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"I didn't know what I was buying" is now a valid excuse for a gaming refund

Until today, I had assumed that the Federal Trade Commission had no interest or influence in the world of video games, affecting as much change to our hobby as the Better Business Bureau or online petitions (that is to say, basically none). Boy, was I wrong. CVG News reports that the FTC is effectively strong-arming Apple into refunding $32.5 million of expenses linked to in-app purchases kids made without parental consent. And while it's nice that little Tommy's parents will get back the hundred bucks he blew on Smurfberries, the news definitely raises some worrying questions that reach beyond mobile gaming.

First off, how in the hell will Apple sift through 37,000 claims and verify that they were all made by kids with no concept of pay-to-play? The FTC took particular concern with the App Store's purchasing policy, where confirmation is only required for an initial transaction before giving the buyer free reign for the next 15 minutes. Kid whines for his parent's credit card info, parent hastily enters it to appease the offspring, kid unknowingly (or more likely knowingly) goes on a spending spree before the validated account info expires.

Only, what if the kids never got involved? Couldn't a parent who's addicted to Smurfs' Village, FarmVille, or any variety of horrendous free-to-play mobile games lose themselves to a microtransaction fervor? Perhaps the next day, hungover from the rush of time coins, friendship points, or booster vouchers, they looked at their bank balance and realized how irresponsible their spending had been. What's stopping them from pinning it on the innocence of their dopey child?

The FTC's announcement seems to be the payoff of investigations that started as far back as 2011. Jon Leibowitz, then-chairman of the FTC, wrote that "consumers, particularly children, are unlikely to understand the ramifications of these types of purchases." Uh-oh. Couldn't that statement be made about randomized microtransactions that clutter dozens of the latest games? Say I really, really wanted a special class from a Mass Effect 3 booster pack, or a kickin' new Tauntaun mount in a Star Wars: The Old Republic Cartel Pack (I didn't plan the common EA thread, it just happened). If I went through 100 purchases and never got the item I wanted, how was I supposed to know the odds? It could be construed that I didn't, in Leibowitz's words, "understand the ramifications" of how stupidly I was spending my money.

Author Rob Fahey claims that some microtransactions are "explicitly designed to convince people to spend money on things they don't actually want...they disproportionately target people who are bad at delayed gratification or not educated about such underhanded tactics." In other words, the most insidious in-game purchases are like Jedi mind tricks, subversively coercing us into reaching for our wallets again and again. If the FTC could somehow be convinced that I felt exploited by a free-to-play game, could I reverse hundreds in microtransaction expenditures scot-free? It'd be like getting away with the murder of my bank account by pleading temporary, freemium-induced insanity.

Of course, all this is postulation, and I don't have the answers to these questions. And even if the FTC can convince Apple to reimburse millions in microtransations, that'd just be a drop in Apple's $15 billion bucket. But it's interesting to imagine: If big companies can be forced to refund money spent by the gullible minds of children, what happens to deluded adults who seem incapable of breaking their microtransaction addiction? Because in both cases, it could be said that they just didn't know any better.

33 comments

  • jmcgrotty - March 29, 2014 2:44 p.m.

    This is a great thing. The fact of the matter is that people are idiots, and sometimes they need to be protected from themselves.
  • Trollkitten - March 31, 2014 9:56 a.m.

    SOME people are idiots, or else all people are idiots, but in different ways. How can one idiot protect another idiot from themselves if both are idiots in the same way? ...never mind; that's a whole metaphysical can of worms that I'm not sure this is the time or place to open.
  • wcwwolf - January 21, 2014 6:13 p.m.

    Personally, I'd much rather see someone step in and say that if electronics are horrible, they can be opened and returned
  • nai1210 - January 17, 2014 9:05 a.m.

    I would love for microtransactions,and over the top dlc models to dissappear for good,get back to games rewarding the players skill with unlockables,the more the ftc do with this kind of thing with apple the better to be honest,not.entirely against all dlc,proper expansions to the story or experience is fine but extra costumes,or cars like forza 5 style no thanks
  • SnakeinmyBoot - January 17, 2014 12:11 p.m.

    I'm with you on the DLC getting toned way down. But, so many people have given in to the companies that love DLCing their games to death. It's like feeding an animal once outside your house; it now sees your home as a source of food and will keep coming back. These companies love the quick cash selling $1 costumes and minigames. All we can really hope for is people becoming more money conscious or more realistically the FTC mandating some new requirements for customers to go through to verify they are the card holders.
  • Trollkitten - March 31, 2014 9:59 a.m.

    Personally, I would say that cosmetic DLC is a heck of a lot better than consumable DLC or upgrade DLC, at least in multiplayer games (especially in the case of the latter). On the other hand, cosmetic DLC is better in online multiplayer games than in single-player games where you're the only one who sees it.
  • DualWieldingIsNotFeasible - January 17, 2014 12:30 a.m.

    I'm hoping this will help reverse the trend of console titles emulating the mobile market. Let's face it: we've been beating the dead horse of "mobile games are stupid" for years now, but we AREN'T WRONG. EA and Activision desperately want us to blindly poor money into games we already spent $60 for, but maybe the fear that angry parents will start suing them because little Johnny didn't understand microtransactions will puts the breaks on that particular crazy train.
  • Whit - January 16, 2014 7:05 p.m.

    Children can not legally use a credit card. For the same reason we don't market liquor and cigarettes to children, it should not be possible to run up bills in the $100's or $1,000's playing a game marketed to children. Watch Nickelodeon--at the end of every cartoon there is an add for a freemium game like the Smurfs or SpongeBob. Why games like that are marketed to children that do not have the means to pay for the games is the heart of the issue.
  • NinjaPopsicle - January 16, 2014 2:11 p.m.

