Aiming free-to-play games at kids is like selling supermarket chickens for £2

F2P Summit ends with a heated debate

Aiming free-to-play games at kids is like selling supermarket chickens for £2

The race to the bottom triggered by the rise of free apps has turned mobile games into a commodity akin to cheap water-injected chicken sold at your local supermarket.

That's a measure of the strength of views broadcast during the closing panel at yesterday's F2P Summit in London, which tackled the question of how developers can approach free-to-play games aimed at children.

Or, in one panelist's case, whether they even should in the first place.

"I think all apps aimed at children should be paid for," opened Andrew Lim of developer CMA Megacorp. "All kids apps should be paid for, because I don't believe in free-to-play."

Such a polarised view was always likely to generate an equally strong response from a crowd of developers who had paid to attend a conference with F2P in its title, which led to Lim making what was arguably the most controversial comment of the entire day.

"If you thought about making food free, would we end up with a system where the food is good for the people to eat it?" he continued.

"It's like going to the supermarket and buying a chicken for £2. Do you really want people to eat that after you've had to change the way you produce a chicken in order to sell in that cheap? It's bad for the farmers, it damages the people who make it and it damages the people who eat it."


Lim's views, perhaps predictably, generated heated responses from many in the crowd – most notably Boss Alien's Jason Avent of CSR Racing fame and Applifier's Oscar Clark – with most challenging the notion that F2P games aimed at anyone are akin to cheap, mass-produced chicken.

"I'm not saying that there are some positive elements to free-to-play, but I just wouldn't do it," concluded Lim. "This is what happens when you drive things to the bottom."

UKIE's Andy Payne – who has been working with the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) over the body's principles for F2P apps aimed at children – was far keener to talk about the practicalities of free-to-play rather than whether the model should exist in the first place.

Interestingly, Payne noted that AppyNation's recent charity release for Help For Heroes – Hero Bears – was developed as a free-to-play game but launched as a paid app because both Appy and Help For Heroes were concerned with "the attention we might get if spending went crazy."

"I'm uncomfortable with this talk of a 'compulsion loop' – I'm uncomfortable with language like that," he added.

"The big questions are the legality of all of this. If you've got to ask the legality to start with, then you're probably starting from the wrong place. International law is just miles behind the curve, and they're intentionally vague."

Loose law

On the subject of the law, Paul Gardner from Osborne Clarke was on hand to give his expert opinion.

He agreed that the law is vague, and added that the OFT's principles haven't really cleared up the matter, instead re-stating guidelines that were already cemented into law in the first place.

"I think the law in this area can be applied by using your common sense," said Gardner.

"If you're doing something that misleads people, you're going to fall foul of the law. Applying common sense to these things will get you a long way."

Neil McFarland of ustwo – best known for Whale Trail – agreed, adding that developers need to be aware that they're accountable for their own content.

"The key word is responsibly," said McFarland. "Monetisation is not a bad thing, and selling to children is not a new thing or an evil thing in any way. There are just some people who have brought attention upon it. I think, as a base line, it's fine as long as you approach it responsibly."

But, as Payne agreed, there is a grey area as to what constitutes a children's game. Is it a game aimed a children, or a game that children just happen to play?

"Whale Trail started as a paid app two years ago and, a bit like Angry Birds, it wasn't specifically aimed at children, it was aimed at everyone if you liked," he added.

"After launch the market changed beneath our feet and free-to-play swamped the stores, so we just decided to swap to that. It's not easy. In terms of in-app purchases, ours is very light touch – grinding can get you everything.

"But we can't afford to spend $10,000, possibly $100,000 a day to stay in the top ten chart. That's the reality today, and what that means is, if you're building an experience that's entirely built around the process of wanting to keep people playing, but then locking them out.

"It's like digital crack – it's very effective."

On the issue of children amassing huge bills on their parents' credit cards, McFarland called for platform holders to take charge.

"It would solve a lot of problems if Apple enabled accounts that weren't tied to credit cards – they could have a wallet system that locks out in-app purchases once they've hit a set limit," he concluded.

Model matters

Lim, however, refused to be moved. The issue isn't free-to-play games aimed at children, he said, but rather just free-to-play at a model.

"It's not free-to-play, and that's what annoys me," he concluded.

"A lot of this is semantics, but it's how free-to-play as a phrase is being promoted and exploited. If you're going into this industry to make money, then you're in it for different reasons to me, and we're going to disagree."

UKIE's Payne, however, was far keener to draw a line between good free-to-play games and the bad ones.

"It's fine to get people addicted to gameplay – we've all done that – but I'm uncomfortable when it becomes a tool to drive revenue," said Payne.

"Brands have got to be careful that they're not just seen as commoditised stuff, because if they wear, they wouldn't get away with selling stuff from sweatshops, would they? The free-to-play models is great, but it's great for people who understand money, maybe."

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