This morning, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that an e-mail ad for Electronic Arts' much-maligned Dungeon Keeper [Free] was misleading to the average consumer. Specifically, the ASA took issue with the ad's claim that Dungeon Keeper was "free," ruling that the ad didn't include crucial information about the game's in-app purchases.

The ASA is a self-regulating group that monitors and regulates advertising in the United Kingdom. They began investigating the Dungeon Keeper ad after a user filed an official complaint, claiming that the "gameplay was severely limited unless in-app purchases were made," despite the game's billing as a "free" game. In its response, EA understandably stuck to their guns, explaining that users aren't forced to buy any of the game's premium currency to progress.

EA's defense hinges on two major points. The first is based on usage, spending, and completion data that apparently show that non-spenders were able to reach the end of Dungeon Keeper, and that non-spenders didn't take "significantly" more time to do so than players who shelled out for extra "Gems." Judging by the ASA's ruling (and more on that in a bit), they weren't convinced. Unfortunately, the ASA's ruling doesn't include any of the data provided by EA.

The second half of EA's response, as transcribed in the ASA's ruling, is that "the average player would expect a free-to-play title to be monetized with countdown timers and premium currency," and that "the mechanics of Dungeon Keeper were well within the average length and frequency for the market." Again, based on the ASA's ultimate decision, they clearly don't agree.

In its official ruling, the ASA upheld the original complaint while acknowledging that, ok, sure, you can technically play Dungeon Keeper for free. "However, from the information available in the ad, players would expect the gameplay progression and their ability to advance to be unhindered by unexpected and excessively onerous delays, and we therefore considered that the length and frequency of these countdown events was beyond that which would be reasonably expected by players," the assessment says.

The assessment continues: "We consequently considered it likely that many players would regard the gameplay experience as unexpectedly curtailed."

The verdict continues to explain that because the ASA found that players could not have a "reasonable" gameplay experience without spending money, the game's advertising—which bills Dungeon Keeper as free-to-play and doesn't mention in-app purchases at all—is misleading to consumers.

Keeping in mind that the ASA is a watchdog group primarily concerned with advertising, there are a few interesting ideas at play. The first is that EA's appeal depends on Dungeon Keeper being in-line with players' expectations and other games on the market. The ASA, on the other hand, seeks to protect consumers from "unexpected delays" and to ensure that the gameplay is "reasonable" with respect to how it's advertised.

In other words, EA could legitimately call Dungeon Keeper "free" in its ads if the timers had been shorter or more reasonable. Or, they could simply make it clear in their advertising that the game included in-app purchases.

The ASA can only review complaints brought by customers and consumers, however. Dungeon Keeper's legacy, publisher, and issues have been well-publicized, making it a more likely target of complaints than the hundreds of other free-to-play games.

That said, it's not like the Advertising Standards Authority can force developers to make better free-to-play games. However, it can change the way EA markets future free-to-play games in the United Kingdom. In addition to some bad publicity, the ASA can force companies to have their ads vetted for accuracy, encourage media outlets not to buy un-vetted ads, or refer repeat offenders to Office of Fair Trading or Office of Communication, who can in turn issue fines, take legal action, or revoke certain licenses.

Here's the ASA's punishment: "The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Electronic Arts Ltd to ensure that future ads made clear the limitations of free gameplay and role of in-app purchasing with regard to speeding up gameplay."

If you're particularly interested in the ASA and its ruling, the whole thing is quite readable and does a great job of neatly laying out the kinds of problems designers grapple with when they make free-to-play games. Read it here.

As for EA and Dungeon Keeper? We hated the game in our review, as did the series' original designer, Peter Molyneux. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts have since scuttled developer Mythic Entertainment.

If there's anything to be hopeful about, it's that EA CEO Andrew Wilson insists that his company will do better in the future: "When you're thinking about any business model, premium, subscription, free-to-play, value has to exist. Whether it's a dollar, $10, $100 or $1000, you have to delivering value, and always err on the side of delivering more value, not less."

  • torosama

    Cough *BS* cough! I played this for months, almost 6 months before it was released in US App Store and in that time I couldn't accumulate enough gems to unlock the 5th imp and there was still what, 3 more imps? That didn't even include the immortals they released . Even if you cleared all the spaces in the dungeon and ran their weekly raid for gem prizes you could never get enough gems. There was a solid wall you could not get through.

    • SophiaHollandrom

      My Uncle
      Riley got an almost new red GMC Canyon just by some parttime working online
      with a laptop. visit their website F­i­s­c­a­l­p­o­s­t­.­C­O­M­

      • anabolicMike

        Oh god! A canyon! I wouldn't drive that if I had to walk. Jesus.

