I’ve just finished reading a collection of interesting articles over the last few days. Most were one, half or zero star reviews of EA Mythic’s new free-to-play Dungeon Keeper reboot for Apple and Android devices, followed by pages and pages of comments where in a rare event, fans actually agreed with critics, as harsh as they were being. The other piece I read was an interview TabTimes did with the game’s senior producer, Jeff Skalski, where they tried to get him to address the litany of complaints about the game.
I highly suggest you read the whole thing before starting this piece, but I’ll summarize his arguments with a few key passages, which are pretty telling.
“We didn’t design this as a “pay to play” or “pay to win” game. It is designed as a free-to-play title where players can commit time or money towards their play experience, and every piece of content in the game is accessible without having to spend a dime.”
Here’s the dichotomy. Players can commit time or money. Not time and money up front. You know, where you normally buy a game (for money) and get to spend as much time playing it as you like? No, rather Dungeon Keeper is the very worst kind of free-to-play, the sort that puts up an arbitrary roadblock of a timed delay to prevent you from playing something you were otherwise enjoying. You can pay to get around this block, and are rewarding with nothing else but…the ability to continue playing until you hit a new roadblock. If that isn’t the definition of “pay to play,” I’m not sure what is.
“We’re huge fans of the PC game, and like everyone on the Internet who’s commented on our mobile version, we’ve played the original version and we get pretty nostalgic about it. By the same token, we all play a lot of mobile games ourselves so our primary goal was figuring out how to make the game free-to-download so as many people could try it as possible.”
Here, Skalski is essentially saying “guys, it’s because we love the game so much that we wanted everyone to play it, so that’s why we made it free-to-play.” I’m sure they did love the original game, I won’t dispute that, but pretending that this decision is about spreading the love of Dungeon Keeper around the world rather than designing a game to make money in as many silly and obtrusive ways as possible just comes across as ridiculous. The problem isn’t even that Dungeon Keeper is a free-to-play game with microtransactions. It’s how it uses those microtransactions that’s the issue. There are loads of great free-to-play titles on mobile or elsewhere, but this timeblock barrier design is horrible, especially so when inserted into a game that would probably otherwise be pretty excellent.
“It’s important to emphasize that we designed a game that is built around the typical mobile play patterns. This means Dungeon Keeper is meant to be played on the go multiple times a day with a few minutes here or there. This way of playing allows fans to naturally progress as a free player.”
“Guys this is a mobile title. We had to put up time walls in order to make sure you didn’t overdose on fun while on the subway and miss work.” Come on. A game without these sort of time barriers can easily be played multiple times a day for a few minutes. Time barriers just force players to stop playing whether they want to or not, and hold the game hostage unless they shell out money. This sort of thing is why mobile games get a bad rap. Imagine if Ubisoft made you wait six hours to upgrade the Jackdaw in Assassin’s Creed 4, or crafting an upgraded gun in Tomb Raider took either thirty minutes or ten “Lara Coins.” Dungeon Keeper is getting so much flack for this sort of design because while we expect it from Farmville and Candy Crush, this series used to be fantastic, and it’s been butchered by timeblocks and every other horrible mobile games trend out there.
“We know that you can never please everyone, but we want this to be a game that most of our intended audience enjoys.”
Well, shoot for the stars, why don’t you?
Skalski says they’re looking at fan feedback, and reading all the negative articles, including this one, presumably. I think the main problem here is that really, their “intended audience” are the millions of people who have made Candy Crush and Flappy Bird a hit, the type who have likely never even heard of the original Dungeon Keeper, much less played it. If the “intended audience” was actual Dungeon Keeper fans, they would have had to know altering the game to be this reliant on time and effort-saving “gems” would be universally viewed as terrible by those who loved the original.
The gist of the entire interview is not that Dungeon Keeper has done something wrong, it’s simply adapted to the new rules of mobile scene while fans haven’t. The problem isn’t with the title itself, it’s with you, the dumb masses who don’t get that this is how game design works now. I’m not expecting Skalski to break down in tears and repent, but the tone of this interview is really disingenuous and condescending. The take-away message seems clear: if you’re complaining, this game is not for you. These are the rules now. Accept them or get lost.
While Flappy Bird and Candy Crush are their own kind of mind-rotting evil (more on that here), Dungeon Keeper is almost worse. It’s a potentially great game completely butchered into unplayability by maddening mobile trends that don’t mesh with the core concept of the game at all. Yes, the game is prime for a mobile reworking as it functions great with touch controls and tower defense-type titles are all the rage. But it didn’t have to be like this, and that’s the problem. No, EA didn’t invent any of these consumer unfriendly practices, but they’ve gone past drinking the Kool-Aid here, and outright drowned their newborn game in it.
I’m no expert in mobile branding, game design, profitability models and so on. But I am someone who would really, really love to play a new version of Dungeon Keeper that isn’t buried in time and resource restrictions. I will even give you a crisp $5 bill for the privilege, straight from my digital wallet.
Are there just not enough people like me out there now? I suppose that I, the longtime fan willing to give you $5 for a normal, unrestricted version of the game up front, is less valuable than the wayward idiot who downloads this timeblocked version for free and has the potential to get addicted and spend $100 on gems. This is the mobile scene now. And this is why I avoid the mobile scene like the plague most of the time.
The fact that this is yet another issue with an EA title is worrisome, given the fact that they, you know, make actual video games for PC and consoles. We’ve already had microtransactions creeping into their mainstream titles, what’s to say that we don’t eventually see Battlefield 5 released as a free-to-play game where you pay to skip long respawn timers? Sound silly? Well, so did a version of Dungeon Keeper where it takes all day to dig out a tiny room. And yet, here we are.