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Freemium devs must stay one step ahead of parental concerns, says UKIE's Jo Twist

Freemium devs must stay one step ahead of parental concerns, says UKIE's Jo Twist
Jo Twist is CEO of UKIE, the association for UK interactive entertainment.

Who doesn't love getting something for free – especially something that has been lovingly crafted and cleverly designed to steal your attention and keep you entertained for hours.

But as we all know, the clever thing about many 'free' games is that they are not actually free. In-app purchasing has been honed on mobile platforms, and it is now a dominant model that's increasingly being used by the wider industry, too.

And who would have thought the words "in-app purchasing" would appear on the BBC's flagship magazine programme The One Show, of all places? But it's happened – IAP has hit the mainstream press.

Gone mainstream

For the industry, freemium has brought gaming to a wider audience than ever before, generated remarkable revenues for certain developers and influenced game design considerably since its introduction.

For players, meanwhile, the model has let superfans pay for more of what they love, while providing an easy way for players to try before they buy.

Some, however, are getting twitchy as they realise the extent to which IAP models are driving many games. The One Show in particular picked up on games that they claimed were directly aimed at children.

Last week I appeared on the show to talk about in-app purchasing, following the story of the seven-year-old boy who had run up a considerable sum of money while playing a game on his Mum's iPad.

And this was all hot on the heels of a report last month by Phone Pay Plus, the body that regulates premium rate (or phone-paid) services in the UK. The report said that they had seen a 300 percent rise in complaints about children and apps in a year.

It also expressed real concern regarding apparently free services, with in-app billing being seen as particularly "risky" for children.

Widespread fears

And in our global online marketplace, this is not just an issue in the UK.

Our Australian counterparts, The Interactive Games and Entertainment Association, have just responded to an inquiry set up by the Australian government examining whether more needs to be done to protect consumers using apps on mobile and handheld devices.

Now, let's be clear: the risk here is that in-app purchases are implemented unethically or that parents simply don't realise what IAP means. If that's the case, parents could be unwittingly letting their children loose with their credit card.

But IAP in games that children might want to play is not inherently wrong by any means, and marketing directly to kids is certainly not new. Millions of players enjoy in app purchasing without any cause for concern at all.

After all, games makers need to be paid and this is just another way for this to happen.

The process is transparent and a question must be asked before a purchase is made. In most cases, an account password must be used too.

There are also parental controls on most devices that can be used to limit access to apps and in-app purchases, as well as restrict age inappropriate content and limit overall online access.

Informing and reassuring

The problem is that parents need to understand how to use these tools and to know what their children are spending money on.

There is a case to argue that there could be clearer signposts to IAP in a game's description, and there could be more done to look at mobile piggy banks.

Industry can and does play a role in making sure that these tools and the right guidance are in place and that parents know about them.

But despite this, we're still being asked if all this is enough when it comes to selling content to children? And is it right that games aimed at children have in-app purchases at all?

At UKIE, our digital sub-group is looking at these questions as well what more we could be doing as responsible game makers.

While we don't have all the answers and there's no threat of regulation yet, we do know that we have to be an industry that cares about parental concerns, and always be one step ahead when it comes to protecting our players.

Not being responsible could risk in-app purchasing being seen as exploitative and feed the arguments for tighter controls – and that's something that nobody wants.
To find out more about UKIE, including membership details, visit the association's website.

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Fred Wein
Dave Smith, But who gives their credit card and pin number to a child? No one!
I get the whole argument that parents are responsible, but are there no boundaries to what kids games should be allowed to do? There are proven mechanics that exploit human behavior to drive revenue, but do you want those to be presented to your child?
jon jordan
but as the Smurfberries issue demonstrated, different developers have different attitudes to how quickly they choose to monetise their players - something that will be very different if your game is designed for kids.

Developers don't have the responsibility over the ecosystem, but they do have responsibility over what happens in their content.
Dave Smith
It's a legitimate question but the allocation of responsibility is incorrect. It is not the responsibility of game developers to educate parents on how to operate their mobile devices. It takes minutes to read up on altering iPad security settings and seconds to implement the changes that ensure your child simply cannot spend money without your consent. This is not even taking into account the decision by that parent to give their young child a $300+ bit of kit.

If I gave my child my credit card and pin number in a store and told them they could buy one magazine, and they ended up spending £50 on lego, would I be right to ask blame lego? The shop? Would there be articles calling for toy manufacturers and shop owners to have signs up everywhere reminding parents not to give their credit card details to their children, and warning them that children love toys and will probably want them? Of course not. Yet in the world of mobile apps this is a perfectly common argument.

If you give your iPad to your child then you have taken responsibility for what they do with it. All the information is easily accesible, parents should be expected to educate themselves and their children, not developers.