  • worldcitizen1919

    This is why its important for gamers to stand up for their rights. Whatever the result be it forces all devs to stand up and take note. Sure its only F2P but still kudos to that gamer that took it to a complaint board. We might get a fairer go at least from EA. Although it's only EA for now its a beginning in clawing back our rights as gamers to not be misled.

    • gmattergames

      Stand up for our rights? In a free market, the consumers right is to abstain from participating in it. I'm no fan of how EA has whored out some their beloved IP's, but they didn't force anyone to buy anything. Just because the value of what they sell (IAP's) is worthless, it doesn't mean the misrepresented or misled.

      The only outrage should be the frivolous waste of tax dollars that funds the ASA to peruse these kind of cases. Only mistake EA made was not properly greasing the beurocracy.

      • Happy W

        "The only outrage should be the frivolous waste of tax dollars that funds the ASA"

        Preach it, brother/sister!

        ...Except the ASA is the *self-regulating* body of the advertising industry, funded by that industry itself, so your "tax dollars" aren't really being wasted here.

        ...And this is a UK organisation, so your "dollars" don't really come into it at all.

        But, er, apart from that, Ayn Rand would be proud of you, kiddo!

      • gmattergames

        I stand corrected, thought ASA was akin to US DoJ, still, the outrage is misplaced; I don't need someone to protect me from EA and there Ad. Otherwise, with Rands primary position being centered on individuals rights to pursue happiness and a corruption free economic system, then, I'll take that as a compliment, unless, of coarse, you like the idea of special interest groups and authorities like the ASA deciding what's best for you.

      • Happy W

        I must confess that — guessing you were an admirer of Ayn Rand — I wrote that last sentence to suggest she would have been somewhat *disappointed* in you, for rushing into an argument without having your facts straight.

        If I'd been in a friendlier mood at the time, I might have just said "Keep your powder dry, friend."

  • Zeital

    It's what EA is getting good at. Shitty 'freemiun' that really isn't free.

  • McBlink

    Couldn't have happened to a better company.

    • http://whanethewhip.wikidot.com/ Whane The Whip

      Is that sarcasm? If not then you are wholly unfamiliar with EA's track record.

      • McBlink

        Really?

      • Jake7905

        EA was once known as Electronic Arts, nowadays the more appropriate name would be Electronic Assets. It's a sad story of greed trumping good taste.

      • mobius438

        Egregious Absurdity

  • Jake7905

    Any game on the App Store that's free to download, but requires IAP for gameplay progression, is guilty of false advertising. "Free-to-Play, Includes optional In-App-Purchases"? Not really, it's more like "Free-to-Download, Includes IAP for Gameplay Progression".

    • mschmeh

      Puzzles and dragons is iconic for free to play there not all scams, I could play the game for ever for free but I choose to buy iaps from them to make the game better, and support the dev if it's anything ea needs to learn something from gung-ho

  • MrSpud

    "EA understandably stuck to their guns, explaining that users aren't forced to buy any of the game's premium currency to progress."

    If you have to wait because of timers, you're not playing and you're not progressing, how can they justify saying that?

    I'm sure you could finish the game if you're willing to put up with that crap but saying that you don't have to pay money to progress isn't true when you are starring at a countdown and there's nothing you can do unless you spend money.

  • C. Stubb

    While I'm all for taking cheap shots at games in the wrong corner of the free-to-play market, I can't help but feel that the ASA's ruling sets an unfortunate precedent. All bias aside, (and I feel as if there is a lot of bias against this particular title, which it probably deserves...) I find the accusation to be, in a word, frivolous. The game itself is free; EA made no lies about that in their advertisement. Letting ASA get away with this could potentially open the door for them to harass developers again in the future. And next time, their target may not be one we'd all like to see taking hits anyway.

    • Joseph Leray

      Yeah, I think that's a legitimate worry. Like, how does the ASA determine what a "reasonable gameplay experience" (their words, not mine) is?

      That said, it's not like the ASA has a broad remit to track down and chastise advertisers -- someone actually has to file a formal complaint first. They can't "harass" developers as much as they can investigate complaints from consumers, and even then, their scope is limited to advertising and marketing literature.

