UK Advertising Regulator Nixes EA's Dungeon Keeper Advertisement Due To Microtransactions

from the freedom-isn't-free dept

Electronic Arts, fresh from being upset in the most recent "Worst Company" contest, isn't taking the defeat lying down. In fact, they're in full rebuilding mode, acquiring as much news about pissing people off as possible. Recently, for instance, you may have heard that the next Sims game will be published without the much-loved toddler children sims or the ability to create swimming pools in players' homes. The response from EA essentially states that they don't think that stuff is important, despite the public outcry. With an eerily similar recent history in the form of the SimCity debacle still fresh in everyone's mind, people aren't too happy.

But the real trump card the company has rolled out recently is the Dungeon Keeper mobile game which pissed off roughly everyone. And I don't just mean the critics, who essentially look upon this reboot of a beloved franchise as blasphemy, but even consumer rights groups are getting involved due to the cynical attempt in the game to extract microtransactions out of players through in-app purchases while claiming to be a free game. The UK's Advertising Standards Authority disallowed EA advertising Dungeon Keeper as a free game and describes the ad this way:

A direct e-mail for the mobile app game Dungeon Keeper stated "GET DUNGEON KEEPER ON MOBILE FOR FREE! ... DIG. DEVISE. DOMINATE. Build the most badass dungeon ever! Raise an army of diabolical minions and lay twisted traps to destroy any opponents foolish enough to set foot in your lair. MASTER THE HAND OF EVIL Cast powerful spells, pillage and plunder other players’ dungeons, and slap your imps around to make them work harder. A world of wicked fun is right at your fingertips. What are you waiting for, Keeper? Get it for FREE!" A footnote stated "WIRELESS FEES MAY APPLY". The ad also featured a screenshot of the game which appeared to show a well-developed dungeon, and was accompanied by artwork depicting characters from the game.
The problem? Well, by most objective estimations, you can barely play the game without shelling out for in-app purchases. See, the game uses two kinds of currency in order to construct dungeons, which is the gameplay within the app. There's stone and gold, which replenish and accrue over time, and there are gems which are paid for with real-life money or some very limited in-game actions. EA argued that everything that appeared in their ad, including depictions of a created dungeon, could be achieved without spending any real-world money and just playing the game. And they're technically right, but they forgot to mention that the amount of time we're talking about to do so makes the game unplayable. Also, they forgot to mention how, in a departure from games like Candy Crush, the time players are made to wait gets longer as they progress in the game.
We noted that, although some of these actions could be done simultaneously, there was a limit to how many actions could happen at the same time and that the length of the countdown timers increased according to how far the player had progressed in aspects of the game. We therefore regarded it as extremely likely that players would reach a position where they would be unable to take any further meaningful or progressive action in the game until a timer had finished or been skipped, and that these periods would become longer and more significant, and the cost of skipping increasingly higher, as the player progressed. Although some of the features in the ad did not require waiting for a timer, we noted that these were either incidental or brief (such as ‘slapping’ the imp characters) or were dependent on other actions that were gated by a timer. We acknowledged that the Gem currency, through which the timers could be skipped, could be obtained for free through normal gameplay and that the game could therefore be played without spending currency to bypass the countdown. However, we understood that the rate at which they could be accrued was slow in comparison to the amount needed to play the game at a reasonable rate, where the delays did not significantly impact on the ability to continue playing.
In other words, the ad said the game was free and didn't mention in-app purchases, but the game is essentially unplayable without such purchases. In addition, progress in the game is specifically met with a mechanic designed solely to extract in-app purchases in the form of an increasingly long countdown timer. It's a scummy way to make a game, to advertise a game, and to treat customers, particularly within a game that is universally considered to be garbage.

The end result is the ASA nixed the ads that depicted the game as free and ordered them to make future ads clear about in-app purchases and the limitations on free gameplay. If EA wants to keep on making this money-extracting drivel, they certainly can, but they can't pretend they aren't. Consumer protection done right, in other words.


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  1. icon
    Whatever (profile), 9 Jul 2014 @ 2:31am

    Re: Re: Sorry, this article and whole premise is crap

    The real issue is that when you want everything for free, someone, somewhere has to "pay the freight" to make it happen. The freemium model is pretty much the answer to the issue. Those who like it pay for it, and those who don't will not.

    CwF+RtB, right?

    The ad regulator is slicing very narrowly on the concept of how much of the game can be played for free, or how far you can go without paying. If there is any free play in the game, then it's hard to say that you cannot play for free. Making a player wait for their next turn (time limiting their play) is a pretty common concept in the freemium model, it provides the RtB incentive.

    EA has done this on a number of games, their Real Racing game is a perfect example of having those time delay features built into the game in a useful way. Yes, it's a freemium, but the free part is entertaining enough. I also understand if nobody actually pays for it at some point, then the game will disappear or no longer be supported.

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