ASA Ruling on Electronic Arts Ltd
Electronic Arts Ltd t/a
2 July 2014
Number of complaints:
A direct e-mail for the mobile app game Dungeon Keeper stated "GET DUNGEON KEEPER ON MOBILE FOR FREE! ... DIG. DEVISE. DOMINATE. Build the most badass dungeon ever! Raise an army of diabolical minions and lay twisted traps to destroy any opponents foolish enough to set foot in your lair. MASTER THE HAND OF EVIL Cast powerful spells, pillage and plunder other players’ dungeons, and slap your imps around to make them work harder. A world of wicked fun is right at your fingertips. What are you waiting for, Keeper? Get it for FREE!" A footnote stated "WIRELESS FEES MAY APPLY". The ad also featured a screenshot of the game which appeared to show a well-developed dungeon, and was accompanied by artwork depicting characters from the game.
The complainant, who understood that gameplay was severely limited unless in-app purchases were made, challenged whether the ad was misleading because it omitted significant information.
CAP Code (Edition 12)
Electronic Arts Ltd stated that in their view they had not misled or omitted information from the ad. They said that Dungeon Keeper was available to download for free, and that in-app purchases were not required. Rather, they stated that in-game content is available to all players, whether or not they make in-app purchases, and that gameplay without in-app purchasing is not severely limited. They also stated that all the features referenced in the ad were available during free play and that not all of them were gated by a timer.
Electronic Arts explained that the game utilised two types of currency - 'grind' currencies of 'Stone' and 'Gold', which accrued for free over time and could be obtained by other game actions, and a premium currency of 'Gems', which could be purchased for real money or earned in-game. Players could earn 'Gems' by digging out dungeon areas, winning achievements for in-game activity and participating in timed event raids. They therefore considered that it was possible for a player to accrue all three currencies entirely for free via normal in-game engagement and activity over time.
Electronic Arts stated that players were not required to purchase 'Gems' for real money in order to play or progress through Dungeon Keeper, but that players who wished to accelerate their progress through the game could use them (whether earned or purchased) to speed up specific actions (such as the time taken to upgrade a building), to purchase 'boosts' to enhance gameplay, and to purchase additional in-game characters. They reiterated that, because 'Gems' were regularly awarded through interaction with the game it was possible to unlock the same content through gameplay.
Electronic Arts stated that they did not believe gameplay was severely limited unless the consumer made in-app purchases, as all of the content and activities identified in the ad could be achieved by players who engage with the game for free by using the in-game currencies. They also mentioned that the availability of in-game purchases was stated in the product description for the game and explained during the game in both the tutorial and the purchase process for the 'Gems'.
Electronic Arts provided data regarding the game experience of spenders and non-spenders, which they considered demonstrated that non-spenders were well represented in the number of players who reached the middle and end-points of the game, and that non-spenders did not reach these points substantially slower than spenders. They stated that the average player would expect a free-to-play title to be monetised with countdown timers and premium currency, and mentioned popular titles that use this feature. They stated their belief that the mechanics of Dungeon Keeper were well within the average length and frequency for the market and that players of combat simulators would therefore reasonably expect them. Electronic Arts also stated that the timers and premium currency did not only function as a monetisation strategy, but balanced gameplay and provided players with a sense of progression and enabled resource management. They said that even if there was no monetisation in the game a timing mechanism would still be present.
The ASA noted that the game software was available to download for free, and that it was possible to play the game without spending money. However, we understood that several mechanisms within the game took a significant amount of time to be completed, and that these would only be speeded up by using the premium Gem currency. We noted that, although some of these actions could be done simultaneously, there was a limit to how many actions could happen at the same time and that the length of the countdown timers increased according to how far the player had progressed in aspects of the game. We therefore regarded it as extremely likely that players would reach a position where they would be unable to take any further meaningful or progressive action in the game until a timer had finished or been skipped, and that these periods would become longer and more significant, and the cost of skipping increasingly higher, as the player progressed. Although some of the features in the ad did not require waiting for a timer, we noted that these were either incidental or brief (such as ‘slapping’ the imp characters) or were dependent on other actions that were gated by a timer.
We acknowledged that the game could be played without bypassing the countdown timers. However, from the information available in the ad, players would expect the gameplay progression and their ability to advance to be unhindered by unexpected and excessively onerous delays, and we therefore considered that the length and frequency of these countdown events was beyond that which would be reasonably expected by players. We consequently considered it likely that many players would regard the gameplay experience as unexpectedly curtailed and as a result would need to spend Gems in order to achieve the form of gameplay anticipated.
We acknowledged that the Gem currency, through which the timers could be skipped, could be obtained for free through normal gameplay and that the game could therefore be played without spending currency to bypass the countdown. However, we understood that the rate at which they could be accrued was slow in comparison to the amount needed to play the game at a reasonable rate, where the delays did not significantly impact on the ability to continue playing. Given this, we considered that players were likely to find themselves in a situation where they wished to bypass timers to achieve the expected gameplay as above, but were unable to do so without making a monetary purchase of the Gem currency. Although the game activities were available without cost to the player, we considered that for players to achieve the gameplay experience that was reasonable for them to anticipate, it was likely that they would need to spend money on the premium currency. The ad should therefore have made clear what consumers could expect from the free elements and that in-app purchases would have a significant impact on gameplay.
We noted that the ad did not include any reference to in-app purchases or the role they would play. Although we acknowledged that a disclaimer about the inclusion of in-app purchases was placed on the product page on the stores in which the app appeared, we noted that this was not within the body of, or linked to, the original ad, and that it did not make the nature of these purchases clear. While we understood that the average consumer would appreciate that free-to-play games were likely to contain monetisation functions, we considered that they would also expect the play experience of a game described as ‘free’ to not be excessively restricted. Similarly, although we acknowledged that a timer mechanism could be a legitimate part of gameplay experience, the nature of the timer frequency and length in Dungeon Keeper, in combination with the way it was monetised, was likely to create a game experience for non-spenders that did not reflect their reasonable expectations from the content of the ad. Because the game had the potential to restrict gameplay beyond that which would be expected by consumers and the ad did not make this aspect of the role of in-app purchasing clear, we concluded that it was misleading.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1, 3.3 and 3.9 (Misleading Advertising).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Electronic Arts Ltd to ensure that future ads made clear the limitations of free gameplay and role of in-app purchasing with regard to speeding up gameplay.