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Spend & Save

Simon Read: Let's hope the watchdog's clampdown will stop games companies tricking kids


As a father of two teenage boys I was very pleased to see the Office of Fair Trading's crackdown this week on the online games industry.

The watchdog has given games producers a deadline of 1 April to comply with new rules which force them to ensure people know the cost of a game before they start playing and clicking.

I've written several times of my anger at so-called freemium app games which cost nothing to download but then trick kids to spend hundreds of pounds on in-game treasures or trophies.

They are constantly encouraged to pay for must-have content such as upgraded membership or virtual currency in forms including coins, gems or fruit.

The games industry is making millions of pounds of profits by exploiting young people in this way. And with kids often more tech savvy than their parents, they can easily pick up passwords which gives them online access to parents' bank accounts or credit cards.

A report published last year estimated that parents were forced to stump up an extra £30m in the previous 12 months after their children accessed their smartphones and iPads and used them to play games and buy extras.

It's called drip-pricing and it's very misleading for unwary consumers. Effectively unscrupulous games companies wait until someone is hooked on a game and then tell them that they need to pay out if they want to get to a higher level or complete it.

The new rules should help stop this happening. Costs will have to be shown clearly and prominently before the consumer begins to play, download or sign up to a game.

The costs must also be broken down to specify the cost of signing up as well as optional in-game extras which can be bought.

The rules also make clear that in-game payments must not be taken and will be considered unauthorised unless - and this is the crucial bit - the payment account holder, normally the child's parent, has given his or her express, informed consent.

When parents see that completing a game may cost hundreds of pounds, they are much less likely to let their children play.

If you know that letting a child complete a game on your phone or iPad would cost, say, £500, would you give your blessing?

Of course not. I hope the new rules stamp out the dodgy practices. If games companies can't make enough profit from fair upfront pricing then they need to rethink their business plan.

In future that plan should not be simply based around tricking kids into handing over cash.


Twitter: @simonnread