The Advertising Standards Authority (the “ASA”), the UK's independent advertising regulator, banned two misleading ads for the Homescapes and Gardenscapes games, developed by PLR Worldwide Sales Ltd t/a Playtrix (“Playtrix”) for deceptive video ads which misrepresented the games’ actual gameplay. The judgment contains important lessons for game developers who stray from “core gameplay” when promoting their gaming apps.

Background

According to the ASA, Playtrix published two paid-for Facebook posts which were not representative of the games they advertised. The first of these ads showed a mini-game in which the player has to solve a puzzle to unite a man and woman without meeting the burglar. The second ad showed another mini-game in which the user has to solve a puzzle to keep a man from drowning in a tower filling with lava. At the start of each video, on-screen text at the bottom of the screen states “Not all images represent actual gameplay.” The ASA received seven complaints from users who had downloaded the games and felt as though the ads did not represent the actual Homescapes or Gardenscapes gameplay.

Playtrix argued that the content seen in the ads was actually included in the games and was meant to show consumers the logic and problem-solving skills needed to advance in the games.

AMA Deems the Ads Misleading

The Homescapes and Gardenscapes games each had thousands of levels but the mini-games featured in the ads could only be found in more distant levels despite the fact that “only a very small percentage of players reached those levels.” According to Playtrix, only about 0.03% of users reached the advanced levels containing the mini-games. In addition, Homescapes featured only one mini-game every 20 levels. Playtrix also admitted the mini-games were merely a tool to move the storyline along and were not core gameplay, which was to restore and decorate the player’s house or garden through different mechanics.

Playtrix argued that that it wished to feature the mini-games because they allowed the developer to differentiate itself from competitors. They also claimed that the time limits on the Facebook ads hindered their ability to feature all the elements of the games. Playtrix reasoned that the text at the bottom of the ads served as a disclaimer which properly informed consumers that they ads did not show all the games’ features. Lastly, Playtrix stated that their website, which was easily accessible by all potential users, clearly depicted game screenshots and comprehensive gameplay videos.

Despite this, the ASA ruled that the ads must not appear again in the misleading form initially published, since users would “play a significant amount of content which was of a different style in order to access the gameplay featured in the ads.”

The ASA decided that the ads breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 3.1 (Misleading advertising) which states “Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.”, rule 3.9 (Qualification) which states “Marketing communications must state significant limitations and qualifications. Qualifications may clarify but must not contradict the claims that they qualify.” and rule 3.11 (Exaggeration) which states “Marketing communications must not mislead consumers by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product.”

The Takeaways:

Game developers should create ads that feature actual gameplay. Ads featuring game mechanics that are barely used will solicit complaints from gamers and may result in the need to take-down such ads.

Ensure that gameplay featured in ads is experienced early in the game. One of the primary concerns with Homescapes and Gardenscapes was the amount of time it took to reach the levels featured in the ads. It is important that the mechanics which are promoted can be experienced easily, quickly and consistently by users.

Use the ASA published guidelines to determine what may be an improper ad. The ASA has published advice online to help guard against misleading advertising. The advice includes:

  • don’t mislead consumers materially;
  • don’t omit material information;
  • ensure you can substantiate objective claims;
  • distinguish between objective claims, subjective claims and puffery; and,
  • don’t exaggerate.