    "explicitly designed to convince people to spend money on things they don't actually want..." Isn't that what advertising in general is all about? Sweet, I'm gonna use this to get my money back for my entire Steam library and PSN purchases. My "kid" bought it all, he's a moron and I have no parental responsibility, I swear! Thanks FTC! :D
  • g1rldraco7 - January 16, 2014 1:58 p.m.

    No wonder everyone forgot Dead Space 3, micro transactions were all over and inside it like blueberry pancakes. I spend enough money buying games and i watch my DLC purchases so why would I need to pay more just to have some gun or parts to make a better weapon. I like unlocking stuff in games and one example is the Dragon Age Origins DLC. Sure sometimes it makes you want to bite stuff stuff and yell for being a dick, but getting that rare weapon to use in the main game is worth it. Sorry I got off topic, I see that these transactions shouldn't be in free to play games just to squeeze more money out of people. Shame on those who exploit people's love of games except mobile games :P
  • GOD - January 16, 2014 11:46 a.m.

    Boooo! I prefer the original and far more confusing title! Once you read the whole article the title makes sense and before that it's confusing enough to make me so curious that I have to click it.
  • BladedFalcon - January 16, 2014 10:32 a.m.

    Hrm. On one hand, I can definitely see this being abused a LOT by either idiots or just people without scruples just to get their money back on a huge spending spree, which of course, is immoral and having the government facilitating that is kinda worrying... THEN AGAIN, micro-transactions in general is an incredibly shitty and sneaky business practice in the first place, so do we really care if those money hungry companies get screwed over for it? I mean, in this specific case I could see this being an incredibly GOOD thing, because it'll either make companies be far more careful with what they try to sneak in as microtransactions, or at the very least it'll force them to put far more warnings and barriers that will make the process more of a hassle and thus brining in less revenue. Either way way companies get hurt for using that shitty model, so it's a win-win scenario in my mind. Of course, this also has the potentially problematic side-effect of applying to even more common or fair purchases such as entire games or so, in which case, this also would affect to the more honest companies and developers out there, and that would be bad.
  • jduanej - January 16, 2014 12:18 p.m.

    How is micro-transaction a sneaky and shitty business practice?
  • BladedFalcon - January 16, 2014 1:56 p.m.

    Simple, if they are present in a game that already cost you money to buy, you're essentially asking a customer who already PAID for your product, to pay even MORE for small extras, weapons, costumes or things that normally SHOULD be just easily unlockable in the game. A game which you already paid for. In free games, they are worse since the overwhelming majority of games are designed around the idea of making you WANT to pay money in order to progress trough the game or get more out of it quickly. Even solid games like Plants Vs Zombies2 are hurt negatively by this practice because the way the game is now structured, it forces you to pay to unlock more stages OR grind stages for random keys in order to do it for free. Basically, Microtransactions are shit because they are ALWAYS done in a way that forces you or heavily try to push you to pay money to do something in a game that normally would be either a) included in the game itself already b)accomplished with much less hassle or grinding or c)unlocked by skill rather than luck.
  • jduanej - January 16, 2014 3:06 p.m.

    I do agree that paid games which have the microtransaction model are bad in the way they make you pay to progress, even after you have already paid for the title. The microtransaction design can be good, both for players and developers. An example would be purchases for "Extra" items to customize your player/base in some way that has no real impact on gameplay...it's just fluff. Also, grinding vs paying to progress faster is very tricky to design. most casual games really exploit this and yes, it does kill the design from a players perspective, like cheating. And this is something that can also be designed right. The fact that it exists, doesn't make it a bad choice.
  • BladedFalcon - January 16, 2014 3:37 p.m.

    Thanks for seeing where I'm coming from. And yes, I suppose the model itself isn't inherently "bad"... it's just that so far, I've yet to play a game with Microtransactions in which I think "Man, thank god for these! the game would be so much crappier without them!" Thinking about it more, I think my problem with them as a concept is that they are essentially a barrier that separates the gamer from content, and while I can see how, in theory, having a free game with micro-transactions is a model that lowers the barrier of entry for players... Again, I almost always see that it's utilized in a way that ends up being more annoying for the customer than if they just paid a game in full. And again, not saying they don't exist, or that they could never exist, but so far I've yet to see a good example that justifies why this model should exist, or that is better than the more traditional method of "pay upfront for a product, enjoy all the content without having to pay more."
  • birdro - January 16, 2014 2 p.m.

    While not all games implement it as such, a very large number of apps in particular use the microtransaction strategy as a method of blocking content to either thoe who pay, or those who are willing to wait/save for incredibly inconvenient periods of time. A lot of people are upset by the "pay to win" mentality companies are so enticed by, and it's becoming more obvious that it's to the point where it is hurting even full price game experiences, like with the Mass Effect screenshot shown above, where you are essentially playing lottery for what may be essential in-game items come a certain level of play, the alternative being grinding in an environment where odds have been skewed past what was once considered "standard" for the sake of driving appeal for transactions.
  • Whit - January 16, 2014 7:11 p.m.

    Micro-transactions in a SpongeBob MoveIn--why are they there? The game is marketed on the Nickelodeon channel to little kids. How can a child ever legally make a credit card purchase? They can't and developers should not be marketing games with micro-transactions to those that can't legally make purchases.
  • Jackonomics2.0 - January 16, 2014 10:09 a.m.

    Oh well, were surrounded by morons
  • chad-munn - January 16, 2014 11:09 a.m.

    I...um.... let's just say your post left me with a new level of understanding about this problem.

Showing 1-20 of 33 comments

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