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

A UK advertising watchdog has called EA out on one of its "free-to-play" games. But this problem extends far past EA, and this only scratches the surface.

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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.
Editor-In-Chief

From The Chatty

  • reply
    July 7, 2014 1:00 PM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Opinion: EA, Dungeon Keeper, and when free-to-play isn't 'free'.

    A UK advertising watchdog has called EA out on one of its "free-to-play" games. But this problem extends far past EA, and this only scratches the surface.

    • reply
      July 7, 2014 2:07 PM

      Games that eventually force you to buy something should not be labeled Free to Play, rather something like Limited Freeplay or something like that. There are some (few) games that do this without forcing you to an IAP), only these deserve to be called Free to Play, the whole F2P thing has taking off where by now when I read "F2P" - it translates to "scam".

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        July 7, 2014 2:22 PM

        not all f2p games are scams, but you are right in that many of them are underhanded in trying to get people to pay. The ones I really hate are the ones where you have to buy in game currency first, its a disconnect between the cost of the currency and the actual cost of the item you are trying to buy. Its sneaky and I am sure many people dont realise how much they are actually paying for an item in game.

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        July 7, 2014 5:18 PM

        Define "force you to buy something" since most (all?) f2p games basically give you the tradeoff of spending real dollars to make something happen now, or letting you grind/wait for it to get it later.

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      July 7, 2014 3:20 PM

      I still play this game and have since release and have not spent a penny on it. I do not feel that I need to either. They provide fairly easy way to get gems, which is the in game currency. I don't get how someone can say it is not F2P.

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        July 7, 2014 3:24 PM

        Are you making special efforts to avoid the 24-hour dig timers?

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          July 7, 2014 3:34 PM

          no, but through digging and raids I have enough gems to have 5 imps. The imps speed up digging time

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          July 7, 2014 5:16 PM

          Why would you need to? Set up your imps and maybe slap them a few times throughout the day while you're doing raids, they'll be finished by the next morning. Do people lose their shit when playing animal crossing and the store they want to use is closed for the night? When is the ASA going to protect people from that?

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            July 7, 2014 5:27 PM

            I think I remember Jeff Gerstmann having that complaint about Animal Crossing.

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              July 7, 2014 5:29 PM

              Vinny recently mentioned it a few times since he bought it to play on the plane and effectively couldn't.

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            July 8, 2014 4:07 PM

            Closed shops is a part of Animal Crossings design that makes the game unfortunately.
            Charging to be able to continue playing a game that is free is another matter and if EA didn't call Dungeon Keeper "free-to-play" they would not have had this ruling made against them.

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        July 7, 2014 6:41 PM

        Once you give up 'playing' the game and take it as a new grind so you can play it later (ie; have your dungeon fully built out), it changes your sense of the game. I gave up this game before really getting playing it, but I had the outside edge of my dungeon all dug out with 2 imps eventually. I just set it before I left for work and remembered to slap the imps throughout the day.

        I never saw anything that you HAD to pay money for. Just speed things up. I'm okay with that.

        The game itself wasn't great, but that's a completely different issue.

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      July 7, 2014 3:23 PM

      5 years ago: Chris Remo in Idle Thumbs 23, 1 hour 4 minutes:

      Before I say any of this, I want to put out the disclaimer, because everyone always... this is ALWAYS the comeback: I KNOW that the reason companies exist is to make money; I KNOW that people aren't doing things out of altruism. All that said, I don't give a shit. Like, as someone who does pay money for games, and does care about what I'm paying for, I just don't like the idea of a market in which there is even some expectation that these things are actual, like, that... you go out there, and you've got, the money you spend for your game, which is already more than you pay for any other entertainment product, no matter what, even a cheap game, and then, there's also just this other fuckin' boatload of shit that you might want. It's like, I shouldn't have to "maybe" want that. What am I getting out of that? Maybe some dude is getting something out of it; he probably wouldn't actually be having less fun with the game if he wasn't spending 99 cents here and there and there and there on this and this and this. And again, it's the consumer fuckin' beware; I'm not trying to say that the companies have to protect the consumers from spending their money. But I can say, that as a broad effect, I don't think that stuff is beneficial to consumers in any meaningful way. Like, I don't think that stuff being there is having any positive long-term beneficial effect on consumers who are buying games, and really, those are the only people I actually care about when it comes to markets. I care a lot about developers, and I want them to succeed, probably more than most gamers do. I go out of my way to spend a lot of money on full-priced games... So I don't mind spending a lot of money on games... but I do mind that stupid shit, and I think I'm coming from a reasonably legitimate point, because I don't get all of my shit for free.

