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FTC slaps Warner Bros. for unfair play in video game promotions

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Perhaps computer game fans should not be so trusting of their fellow gamers.

That may be the lesson from a Federal Trade Commission announcement that Burbank, California-based Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. paid online “influencers” thousands of dollars to post positive gameplay videos on YouTube and social media for its “Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor” game without disclosing the payments. The videos were viewed more than 5.5 million times, the FTC said.

The FTC said its complaint stems from a late-2014 Warner Bros. online marketing campaign designed to generate buzz within the gaming community for the new release of the fantasy role-playing game, which is loosely based on J.R. Tolkien's “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It was released in September 2014 for the PlayStation 3 and in November 2014 for the Xbox 360.

The FTC said Warner Bros. paid each influencer from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, gave them a free advance-release version of the game and told them how to promote it. It also required the gamers not to disclose any bugs or glitches they found.

Under the proposed FTC order announced Monday, Warner Bros. is barred for failing to make disclosures of such arrangements in the future, and cannot misrepresent that sponsored content, including gameplay videos, are the objective, independent opinions of video game enthusiasts or influencers.

The proposed order does not say Warner Bros. will be fined. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment said in a statement it “always strives to be transparent with our customers and fans when working with social influencers, and we are committed to complying with the related FTC guidelines.”

All of which perhaps goes to show that while Mr. Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins may have been somewhat naïve, gamers would be wise to be a bit savvier.