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ASA Ruling on Hasbro International Inc

Hasbro International Inc

1027 Newport Avenue
Pawtucket
Rhode Island
USA

Date:

3 December 2014

Media:

In-game (apps)

Sector:

Leisure

Number of complaints:

1

Complaint Ref:

A13-235612

Background

The Littlest Pet Shop app game is developed, marketed and distributed by Gameloft Inc (Gameloft) under a licence for the Littlest Pet Shop brand from Hasbro International Inc (Hasbro). Hasbro has creative approval over use of their own branding, but the design, development and distribution of the app game lies with Gameloft.

Ad

An app game for Littlest Pet Shop was available to download for free from Google Play. The purpose of the game was to collect virtual pets and buildings in which to house the pets, and to take care of and entertain the pets by carrying out quests and activities within the game, such as feeding, grooming and playing with the pets. Users could earn and spend in-game currencies, by carrying out activities, sharing the game with friends (for example, via social networks), or by purchasing in-game currency with real money.

Although it was possible to play the game without spending real money or sharing the game, certain activities required spending in-game currency which could only be obtained by purchasing it with real money or by sharing the game with friends.

Before playing the game, a notice appeared which stated "Thanks for stopping by, parents! LITTLEST PET SHOP is free to download and play. You can open up bonus content for even more fun by purchasing KIBBLE and BLING. To learn how to control in-app purchases, please visit the "Help" section. By playing the game, you acknowledge that you have read and understood the Licence Agreement on the App Store for this app and accept all of its terms. By playing LITTLEST PET SHOP, you also have the option to access social networks, but it is based on your own decision and playing this game will not direct you automatically to any of those networks". Before playing the game, the user had to click "OK".

The separate Help section, accessible within the game itself from the game menu, explained that "by default, in-app purchases require your ... password. Once your password is entered, it won't be requested again for in-app purchases for 15 minutes".

After download, the introduction to the game provided background information about the Littlest Pet Shop and presented the main characters. Users were invited to help Blythe, the main character, look after and collect pets. Users were provided with a small amount of in-game currency at the outset of the game. The currencies provided were 'kibble' (depicted by gold coins), 'bling' (depicted by gem stones) and 'hearts').

The opening tutorial demonstrated how to play the game. Users were first required to find "a place for the pets to live". The menu offered a range of 'houses' for users to choose (for example, the art studio, pet adoption centre or townhouse, valued at different amounts of the various in-game currencies). The tutorial directed users, with a green arrow, to click on the "art studio". The instructions then stated "Great! The house is on its way, but you can spend some BLING to see it now!". A countdown timer of 50 seconds appeared on screen, alongside the option to click "SKIP" at the value of one bling (represented by a gem stone). Users could chose to skip the 50-second wait and obtain the art studio immediately by spending one bling, or could wait for the 50 seconds to elapse before obtaining the art studio, at no additional in-game cost.

After the art studio had appeared, the tutorial directed users to "get a pet to live in it". The menu showed a series of pets and directed users to click on the "welsh corgi" at a cost of 100 kibble (represented by a gold coin). Clicking on the corgi then deducted 100 kibble from the user's available currencies. A notice then stated "Our pet will be here soon, but I can't wait! You can speed things up with some BLING". Another timer appeared and users could choose to wait for 40 seconds to obtain the corgi, or could spend one additional bling to have the corgi immediately appear. There was a reward of 50 kibble for obtaining the corgi.

The tutorial then showed users how to carry out a quest and used the example quest of washing their pet with soap.

There were three different quests, which gave users the option to groom, feed or play with the pets. Within each quest, the user had three available options, each at a different 'cost'. For example, in the feeding quest, users could feed their pets with three different foods. Firstly, with a pet biscuit (which was "FREE"); secondly, with a heart-shaped biscuit (which required spending in-game points called 'hearts', obtained by inviting friends to the game); or thirdly, with a cake (which required spending bling). In the grooming quest, users could groom their pets with soap (at no cost/"FREE"), with a brush (by spending hearts) or with a hairdryer (by spending bling). In the playing quest they could throw different coloured balls to their pet, one ball was free, one required spending hearts and one required spending bling.

Users were also presented with pop-up information about kibble and bling at a very early stage of the game. The information about kibble stated "We can use [Kibble] to buy certain pets, buildings and other special items! To earn more Kibble, we'll need to complete quests and achievements”. The information about bling stated "And now for something even shinier - Bling! Bling is rarer than Kibble and can be used to buy extra-special pets, buildings and items! Earn Bling when you complete quests and achievements, scan tokens, participate in events, and go to the movie theatre in town! You can also purchase it here with real money".

Users were then able to choose the activities or quests they wished to carry out and which buildings and pets they wished to purchase with their remaining in-game currency.

Users could also carry out actions, such as clicking on items in the gameworld (teacups, aeroplanes or gold coins), to obtain additional kibble.

Issue

The complainant, a parent whose daughter had played the game, challenged whether the app, which she understood was directly targeted at children, contained direct exhortation mechanisms to buy products.

CAP Code (Edition 12)

Response

Hasbro International Inc said the app game was developed, marketed and distributed by Gameloft Inc under a licence for the Littlest Pet Shop brand from Hasbro International Inc. Hasbro had creative approval over use of their own branding, but the design, development and distribution of the app game lay with Gameloft.

