What Fortnite players and parents should know after Epic Games settles with FTC

Photo from Erik Mclean via Unsplash

On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission announced Cary’s Epic Games would pay more than half a billion dollars in fines — a record amount — for a series of violations involving its most popular game, Fortnite.

Almost half of the amount — $245 million — will be used by the FTC to refund Fortnite consumers that meet certain eligibility requirements. The fines are a result of allegations about the game’s privacy settings and company tactics to trick Fortnite players into making in-game purchases.

Here’s a rundown of what Epic is accused of doing, what it pledges to do differently, and how affected costumers can get refunds.

What is Fortnite?

In 2017, Epic released Fortnite, whose most well-known version is a battle royale format where players compete against each other until one is left. Set in a kaleidoscopic virtual world, the game is geared toward younger players.

It has grown into one of the world’s most popular first-person shoot games, particularly among kids, teens and college-age players. Actually, it’s one of the most popular video games in the world, period, with more than 400 million users today, according to the FTC complaint.

It’s generally free to play thought players buy in-game currency known as V-bucks to obtain cosmetic upgrades like costumes and dance moves.

What is Epic accused of doing?

The Federal Trade Commission levied two hefty fines on Epic Games.

The first, amounting to $275 million, was for allegedly violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. Epic is accused of collecting minors’ personal data without getting verifiable parental consent. The government added that parents who did wish to have their children’s information erased were made to “jump through unreasonable hoops” to do so.

On the issue of privacy, the FTC also found that Epic’s practice of having text and voice communication open as a default setting facilitated bullying and harassing of children.

But that is only half of the FTC’s charge.

In the second part, the commission accused Epic of using “dark patterns” to trick Fortnite players into making in-game purchases. The FTC deemed Fortnite’s button configuration “counterintuitive, inconsistent and confusing,” and pointed out that some have even accidentally bought items while trying to rouse the computer from sleep mode.

The government also alleged Epic of locking accounts of people who disputed charges with their credit card companies.

Epic Games did not acknowledge any wrongdoing Monday but said it accepted the agreement “because we want Epic to be at the forefront of consumer protection and provide the best experience for our players.”

“We share the underlying principles of fairness, transparency and privacy that the FTC enforces, and the practices referenced in the FTC’s complaints are not how Fortnite operates,” according to a company statement. “The laws have not changed, but their application has evolved and long-standing industry practices are no longer enough.”

What will Epic change in Fortnite?

Following the settlement announcement, Epic affirmed several recent policy changes.

The company said it will no longer automatically save players’ payment information

on its Epic Games Store. It has also updated its payment system to require customers to hold a button to make an in-game purchase, rather than do so with a click.

“Games should go above and beyond to make sure players even more clearly understand when they are making a purchase with real money or with virtual currencies to prevent accidental purchases,” Epic said. “We don’t want players to pay for something that they did not intend to.”

Those under 13 will still be able to play Fortnite without parental consent, but they can only do so in what Epic considers a “tailored environment” where chat and purchasing features are disabled until a parent consents.

To enhance children’s privacy, Epic said it has altered the default profiles of minors. The mature language chat filter will be on when someone under 16 creates an account. For all accounts started by those under 18 years old, the profile name will default to “Nobody” while profile information will be hidden and set to “invite only.”

Before children begin playing any online game, the FTC encourages parents check privacy settings and understand that all user names are public. If parents have any concerns regarding their children’s privacy, the FTC encourages them to reach out at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

How to know if you’re eligible for a Fortnite FTC refund

The FTC detailed three groups who will be eligible for refunds.

Parents of children who made unauthorized credit card purchases in the Epic Games Store from January 2017 to November 2018.

Fortnite players charged for unwanted in-game purchases from January 2017 to September 2022.

Fortnite players who had their accounts locked after disputing unauthorized credit card charges from January 2017 to September 2022.

When will Fortnite FTC refunds be distributed?

The FTC has not released a timeline for when the money will be distributed or said how many people potentially could be eligible to receive a refund.

For now, consumers are told they don’t need to do anything — at least right now. Consumers are advised to go to FTC.gov/Fortnite for updates and to sign up for emails on the refunds.

The commission said it will email customers who made in-game purchases once it has more details on its refund program.

To help avoid scams, the FTC reminded the public that it will never ask for money in exchange for a refund or to file a claim.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.