... Or a perfectly good pricing model
It makes me sad when I hear folks bad-mouthing free-to-play as a concept. It can be absolutely fantastic when implemented in the right way, after all. But that's the rub: for every game that manages to make a success of the business model whilst still providing a recognisable game that's fun to play, there are four or five shameless cash grabs that deliberately ruin player experience in the hopes of forcing them to cough up some bucks.
For every PlanetSide 2, for every Paths of Exile, there are swathes of titles like EA's execrable rehashing of Dungeon Keeper -- a bastardised, polluted Clash of Clans clone with a name designed to appeal to us nostalgic fools.
What's ironic is that we've seen many of the mechanics underpinning Dungeon Keeper prove immensely popular in the mobile sphere today. After all, you could make a case to suggest that Dungeon Keeper was the original tower-defence game, what with Heroes venturing into your hellish halls only to be met by hideous and hilarious traps and a swift new understanding of their own mortality. Strategy games in general have found a home on mobiles and tablets that they never managed to achieve on home consoles; indeed, sometimes poking and prodding your way around a game can be even more fun and intuitive than waggling a mouse cursor around the place.
It's no surprise, then, that Mythic have actually managed to create a rather good representation of the original Dungeon Keeper. The more overt cartoon style might take a little getting used to, but the top-down view works perfectly, you still get imps to dig out new areas and expand your subterranean empire before employing larger monsters to guard the new rooms, you still set up buildings to house gold and attract new monsters. You still lay traps down for marauding heroes, not that there are really any stakes in play this time around.
You'll still be playing the tutorial, though, when the first wallet-mining prompt appears... and it's only downhill from there as it becomes readily apparent that everything in this game comes back to spending money. The gem cost for things skyrockets, and the chicken-and-egg balance between resources and building opportunities continually shoves you towards paying for things. And then there's the saintly patience required to wait for hours upon end for things that would have taken seconds last millennium.
Now, I know that I can buy the original game over on GOG.com for a few quid -- indeed I'd certainly suggest that you go and do that immediately if you haven't already, and throw in KeeperFX to add a bit of an HD touch-up to the dated graphics -- but it's the squandered potential that hurts as much as anything else, along with the fact that there are plenty of other games out there employing F2P in a manner that doesn't seek to actively and aggressively inhibit fun.
The worst thing about Dungeon Keeper iOS is that it makes you keenly aware of just how enjoyable the game could be if it wasn't shoving payment requests in your face every second or making you wait for interminable lengths of time. I am still waiting for an imp to finish digging out a block that it started on yesterday! The fury comes from a perceived threat of potential. There's a strong desire for a Dungeon Keeper game (if EA hadn't realised that before, they sure do now!), and I daresay that had the original simply been ported over to mobile platforms with a well-balanced IAP system or possibly a free-to-try model or simply with a decent price tag, there wouldn't have been an issue at all. Instead we get this travesty, and it feels like an opportunity wasted, like something tangible has been lost.
Of course, the point, as it turns out, was to make a Clash of Clans clone. I know that Clash of Clans is enormously successful, and that EA would love to have thought of it first. I know that this is not the first F2P game to present a pay-to-wait system and pass it off as somehow "empowering" players.
"The benefit of free-to-play games is that it empowers players, there’s no risk involved to download it and try it out," Mythic’s Jeff Skalski, the game’s senior producer, told TabTimes. "They can experience the game and determine what level of commitment they want to make. We specifically chose to make the game this way so the classic franchise would be accessible to as many people as possible."
But the trouble is that free-to-play does not simply cover one model. It is an illusory ideal that few games truly achieve: allowing players to enjoy (that's a crucial word) an entire game without having to spend a penny. True free-to-play is glorious to behold, and is fully evidenced in the likes of PS2, TF2, PoE, LoL, Tribes Ascend, Hawken, World of Tanks, BSG Online, and more. But it extends to the mobile sphere too: Jetpack Joyride is one of the finest F2P games out there, and one I've gladly dropped a couple of quid into on occasion for a few little customisation items. Draw Something was a brilliant F2P game, and one I ended up paying to upgrade so I could add a few more colours in to my awful, awful scribblings. And then there's Triple Town, which is arguably not just a match-3 game, but the match-3 game of the moment. I took a 50-minute poo the other day because I was playing Triple Town and lost track of time.
True empowerment comes from being able to fully appreciate all that a F2P game has to offer and then want to buy in, not be forced to pay a premium because of obstacles to enjoyment that have been purposefully designed to frustrate. We need to have new description models for these pretenders who appropriate the F2P tag yet deliver nothing but the first letter. Freemium is a hideous word that perfectly encapsulates the sneakiness and duplicity that go into games that squeeze people out of their money, but we can still do better. Free-to-wait is more accurate, particularly in the case of Dungeon Keeper. Pay-to-win is the one that everyone wants to avoid. Free-to-try is a great model and OnLive actually pioneered one form of it -- giving players the opportunity to play the first half hour of any game they liked, before encouraging players to make a decision. That's a single variant on a variant of F2P; it's easy to see how diverse this umbrella actually is.
The irresponsible use of the Dungeon Keeper brand to peddle lamentable content such as this is not just worthy of condemnation from a nostalgic standpoint. In all fairness, Dungeon Keeper iOS is not really for us core gamers; it just happens to have redefined a pillar of core gaming history through shoddy game design. As such, it might seem a little pointless -- getting up in arms about a game that was never really intended for us in the first place. Of course, it's not really as simple as all that. As a gamer with tastes both core and casual (and everything in between), I like console, PC, and mobile gaming, and I'd quite like to see good practices come to the fore across all platforms. Just because a game is pandering to an audience that might not object too strongly to lazy, forceful, overt monetisation doesn't make it right.
Dungeon Keeper iOS isn't worthy of scorn and contempt because it's a free-to-play game, but because it's a bad free-to-play game employing bad design practices and ruining perfectly good games by association thanks to a misleading brand name once associated with quality. To be angry that Dungeon Keeper iOS is different to the original is to miss the point; it was never going to be a straight port. To be angry that it needlessly drags that classic game's legacy through the mud is perfectly justifiable, even more so when there are dozens of games out there showing that there's a way to employ free-to-play models without churning out cynical, soulless cash-grabs such as this.
Oh, and virtually forcing players to give your game a 5-star rating is hilariously Machiavellian. Golden Poo-winningly evil, one might suspect.