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UK advertising authority set guidance for in-game purchases

The Advertising Standards Agency wave a warning finger

As various UK agencies and organisations continue to regard microtransactions and loot boxes with escalating curiosity and suspicion, the Advertising Standards Authority have laid out new guidelines for advertising in-game in purchases. Basically, they think games should be clear about what they're selling and how much things cost in real money, and that advertising shouldn't pressure or mislead. The ASA are relatively toothless but fairly prolific, and their interest might lead to more official interest.

The ASA last week issued new guidance on advertising in-game purchases, our corporate siblings The European Gamer noticed. The ASA are the UK advertising industry's self-regulatory body, and don't establish or enforce regulations but they aren't wholly useless. UK broadcasters are required to follow ASA rulings, and the ASA can refer issues to bodies with actual teeth. They also issue public shamings which can: 1) apply pressure 2) be funny.

Their concern with in-game purchases focuses on those made with premium virtual currencies. They explain, "If the virtual currency is only obtained by purchasing it in a real-world transaction then the storefront and any inducements to purchase items will be considered to be advertising for the purposes of the [Committee Of Advertising Practice] Code." If you can earn the digicash, that doesn't coint. But if you can only buy it, they say "the virtual currency is acting as a direct proxy for real money, and the decision to spend it is fundamentally a decision to spend real money". This might seem obvious but even that is a contentious declaration within the industry.

So! They say that when it comes to stores selling items for virtuacurrency you can't earn, customers "should be able to determine easily what the equivalent realworld price is for the item and/or whether they will need to spend money on more virtual currency." And if an item can be by playing, marketing shouldn't imply you can only get it through paying.

They also speak about the practice of "odd-pricing", where the prices of items don't line up neatly with the quantities that virtual currencies are sold in. You know, like how you always end up with like 50 Gems or whatever left over (a practice I hardly think is by accident). Games with this issue, the ASA say, should provide "sufficient information about the costs of their currency bundles to allow consumers to determine the real-world cost of the item when the virtual currency purchase is taken into account." They suggest, "A footnote such as 'Minimum currency purchase is X' is likely to be sufficient."

As for loot boxes, the ASA acknowledge that they're an issue for some folks, whether they just dislike them or have "specific vulnerabilities." Accordingly, "marketers should ensure that advertising for the game makes clear that the game contains in-game purchasing and, if relevant, that this includes random-item purchasing".

More on the free-to-play side, they say in-game ads like "pop-up offers to purchase extra resources to complete or retry a failed level, or to skip waiting times," should "avoid the use of mechanics that may place undue pressure onto players and prevent them from making an informed choice or mislead them as to the nature of the purchase." But that's the whole point of those, to pressure people. Lot of quibbling over 'undue' to come, I imagine.

When it comes to marketing games themselves, they say gameplay in trailers should be "generally representative" of the actual game and any footage that isn't should be labelled as such. Advertisers also should be careful not to imply paid extras are included with the basic game.

You can read the ASA's full guidance over here. They also published responses from various bodies they asked to comment on the guidance, both in favour and against, and a statement reflecting on those responses. Yeah, the industry really isn't keen easing up.

I have experienced so many of the practices the ASA warn against, especially in free-to-play mobile games. For years the games industry have honed the art of obfuscating information and pressuring players. The ASA's guidance won't put an end to it but is another indicator of authorities' increased interest, and that could lead to change.

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