Gameloft said that Google provided some functionality for controlling the buying mechanisms and parents could create a restricted profile for their child with limited functionalities − in-app purchases could not be made and there was limited access to apps. They stated that only the main profile, which was password protected, could download apps or purchase in-app content. Before downloading the game from Google Play, parents would see a message that the game included in-app purchases, so they could take care to restrict access where appropriate.

There were two in-game currencies, 'kibble' and 'bling'. Bling, represented by a gem stone, was the 'hard' currency of the game, which could be purchased with real money in the in-game shop; a small amount of bling could be purchased through game-play or by completing specific tasks such as logging into Facebook. Kibble, represented by a gold coin, was the 'soft' currency of the game; it could not be purchased directly with real money but could be converted from bling or earned through basic actions in game-play.

Gameloft stated that real money allowed users to enhance the game (acquiring premium items, skipping waiting times), but users always had the option to spend the soft currency of kibble. Users were never forced to spend real money or purchase bling to play at least some aspects of the game, and the option to spend bling could always be skipped. If users chose to purchase any game currency with real money, an alert and confirmation screen appeared. If a user tried to purchase an item without having the required amount of game currency, then they would be redirected to the appropriate shop to acquire the required amount of kibble or bling to purchase the item. However, the user remained free to leave the shop section to return to the main game.

They reiterated that in-game purchases were not necessary to progress the game and did not consider that there was pressure on children to purchase game currency. They added that the Help section of the game and the Gameloft website also included instructions on how to limit in-app purchases with a pin code. They said the warnings appeared directly on the screen page, both during the download and the game itself and it was therefore difficult for parents to overlook them. They considered the wording of the warnings was clear and legible.

Assessment

Not upheld

The ASA considered that the game would have particular appeal to, and was targeted at, young children.

Although we accepted that carrying out quests was one part of the game, we considered that the tutorial also indicated that an important aim of the game was to collect an increasing number of pets and buildings. We considered the tutorial also encouraged users to learn how to spend bling to avoid delays in game play. We further noted that if one "free" quest had been completed, there might be a short delay before another "free" quest could be undertaken.

The houses and pets available to collect were valued at different amounts of kibble, bling or hearts. Although there were, initially, a limited number of pets or houses available for kibble, we noted that most options required spending more bling than the user was initially given in the game and were therefore generally unavailable to users without increasing their amount of bling. Some pets could only be obtained by interacting with or sharing the game with friends to obtain hearts.

Although users could obtain additional kibble through gameplay, we noted from our experience of gameplay that, as users played the game and collected pets and houses, the options to use kibble to purchase pets and houses became unavailable. For example, in order to obtain a new pet, which was available for kibble, the user was required to first obtain a building in which to put the pet, and, it was not possible to obtain a building without obtaining additional bling. Additionally, we considered that, in order to collect those features which cost a very large amount of kibble (like 'the boutique' priced at 600,000 kibble), players would be required to purchase bling with real money and convert it to kibble.

We nonetheless accepted that some gameplay, such as collecting kibble or carrying out quests, could continue without spending bling. We also acknowledged that the information, which appeared on the game download page, set out that some gameplay would not be accessible for free; it indicated that users could "enrich their experience by purchasing game items with real money". The notice which appeared after download, and which had to be confirmed before the game could be played, indicated that users could "open up bonus content ... by purchasing KIBBLE and BLING".

If a user sought to obtain an item or carry out a quest for which they did not have sufficient bling, a notice appeared which stated "You're out of Bling! You don't have enough Bling. You can buy Bling for real money in the shop, or you can go back to playing". Two click options were offered "Go back to playing" and "Buy Bling with real money".

We therefore acknowledged that, alongside the prompt to buy bling, users were clearly offered the option to "continue playing". We considered the language used in that notice did not force or compel users to spend real money to purchase bling and did not place additional emphasis on purchasing bling over returning to the game without purchasing bling. Indeed, it presented "Go play to playing" as the first option and "Buy Bling with real money" as the second option.

We also understood that this notice did not appear spontaneously and only appeared when users had attempted to carry out an action for which they did not have sufficient in-game currency.

The option to "Buy Bling with real money" lead to the 'Shop' page which offered varying amounts of bling at different costs, for example: "Small scoop of Bling (30) £1.49"; "Small bunch of Bling: 80 (33% MORE!) £2.99", "Huge Glitteriest Box of Bling: 180 (28% MORE!). £6.99", other amounts were available at increasing values. Users could exit the shop and return to the game by clicking an ‘X’ at the top of the screen.

We considered that those in-game notices provided factual information about what users could purchase with their current amount of in-game currency and further reiterated how the in-game currency operated. We also considered that it made clear that users were required to "buy" bling "for real money".

We therefore considered that the in-game notices were not a direct exhortation, but rather a mechanism for purchase.

We accepted that children were likely to be frustrated by the limited gameplay as the game increased, and were likely to want to increase the gameplay, in particular collecting pets, by spending bling, which required real money. However, we noted that the game nonetheless offered free gameplay, which did not require spending real money and, on balance, did not consider the content or nature of the game directly exhorted children to spend real money. Because we did not consider the game contained a direct exhortation mechanism to buy products, we concluded that it was not in breach of the Code.

We investigated the app game under CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 5.4.2 (Children), but did not find it in breach.

Action

No further action necessary.

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