UK agency the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has begun contacting game developers and publishers as part of an investigation to determine if any free-to-play games are acting within the law. While the OFT won't name names at this point, it says that it is contacting companies who have games with micro-transactions in them currently on the market.
"As part of the investigation, the OFT has written to companies offering free web or app-based games, seeking information on in-game marketing to children."
The OFT is apparently trying to determine if these games use any tactics to sell its virtual goods using "misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair" methods to get consumers to buy in-game items.
In particular, the OFT is looking into whether these games include 'direct exhortations' to children – a strong encouragement to make a purchase, or to do something that will necessitate making a purchase, or to persuade their parents or other adults to make a purchase for them," the group said.
Something along the lines of highlighting "Buy Now" is one example of that. The OFT says that such practices would be "unlawful under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act of 2008".
If the OFT finds that a publisher or developer is in violation of the law, they will be asked to remove the offending elements from their game(s). It also said it has the power to take game companies to court, if they do not follow their requests in a timely manner.
The OFT also cautioned that it is not seeking to ban in-game purchases:
Cavendish Elithorn, a senior director at OFT, said that "is not seeking to ban in-game purchases," but it is concerned about protecting children from aggressive sales practices from game makers:
"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," the regulator said. "The games industry must ensure it is complying with the relevant regulations so that children are protected. We are speaking to the industry and will take enforcement action if necessary."