Mobile Mavens

Free-to-play free-for-all: Is the EC's F2P clampdown a farce?

We ask our experts

Free-to-play free-for-all: Is the EC's F2P clampdown a farce?

Free-to-play has, once again, hit the headlines in recent weeks, this time in the form of the EC's ruling, which has resulted in Google removing the word "free" from any apps with in-app purchases in.

The EC has also criticised Apple for, as of yet, taking no action to adhere to its guidelines.

So, we asked our Mavens:

Is the EC's assessment of the risk to consumers downloading 'free' apps fair? And does it have any teeth to implement any real change in the F2P market?


Harry Holmwood European CEO Marvelous Europe

A 20-year veteran of video games and online space, Harry is European CEO of Marvelous AQL, a Japanese developer and publisher of social, mobile and console games, known for console games like No More Heroes and Harvest Moon, but now highly successful in the free-to-play mobile and web space in Japan and Asia.

A games programmer before joining Sony’s early PlayStation team in 1994, he then founded developer Pure Entertainment, which IPO’d and launched a free-to-play online gaming service way back in 1999.

He was also a director of pioneering motion gaming startup In2Games, which was sold to a US group in 2008.

Along the way, he’s been a corporate VP, troubleshooter, and non-exec to a variety of companies and investors in and around the games sector.

I think it's fairly reasonable and think Google have done the right thing (basically 'top free' is now 'top games').

Yes most free-to-play games can be played free forever, but getting rid of 'free' puts Google and developers back on the moral high ground. Particularly somewhere like the EU where some countries (e.g. Germany) have very strong consumer protection legislation which may seem over the top to others, having a clear message that cannot be misconstrued seems like a good idea.

'Free' as a marketing hook is long since over (because everything else is 'free') so I can't see this hurting the business. Those who prefer premium games are generally more 'gamer' than those who don't, and are unlikely to have any confusion about where to find what they're looking for.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

Free-to-play games are free - I don't see it as misleading. As long as an app offers a gaming experience that a user does not have to pay for, there should be no problem with listing that app as free.

And although some games are fairly aggressive in how they up sell in-app purchases, a majority of users don't spend money in a typical free-to-play game which reinforces that there are free gaming experiences in most of these apps.

That said, I believe that games that offer IAP should clearly show that there are optional purchases for these games and they should have protections against allowing kids to run rampant with purchases. Maybe even showing the ranges of IAP next to the download button would be helpful as most free-to-play games have IAP that can cost upwards of €89.99.

Between what Google and Apple are doing in order to make a difference in this area. Removing the word free does absolutely nothing in terms of actually protecting people, it's a kneejerk response meant to appease people in the short term without actually changing what matters, which is the actual point of purchase for IAP.

The focus on labelling by the EC is a bit silly. People just don't pay attention to subtle labelling.
Dave Castelnuovo

The focus on labelling is a bit silly. Labelling a game as "free" versus €0.00 is a nice thought experiment, but at the point of download it ends up meaning the same thing to a user that just wants to download an app that they don't need to pay money for (at that moment in time). That label will be forgotten by the time they hit the pay wall.

People just don't pay attention to subtle labelling. Even unsubtle labelling like in the case of the cigarette industry was not effective until most countries resorted to showing blackened lungs, dead bodies and tracheotomy holes before people started paying attention to them. In order to be more effective, maybe the EC should require users to click through a picture of a homeless man labelled "this could be you!" before downloading an free-to-play game.

Apple on the other hand is actually doing something more meaningful with iOS 8. It is addressing the point of purchase by making it easier for parents to approve every purchase that their child requests. The child does not actually enter a password on their device, they request a purchase, the request gets sent to the parent's device at which point they can review it and approve or decline it. This addresses the real issue.

Aggressive upsell tactics are probably one area that could use some regulation especially when it comes to children's apps. My seven year old niece downloaded the Strawberry Shortcake Bake Shop game and the game does not give you the highest number of stars for your creation unless you buy IAP ingredients.

This kind of strategy is rampant among games that cater to 10 and under year olds. I think we as an industry are oblivious to these abuses because we would never consider downloading these junk apps but young kids love them and don't understand that they are being manipulated. I tried explaining to her five times how they were taking advantage of her but at that age they just don't understand the concept.

Jared Steffes Co-founder Muxy

I'm excited to see what new innovative monetisation tactics get created because of this ruling. I've always felt there should be three top charts that include: Paid, free (with no in-app purchases), and games with in-app purchases.

Harry has good points in his reply, but I am predicting an EC future problem with paid titles that also include iap. I believe it is going to evolve into subscription gameplay models that provide access to enhanced features under a publisher's multiple titles.

The top grossing chart is also funny to have from a consumer point of view. I like it as an industry guy, but it can definitely be on listed on a deeper page in the stores.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

As far as top grossing charts go, it was originally a tool to provide equal visibility to premium games that might not get downloaded as much as cheap games. Of course it's no longer fulfilling that purpose since free-to-play games ended up burying all paid games in that list.

I think the whole top charts model needs to be rethought. It's hard to find a simple way to give all apps equal footing. Do you go with top engagement which would not be fair to single play art apps. Do you get rid of grossing and replace top paid with downloads times cost and then have a separate free-to-play list? Free-to-play engagement per €?

Or maybe give the user advanced sorting options so they can see top downloads, top engagement, top grossing, etc. I would actually like the advanced tools.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.