CAP has refreshed its guidance on advertising for in-game purchases and games which contain purchasing features. The ASA takes the guidance into account when considering complaints about in-game advertising.

The guidance applies to all kinds of advertising for in-game purchases, be they integrated into gameplay via in-game storefronts or billboards for games with in-game purchasing functions, wherever items are purchased using a hard virtual currency.

Hard & soft currencies

Hard virtual currencies, for the uninitiated, are virtual currencies which are only available to buy with real-world money – unlike soft virtual currencies, which might be available for purchase but are also earnable via gameplay, for example by completing tasks or by spending a certain amount of time playing the game. 

The ASA considers that any ads for in-game purchases with hard virtual currencies will amount to a ‘marketing communication’ and will therefore amount to advertising under the CAP Code, as players are ultimately being induced to exchange real money for a product.

Soft virtual currencies, by contrast, are generally not considered to be a substitution for real money by the ASA. As players don’t need to part with their cash to make these purchases, and as long as the amount of virtual currency which can be earnt in-game is meaningful, the ASA is happy that in-game ads for assets purchased with soft virtual currencies won’t amount to advertising under the CAP Code. 

As to whether in-game earning capabilities are meaningful or not, gaming economies will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Factors which may move a purchase mechanism closer to being caught by the guidance include where the in-game purchase is linked to real-world marketing activities, where it is a purchase with real-world value outside of the game, or where the items purchased from a third-party advertiser are the result of a marketing agreement. 

Pricing clarity

The guidance emphasises clear pricing as a priority for avoiding misleading players.

  • Item prices must be clear.
  • For purchases of virtual currency bundles with real money where there are different options available, labels like ‘best value’ and ‘cheapest’ should be used with care – the former relates to the cost-per-unit price, and the latter should only be used to label the bundle with the cheapest overall price. Claims that buying a certain bundle will lead to the player saving money should be avoided.
  • Players who are purchasing items with any kind of virtual currency should be able to identify (i) the real-world equivalent price for the item and (ii) if they need to spend any more real-world money in order to afford it based on their available in-game balance.

Presenting in-game purchases: dos and don’ts 

To limit the risks of undue pressure inherent in advertising in a context which often involves time sensitivity, chance and other pressures, gameplay should not:

  • include short countdown timers, implications that a purchase will lead to in-game success, difficult-to-understand offers or offers involving significant sums of money (relative to the pricing for other assets/currencies in the game).
  • target children or ask them to ask for their parents to buy it for them.
  • include confusing messages about random item purchases (like loot boxes), such as baseless suggestions that the next random item will be rare/specific. 
  • imply that items are seasonal or time-limited where this is not the case.

Advertisements for games which feature in-game purchasing should:

  • make the presence of in-game purchases easily accessible and straightforward to find within the advert (but this message doesn’t necessarily need to be prominent).
  • provide further information about the type of in-game purchases available in the game – for example, purely cosmetic features vs functional features which impact gameplay. 
  • not emphasise separately-purchased elements or those which are unlocked via extensive gameplay – e.g. special cosmetic items – within the advertisement without clarifying that they are not available for free or available through ordinary play. 

Although the ASA does not have the power to fine, it can refer serious or persistent offenders to the CMA which will now have more significant powers under the new Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Act 2024. Gaming companies should therefore take account of the updated guidance.