Mobile game developers have a choice: Completely ignore what's happening in Italy right now, or prepare themselves for the fact that the "free" ride may soon be over.
As Reuters recently reported, the Italian government's antitrust division recently launched an investigation that targets Amazon, Apple, Google and GameLoft about the way they advertise free to play (F2P) games. The crux of the matter, as anyone in the industry might already have guessed, is that Italy is concerned that F2P titles come with a catch:
"Consumers could wrongly believe that the game is entirely free and, in any case, that they would know in advance the full costs of the game," the watchdog's statement said. "Moreover, insufficient information seems to be provided to consumers about the settings needed to stop or limit the purchases within the app."
Beyond the obvious difficulties for Italy to regulate or enforce regulations against some of the most international organizations on Earth, its choice of target is revealing. After all, GameLoft is the only publisher embroiled in the investigation, probably because it's large enough to pay whatever penalties might be determined. The same with the platform providers. And yet in-app purchases (IAPs) are really one of the few strategies for successful monetization among small and independent mobile game developers. Presumably by policing the app stores, Italy hopes to have a broader impact across the app community as a whole.
Make no mistake, however: This issue isn't going to be resolved in Italy, or even by the European Commission, which has launched its own probe. Much as public sector privacy officials began clamping down on the permissions required to collect and store personal information in exchange for an app download, F2P will become a hot potato in the U.S. sooner or later. Instead of avoiding it, developers should start developing their own position and response to what will inevitably be a call for comments and submissions by industry officials.
Of course, indie devs probably don't feel like it's worth their time and effort to act like some kind of industry lobbyist, but if IAPs represent their primary source of income from their work, they should think again. Just imagine some of the possible scenarios. It probably would not be enough to ban the term "free" or "F2P" from the app stores. What we may see instead are nuances such as "free to download" or (worse) "purchase required after installation." Right now on stores like Google Play the term "in-app purchases" often appears on the left-hand side of the game description, but regulators could choose to make those far more prominent, or launch education campaigns to ensure consumers know what they're getting into.
Not everyone is counting on IAPs to generate revenue. There are still mobile ads, subscription options and the occasional paid downloads. Maybe as this process unfolds we'll start to see more granular subcategories within F2P such as "free to complete." It may sound unlikely today, but if some developers believe mobile gamers will only get what they pay for, they're probably going to have to be more upfront about what consumers need to pay.--Shane