  • anabolicMike

    Good job these ASA people. Can't force companies to make the games fair because that would be communism but you can force them to tell the truth in their ads! Very nicely done. I hope they get some bad rep for this because I was very disappointed on dungeon keeper. I didn't even install it because of the articles TouchArcade wrote. I loved the original one. It was awesome! In fact I think I may go buy it on gog or see if it's in the humble store :). I loved that game. I missed lots of days in college because of it to be honest. Hah

  • Morgan01

    Under what guise does EA claim that the average user expects to have timers and IAPs in games? EA has been at the forefront of pushing the Freemium limits so that's how they have developed it. Not all Freemium games are laced with timers and IAPs the way EA has incorporated them. Still, it is about time that titles start being straight forward and definitive on what is expected or required to play a game. Mobile game developers have been getting away with many things that in most industries would be considered illegal, from copy right infringements to misleading products and customers. There is very little regulations when it comes to the Internet. Europe is at the forefront of trying to protect people's rights when it comes to the internet, personal privacy and questionable actions. I applaud them.

    • Intendro

      The average user should expect that a game actually wants them to play it instead of wanting them to go play something that doesn't have timers. There's plenty of those... Timers should've died out ages ago. Nobody wants to play a game that doesn't actually let them play it!

  • Happy W

    There's another very interesting bit if you click through to the ASA report:

    EA claim that the timers and premium currency in Dungeon Keeper aren't there just to make them money; these are features which also make the game more enjoyable for players. EA say they would have put timers in the game even if Dungeon Keeper had no IAPs at all.

    Honestly! Click through and read the report. That's what they said!

    • Intendro

      Eh?
      Nobody would enjoy not being able to play the freaking game!

  • rewind

    Well they said "free," which does fully reflect the price tag on the App Store. You don't need to pay anything, the IAPs are totally optional. This British ad agency acts like free-to-play games are some new concept, and they're picking on Dungeon Keepers even though there are thousands of older F2P games.

    • Joseph Leray

      They're not "picking on" Dungeon Keeper -- they're investigating the complaints that come to them. If no one complains about, I dunno, Clash of Clans, the ASA can't do anything to them at all.

      • coolpowers

        The single complaint. From a SPOnG writer. Who may or may not have been doing this out of genuine concern for those poor unsuspecting consumers.

    • Jake7905

      The IAP's are "optional" only in the context that no one is forcing you to buy them. If you plan on progressing or enjoying the game, IAP's are not optional.

    • JKT123

      The false advertising is not that they called it free, it's that they didn't also state that there were IAPs. The only result of this ruling will be that game companies will have to include an *Also includes In-app Purchases proviso next to their 'It's Free, yay for us!' statements. That's all. They won't have to change the length of their timers and other game destroying nonsense, just their ads. EA have probably played hardball in this one case simply because they didn't want to go to the expense of recutting and redistributing their ad to make sure it would comply and, presumably, because they would rather not have to include that proviso in future ads. Ultimately, the ruling will have little effect on anything other than making game ads more truthful about what you are getting.

  • BoonyTuesday

    Classic bait and switch.

  • dmn001

    I'm surprised they even call it a game. It could have been a good port of the original, but EA destroyed it.

  • BloodFidelity

    The reason why companies like this keep making free-to-play games is because they make more of an income from it than if they offered a flat price. And those timers are what keeps you coming back to play. I have hundreds of games installed on my phone and I'm sure the average mobile gamer does too. I don't want a game that takes 2+ more hours to complete. Who wants to be on their phone or iPad that long with one game? That's what consoles are for. With that being said, myself, along with many others I'm sure, don't play a single FTP game for more than 10 minutes at a time. These are on-the-go games. Meaning they don't require your attention for a long period of time. And that is why the FTP system works! And it's also what makes it addictive.

    Many times I wanted to spend money so badly on this game and Clash of Clans. But I didn't, not because I didn't want to support the developers but because you don't actually need the IAP. It's not a need. I don't care about what anybody says about DK or CoC but you can play both without ever buying a single IAP. Oh what about the timers you say? STFU and DEAL WITH IT. If you had access to everything right in the beginning of the game, you would be bored with it in a week, tops!

    I also like showing off my progress in these games with fellow clan members. What I have completed is what I worked for, not what was given to me by an IAP. I've been playing CoC for almost a year and a half now and still have not made a single IAP. Unfortunately for DK, I am now bored of playing it because of the lack of updated content. I've just about upgraded everything. I've been playing it since it was released and it's because of those damn timers everybody hates so much, is what kept me coming back. I didn't have access to everything right away and it's why I still kept playing it, because I wanted to earn it. If you want premium games people, buy them for a console! End of @#%&ING STORY!

