How Studios Can Prevent Unauthorised Spending in Games

Unauthorised Spending in Games

This article was originally published at The PX Hub.

Stuck at home, with imposed restrictions on travel, activity and public gatherings, our world sees an amplified interest in video games. Forbes reported a few months ago that games were being played at record levels and would continue to rise. In September they also predicted that the value of the Gaming Industry would rise by 30%, mainly due to microtransactions.

The games industry has generally been doing well during the pandemic, as many turn to gaming to fill the time previously spent commuting or on after-school activities. Supercell’s Brawl Stars, for instance, saw a rather steep surge in the number of weekly installs and revenue around the time of the first lockdowns. Also, Electronic Arts reported tens of millions of new players with increased revenue as a result.

However, we also need to talk about the proverbial elephant in the room, called unauthorised spending. In this blog, I will provide you with some tips for studios to not only improve the resolution but also help decrease the risk of occurrence.

What is Unauthorised Spending?

Mobile devices have become an everyday part of our lives, regardless of age. Everyone, you and me, we all have access to great games on the go; anywhere, at any time. So do our children, who very often may not fully grasp the value of in-game purchases. We have gotten so used to our mobile devices, that we sometimes forget that they are tied to credit cards or other payment methods. It is no different for consoles — the next generation with digital-only devices will see us rely even more on purchases made via the platform, be it digital game sales or in-game sales.

Unauthorised spending in games can be best explained as “the sum of charges made in exchange for in-game content, without the explicit consent by the owner of the payment method”.

As developers, we all dread reports on unauthorised spending — we all know the type of stories often eagerly picked up by the media. Stories of “small” amounts spend, yet not so insignificant for the individual families involved. Having been a Player Support representative myself, I can tell you these reports are often very emotionally loaded and require a lot more effort to resolve correctly.

Not all cases of unauthorised spending are attributed to children, yet they are by far the most numerous. When devices are shared amongst multiple end-users, unintended charges can be accrued simply by having logged in with the wrong user account when a purchase is made.

Photo by lalesh aldarwish from Pexels

Growing Game Spend for Children

Gamebyte reported in 2018 already that parental game spending for their children was significantly on the rise. The report brought a couple of significant findings to light:

  • Parental spending on gaming content for children aged between 3 and 12 had increased by 34% year-on-year.
  • A total of 91% of children in that age bracket ask permission before making in-app purchases.
  • This means 9% of purchased gaming content being potentially unauthorised spending.

Considering the rising interest in games, we can only assume that unauthorised spending will grow proportionally within our industry. Especially now, when it becomes increasingly more convenient for children to play more games. But rather than normalising these purchases, or worse, pretending they do not exist, there are a few things studios or publishers can do. Education of both parents and children on purchasable gaming content ought to be a priority, and it is just as important to work on proactive measures and spotting discrepancies in spending behaviour.

A Look beyond our Industry

Many publishing platforms, such as Microsoft, Apple or Google, just to name a few, currently provide parental controls and refund policies to mitigate risks. For studios it is however not that easy; in most cases, payments are not processed directly, but rather through the platform (unless you attempt to bypass it, but that is another story). There are however exceptions to the rule, where companies such as Electronic Arts provide an additional layer of parental controls to restrict spending, but which are tied to profiles and accounts, rather than built within the games.

The games industry is also not the only online sector that encounters unauthorised spending. The most obvious example would be banks, that have a variety of measures in place to protect its end-users from fraud. Here are some examples that could be adapted to work for studios:

  • Track spending behaviour per player profile. Create alerts and monitor for abnormalities.
  • Proactively reach out to players with unusual transactions on their account, be it a larger than normal increase in in-game spending, or when multiple successful purchases occur in a rather short timeframe.
  • Introduce a “cool-down” period for in-game purchases after a successful purchase, or prompt an additional passkey confirmation to minimise the risk of large sums being spent in a relatively short amount of time.
  • Centralise control of payments: granted this works best if you are not billing via a platform and is mostly reserved for larger studios. By allowing users to modify things like spend limits, passkey requirements, and providing automated self-help options via the game (or account) itself, you can minimise the risk of unauthorised spending.

Managing Reports of Unauthorised Spending

Now that is all great, but what when you start getting reports on unauthorised spending? No worries, we have got you covered with the following advice:

  • Improve the experience of those affected, by prioritising fast and correct resolution of reports on unauthorised spending. Disgruntled contacts will leave negative reviews when feeling ignored. When unmanaged, the conversation will quickly spread to other channels.
  • Create a well-structured and responsive online engagement process. Be prepared when complaints escalate, on social media and beyond: timing is of the essence. Failure to do so may lead to viral complaints damaging brand reputation and organic growth of the playerbase.
  • Buy goodwill from parents by providing helpful information regarding unauthorised spending and refund policies in FAQs or self-help tools; outline the processes, create clear expectations. Make it easy to reach out to you and be heard.
  • Invest in the education of your Player Support agents. Reports of unauthorised spending require a more sensitive touch when things turn sour.

As a word of caution; none of these measures will by themselves guarantee that games will be free of unauthorised spending. That is why it is of utmost importance to assume any studio will encounter these situations and has to ensure they have the right mechanics and personnel in place to tackle these challenges.

That is it for this time. I hope you enjoyed my constructive take on this somewhat sensitive topic, and maybe even got some great inspiration out of it. What is your company doing differently to be prepared and protect the Player Experience? Let me know in the comments!

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@ The Px hub