Epic Games will have to pay the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over half a billion dollars, following allegations that the Fortnite developer violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and utilised “dark practices” to trick users into spending money.
The FTC claims that Epic Games violated COPPA and “deployed design tricks, known as dark patterns, to dupe millions of players into making unintentional purchases.” Following these allegations, the trade commission has reached an agreement that requires Epic Games to pay $520million in relief.
The alleged privacy violations include collecting the personal information from minors under the age of 13 without the knowledge or consent of their parents. The FTC also notes that parents who asked Epic to delete this information had to “jump through unreasonable hoops,” with the publisher sometimes failing to honour the requests.
The FTC also added that Epic had “harmed children and teens” by having its in-game text and voice communications be on by default. The commission claimed that children and teens have been “bullied, threatened, harassed, and exposed to dangerous and psychologically traumatizing issues such as suicide while on Fortnite.”
Back in 2017, Epic employees apparently pushed for the default settings to be changed in order to require players to opt-in for voice chat, citing the potential impact on Fortnite’s younger players. However, Epic resisted doing so, despite reports of children being harassed in the game – sometimes sexually. While the publisher later added the option to turn off voice chat, the FTC claims they made it hard for users to find.
They also claim that Epic used “dark practices” in order to trick users into making in-game purchases. The FTC blames Fortnite’s “counterintuitive, inconsistent, and confusing button configuration” for causing players to accidentally make unwanted purchases. Players have reportedly been charged while attempting to wake the game from sleep mode, during a loading screen or when pressing an adjacent button while trying to preview an item. The FTC claims that these tactics led to “hundreds of millions of dollars in unauthorized charges for consumers.”
Additionally, the FTC accuses Epic Games of charging card-holders without their permission. Fortnite allowed children to purchase the in-game currency V-Bucks without their parents’ permission until 2018 – with parents complaining their children had racked up hundreds of dollars in charges.
The FTC also alleges that Epic Games has locked the accounts of users who reported unauthorised charges with their credit card companies – thereby losing access to the content they had paid for. Even when Epic agreed to unban an account, it could still be banned for life if they disputed any charges in the future.
It is claimed that Epic ignored over one million user complaints, as well as concerns from its own employees that “huge” numbers of users were being wrongfully charged. The FTC goes even further, accusing Epic of making matters worse by “purposefully” obscuring cancel and refund features in order to make them more difficult to find.
Epic will pay a $275million penalty for the alleged COPPA violations, and an additional $245million to refund users for its “dark practices.” The COPPA penalty is the largest of its kind for violating an FTC rule, while the $245million to refund consumers is also the FTC’s largest refund amount when it comes to gaming, and the largest administrative order in its history. The FTC has said that it will be handling the refunds itself, and will be doing so via its own website.
Epic Games acknowledged the settlement in a statement, in which it promised to move beyond “long-standing industry practices.”
“No developer creates a game with the intention of ending up here,” said Epic. “The video game industry is a place of fast-moving innovation, where player expectations are high and new ideas are paramount. Statutes written decades ago don’t specify how gaming ecosystems should operate. The laws have not changed, but their application has evolved and long-standing industry practices are no longer enough.” Epic said that they accepted the agreement because they want to be “at the forefront of consumer protection” and provide “the best experience” for their players.
“Over the past few years, we’ve been making changes to ensure our ecosystem meets the expectations of our players and regulators,” said Epic, “which we hope will be a helpful guide for others in our industry.”
Elsewhere in gaming, FIFA 23 has topped the 2022 Christmas UK retail charts, marking the tenth time the series has been a best-seller during the festive season.