The ad in question was sent via e-mail, and the ASA says it stated "GET DUNGEON KEEPER ON MOBILE FOR FREE!" In its response to the complaint, EA said Dungeon Keeper was free to download, in-app purchases were not required, and gameplay without in-app purchases wasn't severely compromised. The publisher noted Gems can be used to accelerate and boost progress, but added that while Gems can be purchased for money, the game awards them through regular interaction.
EA also argued the "average player" would be used to free-to-play games being monetized through premium currency and timer restrictions; in Dungeon Keeper, players could skip the timer by spending Gems.
The ASA, however, saw things differently. The regulatory body said the ad didn't make the game's in-app purchasing clear, and without purchases consumers could potentially find gameplay restricted beyond expectations.
"While we understood that the average consumer would appreciate that free-to-play games were likely to contain monetization functions," the ASA stated, "we considered that they would also expect the play experience of a game described as 'free' to not be excessively restricted. Similarly, although we acknowledged that a timer mechanism could be a legitimate part of gameplay experience, the nature of the timer frequency and length in Dungeon Keeper, in combination with the way it was monetized, was likely to create a game experience for non-spenders that did not reflect their reasonable expectations from the content of the ad."
The ruling arrives hot on the heels of EA CEO Andrew Wilson admitting his company misjudged the economy of the maligned game. As Wilson put it, "For people who'd grown up playing Dungeon Keeper there was a disconnect there. In that aspect we didn't walk that line as well as we could have. And that's a shame."
It also follows the European Commission meeting held earlier this year on free-to-play games. The EU body met with state authorities and Apple and Google to discuss enforcing stronger regulation, including the prevention of games misleadingly advertised as "free." The UK Office of Fair Trading is also demanding games be upfront about in-game costs. Both the EU and OFT will hope today's ruling is progress in that regard, though whether or not it's a landmark one for how free-to-play games are advertised remains to be seen.