The UK's advertising watchdog, the ASA, has published new guidance on in-game purchases, which can be found here.
There are no major surprises or changes to the underlying CAP and BCAP Codes, but the Guidance does provide some interesting new detail, which should make it easier for developers to know where they stand.
Here is a quick summary of the key points.
Clarification on ASA’s remit
Not all in-app purchases fall within the ASA’s remit. The ASA – whose job is to regulate ‘marketing communications' – has clarified that, in the context of in-game purchases, this only covers those which are made for real money, or for a virtual currency which is a direct proxy for real money.
Where a virtual currency can be earned by playing the game, in-game purchases or ads for that currency will be outside the ASA's remit. Mixed currencies, which can be both earned and topped-up with real money, are also considered to be outside remit.
The key message here is: clarity. Consumers must not be misled as to what they are buying, or the value of the items they are receiving.
Bundles of virtual currency, for example, should be described as 'best value' only if it is made clear that this is referring to the cost-per-unit (as opposed to the overall price of the bundle), if that is the case.
The cost of virtual items must also be clear. The consumer must be able to easily determine the equivalent real world cost of an item which is sold for a virtual currency, and whether they will need to buy more virtual currency in order to get it. The Guidance specifies that, in most instances, this requirement will be met by clearly showing the price of the item in the virtual currency, and an “easily accessible, clear, or otherwise intuitive” signpost to how much of the currency the player currently has.
Another key issue which arose during the consultation period for this Guidance is ‘odd pricing’. This is the practice of selling currencies in amounts which are not quite enough to purchase certain items. The Guidance does not prohibit this practice, but the true cost of the item must be made clear when it is advertised outside of the game (for example: if an item costs 100 coins, but the smallest amount of coins you can buy is 150, then the true cost to a consumer who has no coins is the latter).
Savings on larger bundles of currency (e.g. "50% cheaper!") must also not be exaggerated, for example by comparing to the worst value purchasing option available.
Presentation of offers
The Guidance emphasises the need to avoid undue pressure from in-game ads for purchases – especially pop-ups – recognising that such pressure is more likely to be felt by consumers when playing a game than when consuming other types of media.
Examples of techniques which could fall foul of the rules include: short countdown timers, implications that a purchase will lead to success, complex offers, and offers for in-game purchases for significant sums of money.
Of course, what is appropriate will vary from game to game, but the message from the ASA is that, if you intend to use mechanics of this sort, you need to be prepared to explain why they are justified.
As a reminder, direct exhortations to children to make purchases are prohibited in all circumstances, so developers of games targeted at children will need to tread extra carefully.
Random-item purchases (aka loot boxes) must be treated with care, with no suggestions that the chance of winning can change with a subsequent purchase, or that the previous attempt was a ‘near miss’ if the outcome is purely determined by chance.
Limited time offers for in-game purchases must also not mislead, particularly if the offer is going to be repeated in the future or the item made available more generally.
Guidance on advertising games which feature in-game purchases
There is a reminder that ads must make clear if games contain in-game purchases and/or loot boxes. The label does not need to be especially prominent, but it must be easily accessible and easy to find. The normal PEGI labels are likely to be sufficient, but other ways of communicating this information could also be acceptable.
Interestingly, the ASA encourages marketers to provide more information up front about the types of in-game purchases and loot boxes that a game contains – for example, are they cosmetic only? Functional (i.e. ‘pay to win’)? Or big-ticket DLC? This is considered important because it could affect a consumer’s decision on whether to get the game in the first place.
When it comes to advertising the game itself (for example in trailers), the Guidance reminds us that showing items which can only be obtained through in-game purchases is permitted, but care must be taken not to imply that those items are included in the basic game, or that they are free or easy to obtain through normal play.
The ads must also make clear whether the content being advertised is paid-for (including whether it comes from a loot box).
Finally, as ever, game play shown in the ad must be representative of the game generally, and non-game play footage clearly identified.
The value of an item should be clear to consumers; they should be able to determine easily what the equivalent real world price is for the item and/or whether they will need to spend money on more virtual currency.