False advertising isn't new, but these days mobile games seem to be stretching the truth as thin as it will legally go.
During Super Bowl 51 earlier this month, you might've perked up seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger (our new bastion of democracy) peddling an apparent virtual reality game, complete with augmented reality explosions and target indicators. But those hoping to finally make use of their Oculus Rift met yet another disappointment: The estimated $5 million 30 second TV spot was just advertising the old free-to-play Top Grossing chart hogger Mobile Strike.
This isn't the first time mobile games have enlisted A-list celebrities and high-production advertising during the biggest marketing event of the year. In 2015, Machine Zone ( Mobile Strike's publisher, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story) released an ad for Game of War: Fire Age where Kate Upton sultrily asked viewers, "Do you want to play?" During the same Super Bowl, Clash of Clans' also mixed pre-rendered gameplay footage with a spoof of Liam Neeson's infamous Taken monologue.
Here's what a typical, action-packed trailer looks like, which an average player might mistake for the next Call of Duty:
And here's what Mobile Strike actually looks like when you play it:
There's a fundamental difference between Clash of Clans' 2015 ad and Mobile Strike's 2017 spot: namely, the act of showing anything even mildly resembling the actual game and how it plays. The blatant disregard for player expectations in Mobile Strike's trailer begs the question: how can free-to-play companies legally get away with this shit?
The answer is about as dissatisfying as playing Mobile Strike after watching its CGI trailer. The issue stems less from the gaming industry and more from the vague language of the FTC's Truth in Advertising law—along with the perpetual speedbump of a slow justice system. Potential plaintiffs attempting to file a false advertising lawsuit against these companies would have to prove that the advertising is likely to mislead "reasonable" consumers—which is a slippery terminology in the fast-paced, constantly developing app marketplace.
"The law cannot keep up with technology," Jovan Johnson, an attorney that specializes in apps at the LA-based entertainment law firm Johnson & Moo, told me over email. "Lawmakers always need time to figure out what's happening, including what can and has gone wrong, to determine how to try and regulate. While the mobile app and game markets are strong and have been for a handful of years, they're still evolving. Free-to-play is not new, but I'm not sure we've seen anything quite like the scale and consistency of Machine Zone's advertising."
Speaking over the phone to Ramin Shokrizade, a former developer of the free-to-play game World of Tanks and a defender of ethics in the free-to-play space, he attributed this marketing trend to the pay-to-win business model. Allowing players to pay for upgrades and game-negating items, this monetization method relies on the small 5 percent of players who seek power above all else in games. "They are games catered to these all-star individual players who are so obsessed with power that they'll spend millions to have it," he said.
Machine Zone didn't respond to our request to comment for this article.
Overall, games like Mobile Strike have terrible conversion rates in terms of turning downloads into players who actually pay. But they don't care because the few who do respond to Kate Upton beckoning them to play with her are willing to spend obscene amounts of cash money to prove it. This would also explain the surprising return of Evony as a mobile F2P. The nearly decade-old game, best known for its softcore porn fantasy bullshit Facebook ads, has now converted to over stylized live-action war TV spots in the latest Super Bowl.
Before the free-to-play Super Bowl ads of 2015, people doubted the validity of this strategy, dubious about whether the games could garner enough mass appeal to make a $5 million ad worthwhile. But, judging by the numbers—the LA Times reported that Game of War's in-app sales doubled during the Kate Upton campaign, and more recently Mobile Strike shot up to #1 in Top Grossing Games on the app store during the Super Bowl according to Think Gaming—the critics are now eating their words. The goal, it would seem, was less mass appeal and more target marketing aimed at a demographic susceptible to power fantasies and bro-dude culture.
Johnson thinks there's hope yet, however, particularly for ads that blow player expectations out of the water. "While visibility increases the chance for downloads, monthly average users, and in-app purchases, it also increases the impact of negative voices," he said. In the past, angry consumers have contacted Johnson about a range of gripes far less nefarious than false advertising. " Mobile Strike didn't even bother to show real gameplay. Is it reasonable for a player to think the game involves battles that take place on their desk or table? I'm not confident the answer is no, especially given the rise of virtual reality."
According to Johnson, "People are passionate about their mobile games and it's only a matter of time before some of their problems fit easily identifiable categories of unfair or deceptive practices. Once that happens, we will read about substantial seven figure settlements with the FTC."
But Shokrizade is far less hopeful that consumers will have much in the way of retaliation any time soon.
"You can advertise pretty much anything you want in the United States," he said. "And the only resource consumers really have is educating themselves."