Web game extras get Office of Fair Trading scrutiny


Cavendish Elithorn, OFT: "It's important parents understand... how much they're going to cost"

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Web and phone games aimed at children that charge for extras are being investigated by the Office of Fair Trading.

The OFT wants to find out if the games put undue pressure on children to pay for additional content.

Many games ask players to pay to get coins, gems or other virtual items to speed their progress through levels.

The OFT wants to hear from parents who have seen firms aggressively pushing in-game content to children.

High cost

The investigation comes alongside media reports about children spending large sums on virtual items for smartphone and web games.

In March, five-year-old schoolboy Danny Kitchen, from Bristol, managed to rack up charges of more than £1,700 while playing the Zombies versus Ninjas game on his parents' iPad. The money has since been refunded by Apple.

The BBC's Technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones explains some of the things you can do to prevent charges from web and phone games

In January this year, regulator PhonePayPlus revealed it had seen a 300% increase in complaints from consumers about the bills generated when they buy add-ons for games and other apps.

In its investigation, the OFT wants to find out if the games are "misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair" when they give people the chance to buy extras. It also wants to find out if children are being specifically targeted by such applications.

"We are concerned that children and their parents could be subject to unfair pressure to purchase when they are playing games they thought were free, but which can actually run up substantial costs," said Cavendish Elithorn, the OFT's senior director for goods and consumer.

Makers of games that strongly encourage children to buy or pressure them to ask parents to buy on their behalf could be breaking laws on fair trading, said the OFT.

Mr Elithorn said the OFT did not want to ban in-game purchases, but wanted to be sure that games-makers are complying with relevant laws. Consumer groups or parents with evidence of games aggressively marketing in-game extras should contact the OFT, it said.

Figures gathered by the OFT reveal that the vast majority of the most popular smartphone games were free to install but raised cash for their creators via in-app purchases. Such extras were priced very differently, it said, with some costing only a few pence but the most high-priced were £70.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    The problem is a combination of user laziness combined with poor design on the part of Apple!!!

    1. You can delete your payment card details:
    Settings > iTunes & App Stores > Apple ID: yourname@email.com > View Apple ID
    Account > Payment Information > Payment Type > None
    Click Done.

    2. You can password restrict in-app purchasing and other things:
    Settings > General > Restrictions

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    Do not give apple your credit card details. Play free be unable to pay later in game.
    When it comes to children in the house, supervise them. Your fault if they run up bills no one else's. Use the controls available, have strong passwords your children will not guess not their names or birthdays, or the family pet's name.

    Any game that gives advantage to those that pay should be avoided anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    Although I agree that this is mostly the fault of poor parenting, I can see where this comes from.

    I remember watching a video done by "totalbiscuit" months ago about a news story where a girl spent $1400 on smurfberries in a smurf game.

    Turns out the game was set up to exploit it's young userbase to get them to buy as much useless add-ons as possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    Still recovering from the £30 of virtual coins I bought unknowingly...
    The lesson was cheaper than for other parents, I guess...

    Apple did not even acknowledge my complaint email, not enough spent maybe?

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    I have no sympathy to those parents that give their kids iPads and other smartphones to play with.

    If you want to see your child playing with something, given them an actual toy or a games console.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    Blatantly, blatantly a massive con!

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    Mobile devices are a curse. The parasitic "apps" which go with them play into the hands of advertisers. The app developers should be mortified. Their ubiquitous use is detaching people - especially children - further daily from reality. At the same time, they play next to no part in teaching children about technology. They are twit generating machines.

    I say this as a computer programmer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    The argument that parents are to blame is flawed. Parents are being active, but they are doing more than just adjusting the settings. That's why we are here having this discussion.

    A flat weekly cap of $10 or so sounds like a better default position. Then let parents opt in, as per 247.Del's point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    It would seem that parents could do worse than pay attention to what their progeny get up to instead of letting them play with phones & tablets. The only time that parents are aware of what their precious little charges get up to is when it costs them money, so 21C.

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    Whilst in-app purchases have their place, the extent to which they're abused by some developers is ludicrous; being able to spend £70+ on in-game "resources" is obscene, especially when it's not just a one-off occurrence needs to be stopped. Console games costing millions to develop generally sell for around £40, meanwhile something made for thousands could bankrupt you? That's simply not right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    Surely it's just stupid parents and kids just being, well, kids?

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    My brother in law worries about cloud services security so won't use them, but doesn't have a password on his wi-fi. You can lead them to water...

    iTunes vouchers are a good idea to cap spend, but some of us use Android devices. Perhaps use a pre-paid card that has to be topped up and can only have £X on it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.


    Can I please suggest you create a default low level for game charges. So if a game prompts for charges only £10per week can be paid. Unless the user changes the level, requiring further credit card details to be reentered.

    My friends young child racked up a large billing playing a game. I think the above could help parents better manage this.


  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    And there was me wondering where all the people who used to work at the FSA would get jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    If pirates aren't spending money on retail games, where purchase is legally necessary, what makes you think they would pay when it's optional (i.e. F2P)? Implying that people who used to pay have decided to start pirating would be fine if video game sales didn't increase year in, year out. Games cost more to make than ever; fewer games are financially successful as a result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    There are two problems with the current set up; firstly, there's a 15 minute window after entering a password where the password doesn't need to be entered again in order to make further purchases (default option); secondly, there are games that bypass the need for passwords while making in app purchases. It isn't true that all these stories relating to £1000 bills are due to lax parenting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    About time to, I know so many people who have been caught out. Apparantly you need to enter the password once and if you keep buying the password does not expire.

    I also feel that certain devices are unfairly sold to the public on the strength of software that doesn't come with it.

    I call them electronic pick pockets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    @238.Mark Smith
    Therefore the "free, but not free" business model has become the standard
    Free but not free. Exactly my point in 240...

    Like advertised "Unlimited Broadband" that is/was LIMITED and a con, even ruled by the advertising bodies as legal. Now they have the audacity to say "we have changed" and unlimited means really unlimited.

    WEASELS: just like Conmen and Bankers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    Gadgets today have no educational value, and as such no child should have anything more than a basic phone only capable of dialling family numbers, and no internet capability.

    A PC is far more educational, easier to supervise, and you can even control access to certain websites, software much more effectively.

    I believe this is where our problem lies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    The thing should do what it says on the tin.
    Advertisements should be accurate and truthful.
    ALL prices should be correct and steadfastly adhered to.
    There should be NO Hidden Charges of ANY description.

    Card Surcharges ought to be BANNED.

    After that people being stupid have no sympathy from me.


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