The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has warned that games developers will face legal ramifications over the implementation of aggressive in-app purchases unless they adapt their existing business practices.
The London-based regulator today published the findings of an investigation into whether children are being unfairly pressured or encouraged to buy additional content for free-to-play web and app-based games.
Having studied 38 games, the OFT found that some included commercial practices likely to breach consumer protection law. These included "potentially unfair and aggressive commercial practices to which children may be particularly susceptible". One example cited was games "implying the player would somehow be letting other players or characters down if they did not obtain something by making an in-game purchase".
Other areas of concern include a lack of transparent information about in-game costs, advertising and whether personal data will be shared with third parties, plus the blurring of the distinction between spending in-game currency and real money.
In response, the OFT has published eight proposed sector-wide principles that game developers will need to adhere to avoid enforcement action. Its draft proposals say in-game payments are not authorised, and should not be taken, unless the payment account holder, such as a parent, has given their informed consent. The principles won't be finalised before the conclusion of a consultation period on November 21.
OFT executive director Cavendish Elithorn said: "This is a new and innovative industry that has grown very rapidly in recent years, but it needs to ensure it is treating consumers fairly and that children are protected. The way the sector has worked with us since we launched our investigation is encouraging, and we've already seen some positive changes to its practices.
"These principles provide a clear benchmark for how games makers should be operating. Once they are finalised, we will expect the industry to follow them, or risk enforcement action."