ASA issues guidance on advertising in-game purchases

Published on 5th Oct 2021

Developers may need to build in changes to game mechanics to comply with new guidance

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has issued new guidance following a public consultation into how the Advertising Codes should apply to marketing relating to in-game purchases in apps and video games. It focusses on how in-game purchases should be marketed in order to prevent harm or consumer.

What does the guidance relate to?

The new guidance applies to all forms of advertising for in-game products. This captures all forms of media, from the internet to television, and includes advertising within a game itself. This includes virtual storefronts, and how they present in-game purchases and even temporary pop-ups with prompts or inducements to buy.

Any advertisement for a purchase with real money clearly falls within the ASA's remit and will be assessed under the codes. However, the ASA's approach becomes more nuanced when virtual currencies are involved.

Stores using virtual currencies

The ASA is chiefly concerned with virtual currency which is a direct proxy for real money. This means, as a general rule, virtual currency which can be earned in-game, but also bought separately with real money, is "very unlikely" to be considered within the ASA's remit.

However, the ASA has acknowledged that the mechanics of virtual currencies can be complex, with large differences between games. The ASA has stated that it will make its assessments on a case-by-case basis, and will specifically look at how the virtual currency is obtained when deciding whether it will consider it a direct proxy for real money.

Will the ASA be more lenient if only cosmetic items are involved?

No. The ASA has not indicated that it will be more lenient if items involved in the breach are only cosmetic in nature (items whose only value is aesthetic, such as character "skins").

What does this mean for advertisements in-game?

It does not take much for a store with a virtual currency to potentially fall within the remit of the ASA. It has provided guidance on some areas of concern which advertisers should be aware of:

  • How in-game purchases are priced — material information must not be omitted or obscured. Advertisers should ensure there is a clear statement of the digital currency price, and easily accessible or clear signposting as to how much digital currency the player holds.
  • Odd-pricing — this is where an in-game item costs less virtual currency than the cost of the smallest virtual currency bundle. For example, where a sword costs 50 gold, but the lowest currency bundle is 80 gold.
  • Methods putting undue pressure on players — for example a short re-try timer with a prompt to buy currency, or implying success through buying
  • Random-chance item purchasing – for example, direct or implied suggestions that the next purchase will grant a rare/specific item
  • Limited time offers – such as for seasonal cosmetics and battle passes, where it should not be implied that items are only available for a specific time if the item will later be made available again or more generally.

What does this mean for advertising games that feature in-game purchasing?

The ASA acknowledges that the presence of in-game purchasing can be a material purchasing factor for consumers (especially vulnerable ones). As a result, it is keen to stress that advertising should make clear that in-game purchases are available, and that content requiring purchase or a significant investment of game time should not be presented as easily or quickly obtainable through standard play.

How will the ASA handle new complaints?

The new guidance will be subject to review after 12 months. The ASA has acknowledged that some changes to in-game content will be required and that this will take time to implement.

With that in mind, the ASA has indicated that it is willing to deal with complaints on an informal footing for:

  • six months for in-game content
  • three months for all other advertisements covered by the guidance.

A word about gambling

Following consultation, the ASA has now revised its guidance to remove phrases like "gambling-like activity" to avoid any confusion or ambiguity over what constitutes gambling. This is because the view of the Gambling Commission is that random chance "loot boxes" are not a gambling activity.

Osborne Clarke comment

The new guidance may require game developers to make changes not only to their advertisements, but also to their in-game mechanics. Developers should consider whether any changes are required and, if so, how this can be implemented. There is a six-month grace period in which the ASA will deal with in-game content complaints on an informal basis, but developers should probably be thinking about changes now and how best to implement them within a planned development cycle.

This article was produced with the assistance of Niall Shields, Trainee Solicitor.

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* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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