There’s been a great deal of buzz about the recent ASA ruling on an EA Games direct mailing for Dungeon Keeper and the claim “free”. The ruling doesn’t ban using the word “free” to describe games that are free to download but then provide the option of paying for additional content; however, it shows that ads must make clear the limitations of free gameplay and the role of in-app purchasing with regard to speeding up gameplay.

It’s worth reading the ASA ruling in full, because it gives a detailed rationale as to why it considered the “free” game experience implied by the ad was not borne out by the actual non-paying user’s experience but here’s our take on playing fair.

Know the Code

Ads must not mislead or be likely to do so. The ASA will take into account the impression created by the ad overall as well as specific claims within it and will rule on the basis of the likely effect on consumers, not the marketer’s intentions. Ads must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner.

Advertise gameplay by the Code

The assessment regarding whether or not an ad is misleading is not based on the merits of the game itself in isolation but on the experience promised by the ad. The fact that a game is possible to play without spending money, is not enough in itself for the game to be classed as “free” if that gameplay is then limited to the extent that it no longer provides a meaningful game experience. In the Dungeon Keeper case it was possible to bypass the timers with a currency that was accruable for free in-game, but the balance between the amount of currency needed and the amount gained was such that in order to progress as expected, it was extremely likely to be the case that players would need to buy more of this currency.

It’s not enough that the free gameplay will include some of the content featured in the ad – if a game is described as “free” then the ad should reflect the experience of the non-paying user. If some aspects can only be realistically enjoyed by paying, this should be made clear in the ad. In the EA Games case, the features in the ad that did not require waiting for a timer were found to be incidental, brief or dependent on other actions which in turn were gated by a timer.

Provide the experience promised

Whilst time-gated boosters or levels aren’t a problem in and of themselves, if the player is unable to take meaningful or progressive action for a significant period of time without using so many resources that in-app purchases would be inevitable, it should be clear that payment is required to skip them. The ASA is unlikely to consider “waiting” to be “playing”, but unlocking content through gameplay is likely to be considered in a different light to unlocking content by simply waiting for time to pass.

The extent of the explanation in the ad will depend on what is depicted. If all the gameplay described in the ad is available for free and there is no monetised bar to advancement then “free” is unlikely to require qualification. If timers are involved to unlock content then wording such as “in-app purchases can be made to speed up gameplay and skip timers” may be necessary. Offering in-app purchases is not inherently problematic, but placing undue restrictions on the basic game play unless these purchases are made is likely to be an issue. If the non-paying user will get a significantly different experience to the premium user, then this needs to be indicated in the ad.

Ultimately, nobody downloads a game because they want more admin in their lives: if it’s no fun without paying extra, it’s probably not “free”.

Power up with free resources

Advertisers may be interested to note that, prior to closing down, the OFT published Principles for online and app-based games which have been adopted by the Competition and Markets Authority.

As ever, Copy Advice can provide free advice as to whether your advertising is likely to be considered acceptable.

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