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The European Union Is Looking Into Regulation For Free To Play

The European Union is the latest regulatory body to turn its attention to free to play games - so named because their revenue comes not from sales, but from advertising and in-app purchases.They aren't the first government to make an attempt at regulating the genre: last year, Japan declared the Kompu Gacha system used by many free to play games to be illegal; the UK Office of Fair Trading last month issued a set of rules designed to improve transparency and prevent the targeting of children. With that in mind, why is the EU's attention such a big deal? 

For a few reasons. First and foremost, it represents one of the largest and most lucrative freemium markets on the planet. Because of this, any regulations imposed within the EU will inevitably bleed over into larger markets; businesses will have no choice but to fall in line. 

Secondly, there's the fact that any regulation of freemium is that proper regulation will give developers some sort of baseline they can follow.  See, freemium is still a relatively new business model; for this reason, many of the developers involved in it have no real guidelines to follow, no best practices to which they can refer. They're basically flying blind. 

Lastly,  there's the EU's track record to consider. Historically, the government tends to ignore accusations of being "anti-business," enacting legislation that favors the consumer above all else. In other words, they're acting as governments should act - in the best interests of their people. That said, they're not going out of their way to screw over businesses and game developers - most of their legislation will be of the "common sense" vein. 

By doing this with free to play games, the European Union is targeting the worst of the worst - the abusive, underhanded developers who give the entire model a bad name. See, because it's still relatively new, not everyone has accepted freemium into their hobby. As such, anyone who abuses the model - such as EA with the new Dungeon Keeper - gives the entire genre a bad name,and damages its reputation with ordinary consumers, mainstream media, and consumer interest groups.

Regulation will force such abusive developers to act in a more responsible manner, lest they be penalized for breaking the law. Not only that - as noted by gamesindustry International - it'll demonstrate that the vast majority of free to play developers aren't actually all that bad. By eliminating the bad eggs, the business model will gain more widespread acceptance amongst consumers. 

I suspect much of the consultation within the EU will involve making consumers more aware of when - and how - they're spending money within mobile and free-to-play applications; for example, requiring a cardholder to be present when a credit card purchase is put through, similar to the regulations put in place in the UK - basically, they're going to tackle behavior which could be considered anti-consumer. 

With that in mind, I doubt they're going to directly address stuff like prices, frequency of payments, and point systems. While things such as paywalls and pay-to-win could potentially be included in new legislation, it's far likelier they'll just let developers learn from their mistakes. Same deal with platform owners - though I'd imagine they're going to hold Google and Apple more accountable for the conduct of studios hosted on their stores. 

The free to play genre isn't going away anytime soon. However, if it's to gain widespread acceptance both in the mainstream and among core gamers, it needs to be regulated in some fashion, preferably on a global basis. Legislation passed in the EU would be the first step towards making this happen.

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Nicholas Greene
Nick's Games Haven
InventorSpot.com
Follow me on Twitter @OmniscientSpork