side of it. I just like using the phrase “It breaks the language” whenever I can shoe-horn it in :P Plus clarity in advertizing is generally a good thing, isn’t it? As is not annoying your customers. Why not just come up with a less controversial form of words that more accurately describes the product or service in question?

    You wouldn’t think it would need legislation but there you go…

  6. dachengsgravatar

    I wrote about it in more detail on my blog, but the comment processor you use, Akismet, decided I wasn’t allowed to mention my blog here, so you’ll have to figure out where to go by hovering over my “gravatar”, the picture of me on the left of this comment