On 30 September and 17 November 2020, the Italian Competition Authority (Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato – AGCM) set new transparency standards for the offering of videogames containing in-game purchasing and loot boxes in two decisions. In short, the in-game purchase function allows players to obtain through real money several items (such as weapons, equipment, special moves, upgrades linked to the nature of the game, virtual coins, etc.), that may allow the upgrade of your fictional character and progress quickly in the game. In other cases, subjects of in-game purchases are aesthetic or choreographic improvements of the character without affecting the performance of the game. Loot boxes (or other forms of random paid items, like card packs or prize wheels) are a special type of in-game purchases, where players do not know what they are obtaining prior to the purchase. Depending on the game, these items may be purely aesthetic or they may have functional value for the gaming experience.
AGCM found that the websites used by some videogame publishers did not adequately inform users of the fact that some free-to-play videogames contained in-game purchases. Indeed, the authority ascertained that publishers had disseminated misleading information and/or omissions regarding the characteristics and costs to be incurred in videogames that implemented in-game purchases and loot boxes, even when children and teenagers could use these games. Furthermore, parents would be prevented from making an informed purchase or monitoring their children’s gaming activities. AGCM stated that said conduct was likely to mislead consumers regarding the game’s features and actual costs incurred for its use and, therefore, triggered an unfair commercial practice under the Italian Consumer Code.
The videogames publishers responded that: (i) they had implemented a parental control system, (ii) the in-game purchases were not linked to the gaming experience, (iii) they had provided sufficient information about in-game purchases included in their videogames, (iv) the videogames complied with Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) rules. Notwithstanding the above, the publishers proposed a number of commitments to the AGCM to close the investigation. More specifically, the publishers proposed that they will:
- use the PEGI pictogram flagging “in-game purchases” on the videogame detail page with bigger dimensions that make it more visible. As per loot boxes, it will be used the Italian version of the disclaimer drafted by PEGI system to inform users if the game features paid random items (“Includes Paid Random Items“). The pictogram will be shown in the first frame of the webpage, in a prominent and transparent position;
- extend the use of PEGI pictogram and disclaimer in other gaming websites;
- use the caption “Offers the possibility of making optional purchases” to better clarify the presence of in-game purchases;
- avoid claims like “Play for free” and “Free for all“, as long as they are able to mislead consumers;
- specify to consumers the chances to get the contents of the loot boxes, card packs, etc. within the game webpage and the game store;
- improve the parental control system by sending parents an email during the registration process of children’s accounts including a link to the parental control management and ensuring functionalities allowing parents to actively consent minors’ in-game purchases. An option named, for instance, “Allow in-game purchases” must be voluntarily selected by the parent by actively flagging a box;
- notify the adoption of such measures to third-party platforms operating in videogame distribution.
AGCM has positively evaluated the commitments of the videogame publishers, considering them adequate to ensure transparency for consumers about the purchase they are about to make or of the product they are about to download, Accordingly, AGCM closed the cases without issuing any sanction.
These two decisions constitute the leading cases for the regulation of in-game purchases and loot boxes in Italy, as it sets a benchmark that all other videogames publisher are now expected to follow – at least until new features will hit the scene in such a fast-growing and evolving industry.