    • Intendro

      Ridiculous. If the game doesn't let me actually play it, I will get bored of it even faster. I will play something that lets me play.
      You don't want to play that often? Then don't play that often! Don't encourage them to do such stupid things as preventing GAMES from being PLAYED.

      • BloodFidelity

        Really? Is that way all FTP games are failures because YOU get bored with it faster when you hit a timer wall? Explain to me how games like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga are failures then?! There's only a very small handful of people that agree with your logic.The proof are in the numbers. People play these games because they're addicting, simple as that.

        I play those games because that's what I believe is meant to be played on an iPhone and because I enjoy it. Don't tell anybody not to play a game because of something YOU don't like. Go ahead and tell the CoC and DK Community to all stop playing and see how that goes over. I'm sure your opinions on how bad these games are will be very convincing to them. And I'm not encouraging anything by this standard if I'm not actually purchasing any IAP's. If it's such a stupid thing, then eventually the system will fail and so be it. For now, I love the concept of a game such as CoC. They don't receive a single dime from me and I can still enjoy playing it.

      • Intendro

        A "small handful of people" that want to play games that actually let them play when they want? There is no way. Just because there's a lot of one doesn't mean there's a small amount of the other.
        And telling people not to play games I don't like wasn't what I was saying. But it would certainly be appreciated if you didn't actually defend a thing that stops the game from being played. Don't encourage them to put in timers! Why on earth would you want to be stopped from playing?! Stop yourself if you want to stop... Seriously, people are defending something with no upsides at all?
        Why do I even bother?! All I can do is hope everyone gets things to actually get better...

    • Wolfcoyote

      Are you freaking kidding us? Seriously, for the love of all that is good, PLEASE tell us that part of that was sarcasm! I'm not going to touch on your blatant blind defending of the freemium model because 1) I've downloaded my share of freemium titles before but not doing so now because I can afford mid-range and premium titles, and b) I don't feel like debating the freemium concept with one who argues so strongly for a tainted, flawed and potentially ruinous business model that he's willing to defy all reason. What I WILL do is address the highly erroneous comment you made regarding premium (in your words, longer, console-quality) games and that serious gamers should buy a console if they should want quality games.

      The reason why quality games such as Record of Agarest War, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, XCOM, Final Fantasy Tactics and others appear on the store alongside cheaper but just as fulfilling games such as Block Fortress, Giana Sisters, Junk Jack X, Minecraft: Pocket Edition, SurvivalCraft and other on the App Store is for convenience on the part of consumers and market penetration on the part of the developers. Developers clearly see potential for premium games on the App Store as there's less competition regarding other premium titles than if they keep such titles on consoles and PC/Mac/Linux. Consumers such as myself want more fulfilling games than the freemium choices offered (though Brave Frontier is a satisfying title), plus the convenience of having good-quality and long-lasting games on the go, which also happen to be a fraction of the cost of a 3DS/Vita/Steam equivilant. I bought an iPad mini "R" last January, and no, I didn't have the money to purchase a ton of premium titles back then (it was for college coursework anyway mostly) but when my papers are done, and my Accounting exams complete and have money in my pocket and don't want to be tied to my Mac for playing games, I don't want to just use a dual-A7 processor-equipped machine to play just Brave Frontier, Space Heads, Sonic Dash or Traffic Racer, where each game has timers, bar access to higher levels, cars, characters or items. I want to just pay a price for a game (high quality preferred) and not have to deal with bait-and-switch marketing and IAPs (Battleheart series, Monster Hunter, etc). Plus, any premium game that keeps me away from my desk and the television is a plus.

      In conclusion, you have some nerve telling others that premium games don't belong on the App Store. It's because of these steadily-increasing premium games that the App Store is emerging from the freemium cesspool that it once was.

  • Dueler

    Awesome story, in the end the complaint was totally justified and even the trailer didn't correctly advertise the gameplay let alone saying its free when there are ways to spend money on it this making it not free, I mean look on the AppStore you'll notice these games aren't marketed as free but instead as FREE+
    Saving apples ass from parents suing them when little Joey spends $500 on smurf berrys.
    So in the end if they made notice or mention of its FREE+ status nothing would have happened, but they technically have mislead consumers.

    The thing that gets me is that these ASA people really sound like they know what they were talking about and must have done all there homework to be able to deny EA's statistical defense. So cheers to those guys.

  • Hawaii Jeff

    Bully for the UK to have the cajones to do this.

    Too bad a similar finding would NEVER happen in the US to protect their consumers too...

  • Deixa

    EA got shafted simple as that