The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) has called on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to investigate mobile games that aggressively promote in-app purchasing.
We are no strangers to mobile games that try to take advantage of the freemium model to gouge its customers — something that many Australians have also encountered in some form or another. This tactic, so far, has been employed unchecked and unregulated in Australia.
Now, however, peak consumer body ACCAN has called on the ACCC to investigate, especially in cases where the game is advertised as being "free to play", but will prevent or seriously slow progress unless the player is willing to spend money.
"We've known for some time that 'freemium' apps cause problems for consumers, especially children. The CNET Australia work on the My Little Pony app alerted us to an alarming trend where 'free' games don't just include but actually require in-app purchases," said ACCAN policy and campaigns officer Erin Turner. "When people download a game for free, they should be told if it will end up costing them money down the track. At the moment, this is not happening, and it needs to change."
ACCAN's submission to the ACCC examined three popular games on the iTunes and Android app stores: The Simpsons: Tapped Out; Tap Paradise Cove; and The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth. These games were found to be aggressively promoting in-app purchases, to the point of hindering gameplay.
In The Simpsons: Tapped Out, the game promotes spending money through the use of on-screen prompts and in-game dialogue; later in the game, it pushes the point home more aggressively. One particular item — a corn crop on Cletus' farm — requires either a 90-day wait or an AU$48.58 purchase.
Tap Paradise Cove.
In Tap Paradise Cove, players need to complete quests to level up. Developer Pocket Gems employed a mechanic we've seen many times — the player must either wait up to 24 hours or pay money in order to move on to the next task.
"There's no way someone could 'play free forever' like Paradise Cove claims. Without paying money, you could play for only a few minutes before having to set the game aside for hours or even days. Parents beware; these kinds of games are encouraging your children to spend hundreds of dollars on digital content," Turner said.
The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth, a multi-player game, was found to implement a "play to win" mechanic. Unless players are willing to put money into funding their defences and armies, other players who are willing to pay money would be able to easily defeat the non-paying player, destroying their kingdoms. ACCAN also found that a mini-game in the title contains gambling elements — which may have something to do with the fact that developer Kabam was seed funded by internet betting exchange Betfair. Last year, the Tolkien estate sued Warner Bros over the title.
Conversely, ACCAN held up Fruit Ninja as an example of a game that implements the freemium model well in a submission to the Commonwealth Consumer Affairs Advisory Council in February. "At no point are players prompted to make in-app purchases, and it is possible for players to earn enough starfruit through gameplay to purchase in-app features," the submission said.
CNET Australia has contacted the developer of The Simpsons: Tapped out, Electronic Arts, for comment. We will update this story when we have more information.