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MMO Family: Is it time to regulate MMO cash shops?

Karen Bryan

"I want it now!"

We're all familiar with that screechy demand by Veruca Salt in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And for those of us raising children, it's an all-too-common request. When kids want something, they'll pull out all the stops, and for many kids, that brand-new video game warrants an Oscar-winning tantrum.

MMOs, on the other hand, are a different breed because the bulk of kid-friendly MMOs are now free-to-play and make use of cash shops and a variety of subscription plans in order to generate revenue. In essence, MMOs have to work for their money now rather than rely on the traditional monthly subscription, but that has led to questions about how far studios should go in getting players to part with their money. In some instances, it's led to children (and some adults) spending large amounts of money without fully understanding what they've done. Should there be regulations on marketing practices of game companies?

A recent announcement by the U.K.'s Office of Fair Trading regarding web and app-based games might hint at that answer.

The investigation

According to the press release, the U.K.'s Office of Fair Trading is launching an investigation into "whether children are being unfairly pressured or encouraged to pay for additional content in 'free' web and app-based games, including upgraded membership or virtual currency such as coins, gems or fruit." It claims that "typically, players can access only portions of these games for free, with new levels or features, such as faster game play, costing money." The researchers are contacting companies who make free web or app-based games, and they're also seeking information from consumers about whether any games they've come across might have used misleading, aggressive, or unfair tactics in their marketing techniques. In this particular case, they're focused on whether these companies are too aggressive in persuading children or their parents to make a purchase, which is illegal under the 2008 Consumer Protection Regulations Act. They plan to announce their findings by October of this year.

MMOs next?

What does this mean for MMOs? Even though this press release is focused mainly on apps, you could easily see this investigation spread into MMOs. Free-to-play is now the rule rather than the exception, and there are all sorts of ways that game studios convince players to part with their money. In fact, MMOs are probably even more susceptible to an investigation because their core design is all about those little dopamine hits (leveling up, achievements, loot, shinies, etc.) that persuade people to keep playing. Some MMOs are more heavy-handed than others, and the industry really hasn't done a self-examination over the question "just because they could, doesn't mean they should." That moral grey area could easily include marketing techniques, and we all probably have stories of feeling "jerked around" by a game studio when it comes to our money, whether it's a poorly handled transaction or a frustrating experience with a cancellation.

While there are some real questions about some of the business practices of video games, and MMOs in particular, should a government agency take the reins and regulate this corner of the industry? The OFT cites examples where parents and kids download a free app and don't fully realize the potential costs later on if they wish to continue playing. But should they really expect to be able to play for free forever? How is a game studio supposed to keep going and pay its staff if it doesn't make any money on its product? When did good old-fashioned marketing turn into something prohibited? And if there are financial penalties placed on studios and on the marketplaces themselves, isn't the OFT essentially passing the cost of ill-informed people on to everyone else? I quickly looked through the CPR of 2008 and saw several examples that might be interpreted in such a way as to stifle many of the marketing practices in apps and MMOs today. That could potentially cast a pall over both the app stores and the MMO industry as a whole.

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Who's responsible?

When it comes to kid-friendly games, it's easy to see how a child might make a mistake and rack up enormous purchases without realizing what they've done. Kids are growing more and more tech-savvy each day, but their familiarity with gadgets is outpacing their knowledge of money management and their ability to sniff out and be wary of common advertising practices. It's hard for a child (and even many adults) to fully grasp the marriage between real money and the virtual, be it cash shop items or virtual currency. For a young child, a paper dollar might seem no different from a cash shop coin.

Of course, the one factor that has to be included is the parent. If little Danny spends thousands in a mere 15 minutes in Zombies vs. Ninjas, who is really to blame? We don't let our young children get behind the wheel of a car for good reason, and we certainly don't give them our credit cards and set them loose in a shopping mall, so why should we assume that children are responsible and mature enough to take caution when playing (and paying for) video games? And even if parents do let their children use their devices and computers, aren't there plenty of controls that block and prevent a child from spam-clicking the purchase button on their favorite game? Should it really be the duty of the OFT (or any government agency, for that matter) to decide who should be spending money on a game and how much they should spend? Kids will be kids, and someone needs to step in and give the little Veruca Salts of the world a reality check, but who should fill that role?

There's no doubt that the industry should continuously examine its marketing practices. If we're trying to immerse ourselves in a virtual world, should we have to see big splash screens constantly pop up asking for money, or should we have to sit through a video advertisement for a completely unrelated product so we can earn points to spend in game? Is it OK to basically play roulette with the cash shop in the hope that the hundredth lockbox we purchase will have something we really could use in game? Is it right to make a death penalty so steep that players basically have no choice but to hit the cash shop in order to get back in game? In short, if a game's cash shop is more about necessity than convenience, it might be time to rethink things.

In the end, one final factor that comes into play is the power of the pocketbook. Yes, there are isolated incidents of children (and adults) making reckless purchases, but on the other hand, there are many consumers who know that if a game is too aggressive or misleading in its marketing, there are plenty of other games that aren't. In fact, I think gamers are learning to judge a game not only by its content and its characters but also by its business practices. If a game decides to pursue a bottom-feeding route in order to generate revenue, it might make some money initially, but in the long run, it's bound to fail (we need look no further than the graveyard of -villes for proof of that). So while I appreciate the efforts of the OFT (and any other national government agency that might be mulling over whether to get involved), things seem to be sorting themselves out just fine as is.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to

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