Dungeon Keeper, Electronic Arts’ mobile remake of the flawed, but classic Bullfrog franchise, is a flash point in the free-to-play argument: is there a difference between the spirit of “free-to-play,” and the letter of its definition?

Attempting to keep EA from misleading consumers, the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority has made a significant legal ruling on the subject.

Most would call it anything but free-to-play. Ludicrous  delays between actions – unless you make repeated real-money purchases – left many players feeling like Dungeon Keeper was a trap, not a game. Others, like our own Jim Squires, found merit in the game as competition to a space where there was none.

Until recently, the debate was theoretical.

“The ASA noted that the game software was available to download for free, and that it was possible to play the game without spending money,” their assessment reads. “However, we understood that several mechanisms within the game took a significant amount of time to be completed, and that these would only be speeded up by using the premium Gem currency.”

Dungeon Keeper Gems

You can guess where it goes from there. The ASA determined that Dungeon Keeper is not actually free-to-play, despite what its marketing says. Specifically, they’re referring to an email ad brought to their attention by a disgruntled customer: an ad that called the game free, and made no mention of in-app purchases.

The assessment continues.

“We told Electronic Arts Ltd to ensure that future ads made clear the limitations of free gameplay and role of in-app purchasing with regard to speeding up gameplay.”

The ruling is interesting, obviously, because of how it will affect advertising. Doubtless EA’s sneakier agents (perhaps the same ones that made it impossible to rate the game below five stars from in-game on Android) will find a way around completely dropping the word “free.”

Microtransactions are getting the cigarette treatment. You can say your brand goes down smoother than the other, but you still need to include the warning label.

EA likely won’t be the only company affected, either. Other UK advertisers will want to think carefully, now that a precedent’s been established. It’s that or risk a similar fate, and a lot of lost advertising budget.

The less obvious precedent circles back to my original point. A governmental body has weighed in on the definition of free-to-play, and what it actually means. The ASA clearly understands the game can be downloaded for free. They just disagree that that means free-to-play.

It’s always been a murky phrase, not to mention business model: beautifully used at times, and grossly abused at others. While the ASA isn’t exactly the Supreme Court, this is the first time abuse of the term has been challenged by a body with real power.

Usually it takes the economic bottom falling out altogether before publishers realize it’s not worth the effort and move on to the next fad. This time, however, we just might see the EAs of the world operate ahead of the curve if it becomes too difficult to do otherwise.

The free-to-play debate may not fizzle out for the right reasons, but a victory is a victory.