      This is off of a reader mail that was chaining off of the GDC 2009 keynote of Neil Young (then of Ngmoco): http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/113805/GDC_ngmocos_Young_iPhone_Better_Than_DS_Better_Than_PSP.php

      "For those of you concerned [that we're going to] sell rocket launchers for 99 cents, don't worry," he reassured the crowd, referring to widely-publicized screenshots last week. "That's not going to happen. We're not going to prioritize greed over gameplay."

      Right... I wish that that sentiment could've actually had some substance among mobile developers, but as we now know, it didn't, and EA's biz dev department decided to milk it for all its worth. EA CEO Andrew Wilson later apologized at this year's E3, but I have to wonder how much of that is the reflexive "predecessor blame game" card that new CEOs get to play in their first year.

      The US really needs an equivalent of the ASA. But more importantly, there need to be better standards for free-to-play games, because the marketplace isn't working in its current state, which is heavily gamed by publisher marketing departments.

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      July 7, 2014 3:42 PM

      W.T.F.

      Nanny State much?

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        July 7, 2014 3:45 PM

        lol please, the ASA is merely a pro-consumer governmental organisation. Nanny state my arse.

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          July 7, 2014 4:06 PM

          Haxim trolling? Unheard of

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        July 7, 2014 4:03 PM

        false advertising is not a new concept

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          July 7, 2014 4:28 PM

          It's not so much false advertising, but conflating ideas of what a free to play game actually is. There's isn't a hard definition of the term or how it applies within the gaming space. It's the open to interpretation that seems to be the problem.

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            July 7, 2014 4:29 PM

            There*

            It is that it's open to interpretation...*

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            July 7, 2014 6:44 PM

            Sounds like the ASA has decided to finally defined "Free to Play", rather than letting companies do this grey area crap. I approve of the move, though there are far more blatant abuses which should be cited. Final Fantasy: All the Bravest springs to mind, which is exponentially worse than this.

            I like the suggestion that "Limited Freeplay" be the term companies need to use for games that use this business model. Or we could just go back to calling it "shareware" like we did back in the 90s.

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          July 7, 2014 5:10 PM

          It's only false advertising if you arbitrarily decide certain prevalent well-established mechanics are in violation of it. And then to specifically target one game from one publisher? It's not like I'm trying to white knight for EA here, but give me a break. Either this applies to any game that uses an "energy" mechanic or it doesn't.

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            July 8, 2014 4:04 PM

            The ASA only replies to complaints which is why this judgement is against only one game.
            This sort of action will most likely result in the creation of another term for Free To Play games that aren't able to be played properly without purchases.
            This will in all likelihood be the start of consumers being told whether they can play a game freely or not.

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      July 7, 2014 4:24 PM

      More companies need to look at Grinding Gear Games and how they've handled Path of Exile. I avoided it for the longest time because it was F2P, but that was completely and entirely a bad decision on my part. The game is amazing and you CAN get a full experience for zero money. Since I've been playing it though, I've dropped $50 on their points, not because it was required or I felt like I needed to *at all,* but because I wanted to kick them some money for making such an amazing game that I've gotten hours and hours out of. The lesson here is that if developers make a solid, complete product, people *will* support them. The antithesis of these timers and nickel & dime bullshit.

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      July 7, 2014 5:39 PM

      I said there was going to be an F2P backlash and there is one brewing. The problem is that F2P might work for some and there are companies that do it well, but there are enough games out there that do a shitty job of it that it's going to hurt the bottom line. Sure there are some well known F2P games at the top, but it's getting harder and harder to compete because small companies can't afford TV ads to keep their DAU and acquisition up. It's also getting more expensive to make F2P games because people expect polish and lots of content. So, the margins are getting thinner. I don't think there's going to be a market crash per se, but a big thinning of the herd is coming as there is less and less money to be made by more and more devs. It's just not sustainable IMO.