Titles that are aimed at children like The Simpsons: Tapped Out are being looked at to see if any unfair pressure to buy extra items is being applied.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has turned its attention to the free-to-play market and is investigating whether or not players are being pressured into making in-app purchases.
The regulator is focusing on free web and app-based games targeted at children that then encourage additional content to be bought through micro-transactions.
The OFT will establish if these games are misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair with a particular focus on whether the titles include 'direct exhortations' to children, encouraging them to buy extra items. This form of pressure goes against the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2008.
‘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 OFT senior director for goods and consumer Cavendish Elithorn. ‘The OFT is not seeking to ban in-game purchases, but the games industry must ensure it is complying with the relevant regulations so that children are protected.’
The OFT has contacted several developers and game hosting services alongside parenting and consumer groups as part of the investigation, although was unable to say which specific organisations it had included.
There have been several incidents in the news recently of parents discovering that their children have run up outrageous bills through in-app purchases on mobile devices. In February, a five-year-old managed to spend £1,700 on the free-to-play Zombies v Ninja and last month an eight-year-old did something similar racking up a £1,000 bill in donuts on The Simpsons: Tapped Out.
Apple has initially been reluctant to refund users in similar situations although in both of the above cases have allowed it. In the US, following a ruling in Pennsylvania, the company is to pay approximately £66m in compensation to parents in similar situations, although it is not yet compelled to do the same in the UK.