The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has given a battle cry to online and mobile app games developers who may be in breach of consumer protection laws, giving them until 1 April 2014 to fall in line in addition to complying with a new set of consumer protection principles.The principles apply to all online and mobile app games, with principles six to seven mentioning children and principle eight being specifically aimed at protecting children consumers.

The OFT previously expressed concern about industry-wide practices that could be seen to be misleading, unfair and commercially aggressive and undertook a market investigation last year. The investigation was specifically focused on games aimed at children due to increasing complaints from parents about specific games and, most prevalently, the ease with which children could rack up in-game bills on their parents accounts.

The OFT has now published a set of eight principles to help online and mobile app games developers and operators ensure that they are operating within consumer laws. The eight principles require that:

  1. Information about costs are provided clearly, upfront and accurately before the consumer agrees to download or play any game (these costs being broken down into initial cost, subsequent costs and optional extra costs);
  2. All “material information” be provided clearly, upfront and accurately before the consumer agrees to download or play any game. Material information includes the characteristics of the game and any other information that is required to allow the average consumer to make an informed decision on their purchase;
  3. The consumer be given clear, upfront and accurate information about the games business itself, including who to contact and how to handle any complaints;
  4. The commercial intent of the game should be made clear, with the burden for clarity increasing with decreasing target audience age;
  5. Consumers should not be led to believe that in-game purchases are essential for continued game play if they are not;
  6. Games should not invoke commercially aggressive strategies, especially if those strategies exploit a young persons inexperience or vulnerability;
  7. A game should not include direct exhortations aimed at children to try and persuade them to make purchases; and
  8. Payments should not be taken unless authorised by the account holder and in-game payments must be made expressly with the informed consent of the account holder

A recent PhonePayPlus poll showed that 90% of seven to 15 year olds have played online games within the last six months. With the increasing propensity for mobile app development and use these fundamental principles are likely to be increasingly important, with the OFT reminding game developers that enforcement action could follow from failure to do so. Whilst these principles are technically already law it is clear that enhanced enforcement is on its way, coming from the newly established Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) which goes live on 1 April.

Whilst many aspects of the principles will only require a change in what information is presented, the tone with which its drafted and how it’s presented other aspects require more significant change in game processes, including for the platform operators that work in partnership with developers to deliver games to consumers.

Of particular note, such required changes might include:

  • The need to clearly present cancellation terms, conditions and procedures (including any restrictions on cancellations);
  • The ability for the game developer to handle complaints directly and efficiently, ensuring compliance with the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 and the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002;
  • The requirement for the consumer to be able to retain purchase information in a “durable manner”;
  • The requirement for express account holder opt-in for payment windows;
  • The requirement for express authorisation of payments by the account holder (by entering their password on each and every occasion, except in expressly authorised short payment windows, or by expressly opting in to use a payment button);
  • The requirement to allow an account holder to set a payment threshold. 

Whilst many of the above payment option requirements are in line with the existing OFT Principles for use of Continuous Payment Authority, their reemphasis in these new principles underlines the importance of ensuring upfront, clear and transparent payment practices in the provision and operation of online and mobile app games.

Worked examples of the principles can be found by clicking here