Free-to-play games are ‘grooming children’ to part with money, says Dungeon Keeper creator

Saqib Shah
March 10, 2014

Fable and Dungeon Keeper creator Peter Molyneux has warned that “brutal” and “greedy” free-to-play (f2p) mechanics are inviting government legislation, something he believes will be detrimental to the industry.

“We cannot continue to be obsessively greedy with our consumers, grooming children for hundreds of pounds from their parents’ accounts,” he told Develop.

Molyneux has fallen out of favour with f2p games since one of his titles, Dungeon Keeper, was rebooted as a mobile game using the format.

His latest comments arrive in the wake   of new rules concerning in-app purchases in kids’ games following an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) – most UK mobile game developers have welcomed the changes.

UK games companies have been told they have until April 1st “to get their house in order”, and must now be upfront about all associated costs with a game, such as if they include microtransactions or whether they use in-game advertising.

Failure to comply with the new principles could result in enforcement action from April 1st onward. The OFT claims it has worked closely with international partners to ensure new principles are “consistent with the laws of most key jurisdictions to help raise standards globally”.

The same goes for the rest of the EU, which recently began scrutinising free-to-play games over the use of “misleading” in-app purchases. Consequently the European Commission – which oversees such matters – met with with app developers and platform holders, including Apple and Google, to discuss the issue following complaints from consumer groups from across Europe.

One of the main points raised during these discussions was that mobile games “should not contain direct exhortations to children to buy items in a game or to persuade an adult to buy items for them”. Additionally, the EC did not rule out the possibility of enforcement action if the proposed principles or rules are not met.

Meanwhile, the mobile gaming industry continues to go from strength to strength. According to a report by the International Data Corporation, gamers spent more than four times as much money on  Google  Play smartphone and tablet games in the fourth quarter of 2013 as they did a year earlier, while the revenue brought in by games on iOS App Store more than doubled over the same period.

In-app purchases on f2p games, however, are made by a merefraction of mobile gamers – according to the findings of a report by in-app marketing company Swerve. In terms of percentages, an astounding 50% of all in-app revenue is generated by purchases from just  0.15%  of players.

Breaking down those figures further, a majority 60% of the purchases made within the first two weeks of a player’s lifetime are made on the first day. In other words, the cult of free-to-play gamers either have short attention spans or the games themselves aren’t sustaining user attention. How many gamers out there are willing to wager that it’s more likely to be the latter option?

Some industry insiders believe that the new OFT guidelines could change all that for the better. “They could assist developers in not only making games that meet their fair trade obligations, but should also result in games with better usability, understandability, and which deliver better experiences for players of all ages.”

Could the backlash and consequent scrutinisation of f2p games lead to the creation of better, more creative and enduring titles? Only time will tell. But perhaps Molyneux is right in stating that the focus should switch from a’ free-to-play’ model to ‘invest-to-play’, resulting in a more responsible way of monetising free games.

About the Author

Saqib Shah

Tech/gaming journalist for What Mobile magazine and website. Interests include film, digital media and foreign affairs.

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