Comment & Opinion

ASA's Dungeon Keeper ruling risks opening up a nasty can of worms

How long is too long to wait for a base upgrade?

ASA's Dungeon Keeper ruling risks opening up a nasty can of worms

Like flies around a corpse, EA's Dungeon Keeper  has received another round of abuse, this time from the UK's Advertising Standards Authority.

On the basis of a single complaint, the ASA has concluded that a direct email campaign from EA for Dungeon Keeper  has breached its code in terms of misleading advertising.

As with all legal cases, the argument boiled down to a specific situation - would the advert mislead "the average consumer" in terms of how long they would expect to wait to perform in-game actions without spending money?

Yet this conclusion is itself misleading.

State your complaint

The first is that what the ASA was investigating was a direct email advert - presumably only available to people who had opted into such communication.

These are not "average consumers", and hence it seems odd that the ASA should be using this group as its reference point.

A well-developed dungeon

The second point - less relevant, but nevertheless striking - is that the single complainant was described as understanding "that gameplay was severely limited unless in-app purchases were made".

They weren't complaining for themselves, which doesn't make the complaint itself void, but does suggest a malcontent out to make trouble for EA.

Infamously, EA has been voted the 'Worst Company in America' two years in a row in a meaningless online poll.

In addition, Dungeon Keeper  itself has been a cause célèbre for hardcore gamers who hate F2P games in general, and the F2P remake of Dungeon Keeper  in particular.

The choice of company and game is significant.

In this way, the choice of company and game is significant, even if this doesn't materially impact the arguments surrounding the advert.

Get with the program

As would be expected, EA robustedly defended itself, stating 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".

More specifically, EA said all the features referenced in the ad were "available during free play and that not all of them were gated by a timer".

Slap your imps to speed building

As with most F2P mobile games, constructing buildings and upgrading units take time; something players can speed up by spending the in-game hard currency, Gems.

In addition, EA provided the ASA with data about the progress of spenders and non-spenders, demonstrating that in its opinion "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".

EA said the mechanics of Dungeon Keeper  were well within the average length and frequency for the market.

Finally, it also pointed out its 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.

More small print

For those of us in the F2P industry, this sort of talk is unremarkable, and to give the ASA its due, the agency has clearly spent some time trying to understand what free-to-play games are about.

Despite still using the term "e-mail" in its press release, it's not a total dinosaur when it comes to new technology and business models.

Indeed, one crucial area in terms of the ASA's conclusion - in which EA didn't defend itself - was how the advert spoke about the use of IAPs.

The ASA noted the ad did not include any reference to in-app purchases or the role they play in the game.

"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," it stated.

This is a minor point, however, particularly in the context of this being a direct email campaign to people who should be expected to know something about the game industry.

After all, Dungeon Keeper  isn't the world's first F2P game.

Justifiy your conclusions

No. More contentious is the ASA's conclusion that while it acknowledges "a timer mechanism could be a legitimate part of gameplay experience", it thought the "nature of the timer frequency and length in Dungeon Keeper ... was likely to create a game experience for non-spenders that did not reflect their reasonable expectations from the content of the ad".

Dangerously, the ASA hasn't given any reasoning in terms of what it suggests are "reasonable expectations", nor compared Dungeon Keeper  to any other F2P mobile games.

Of course, the ASA doesn't want to get involved in providing game design advice, but it could be argued this is exactly the situation it has now placed itself.

If the timers in Dungeon Keeper  were shorter, the advert wouldn't have been misleading. Hence, future complaints could see the ASA having to judge what is a reasonable time to wait for a level 8 upgrade to a main hub building in a F2P game.

Toothless tiger opens can of worms

But perhaps that's taking the situation too far.

The ASA will argue it can only deal with the complaints put in front of it, whether they are real or mischievous.

If the timers in Dungeon Keeper were shorter, the advert wouldn't have been misleading.

And ultimately, it has almost no power to punish anyone, anyway. Companies such as eBay and, most notoriously, Ryanair, are multiple offenders when it comes to misleading adverts.

All it can ask is that EA doesn't run the advert again and that future adverts make "clear the limitations of free gameplay and role of in-app purchasing with regard to speeding up gameplay".

This is exactly the sort of thing that happened with phone makers who now have to let viewers know that "download times have been shortened" when they, say, show an iPhone downloading Real Racing 3  over 3G in 5 seconds.

Yet the ASA may want to consider how it would react to a wave of complaints about F2P games from any number of malecontents who want to cause trouble for rival companies, or just waste everyone's time.

Certainty, I wouldn't want to be in the situation of debating with King over whether the time to get to the final levels of Candy Crush Saga  is 'reasonable' or not.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at PG.biz which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.

Comments

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jon jordan
I think the industry has moved on a lot since the early days, and in the vast majority of cases, you can unlock everything in F2P games if you are prepared to wait.

The question is whether waiting 2 days for something to upgrade or having to log in every 15 minutes for 24 hours to get enough currency to afford an upgrade is "reasonable".

But the thing I never understand in this circumstances is the obligation people/players now seem to have in terms of they expect to be able to play a game that's cost c. $5 million without paying or waiting.

F2P games aren't health care. If you don't like the experience, you aren't being forced to play.
gamesbrief
that's obviously "96% of people never spend anything".
gamesbrief
Is it not free if 96% of people never anything, and you don't need to, it's all optional upgrades?
Aaron Steed RobotAcid
I think the actual problem is the category name: "Free to Play". It's a conceit - the game expects you to pay. It has been designed to encourage payment. The issue is not their choice of business model but the fact that people are misled about the product's true nature.

You aren't allowed to lie about a product. That's fraud, you must tell consumers what a product actually is - I'm aware many people are convinced this isn't the case but if you walk into a shop and see a product incorrectly priced, you have the right to demand they sell it at that price. That's the law.

Companies need to pick a more honest definition of how they are selling their games. Because if the product is making money then by definition it is not, "Free to Play".
Ben Cousins
Free-to-play games do no 'expect you to pay', if they did - they would have one IAP upon opening the app to unlock all the content.

The very design of free-to-play games is based on the assumption/acceptance that the vast majority of players wont spend. Yes, we design the game so the most passionately engaged players have something to spend money on.

'Free-to-play' is a perfectly reasonable description of a product that can be and is played for free by the vast majority of users. Just as it would be perfectly reasonable to advertise 'free beer' for a bar that had some optional paid beers, but for which 96% of the visitors just consumed the free beer.