Opinion: EA, Dungeon Keeper, and when free-to-play isn't 'free'

The UK's Advertising Standards Authority recently banned Electronic Arts from advertising its iOS game Dungeon Keeper as "free." Since so much of the game was roped behind timers that could only be passed with premium currency, the reasoning went, it was not truly free enough to warrant a label. Though ASA was correct to identify the problems with Dungeon Keeper's dubious F2P model, it was only scratching the surface of a much larger problem in the mobile space. Let's not pretend this is just EA's burden to bear. As reported by Eurogamer, the ASA concluded that the game was severely limited without the use of in-app purchases. EA argued that it hadn't misled players, since every form of currency could be earned and gameplay was not "severely limited" by the roadblocks. EA even pointed out, accurately, that most players have grown accustomed to elements like countdown timers and premium currency. The ASA apparently disagreed. In its ruling, it found that only so many actions could be done simultaneously, leading to a nearly inevitable point when players had to pay to play. Further, it said it understood monetization schemes, but expects the "free" experience to be extensive enough to justify the label. As a result, EA cannot use advertising describing it as free in the United Kingdom. It's a limited ruling, both by region and specific to only one game. If it does have any impact on us in America, it will be a product of companies like EA being careful with their phrasing so they don't have to make two separate advertisements for English-speaking regions. It does raise a larger issue, though: should companies be clearer about their monetization methods, and more careful when touting a game as "free" on the mobile market? EA is far from the sole offender. All twenty of the current top-grossing games in the iOS app store are free-to-play. With the exception of Minecraft Pocket as a premium app, the entire top 50 is F2P. Every single one has a small label under it: "In-App Purchases." To be fair to developers, IAPs are necessary. We really can't expect a game to be truly free in the purest sense, because game development costs money. Even games that are largely seen as noble successes for unobtrusive purchases, like Hearthstone, feature IAPs to support them. Most gamers don't mind chipping in a few bucks with an in-app purchase for a game they're really enjoying. Developers targeting market-savvy gamers tend to keep paid hooks out of the limelight, but offer a low-cost option to throw a dollar or two their way with some minor gameplay benefit.

Dungeon Keeper

To EA's credit, it probably was correct to state that gamers are used to seeing IAPs in games. We've grown inoculated to them to a certain extent, and have long been making our own judgement calls of when a game's microtransactions are too frustrating. Clearly, then, the ASA was drawing a distinct line between free-to-play as a legitimate business model, and false claims of "free" in the case of Dungeon Keeper. The gates were simply too onerous in this case. The distinction, while vital to preserving the free-to-play business model at large, becomes much more fuzzy and subjective in this light. We've all played games and eventually hit those walls. We've waited for the countdown timer, or progressed in other stages, or farmed for currency, or (heaven forbid) spent a little real cash. Were all of those times false advertising too? Where do we draw the line? If a game updates and changes its model, as in the case of Plants vs Zombies 2, could a company appeal the decision? It's hard to say, because the Advertising Standards Authority didn't draw a particularly clear roadmap. Premium currency is fine, apparently, as long as it doesn't hit some nebulous point where spending cash feels mandatory. Mobile game publishers are now on-alert that they need to be tread lightly in their "free" verbiage, but they may be unsure what is and isn't beyond the pale. That ambiguity could be a good thing. While it's doubtful that this decision will impact any design decisions themselves, publishers erring on the side of caution in how they explain their games might pay big dividends for gamers. Free-to-play has been a ubiquitous gimmick for a long time, and we're unlikely to see the business model fade away anytime soon. However, we've all known for quite a while that it isn't truly free, and forcing publishers to speak more openly about their monetization strategies will at least put us all on more transparent terms.