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Dungeon Keeper iOS: Never Underestimate EA's Ability To Ruin A Franchise

Matt Gardner
Dungeon Keeper, EA, Mobile games

Dungeon Keeper iOS: Never Underestimate EA's Ability To Ruin A Franchise

... 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.

Dungeon Keeper iOS: Never Underestimate EA's Ability To Ruin A Franchise

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.

Dungeon Keeper iOS: Never Underestimate EA's Ability To Ruin A Franchise

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.

Dungeon Keeper iOS: Never Underestimate EA's Ability To Ruin A Franchise

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."

Dungeon Keeper iOS: Never Underestimate EA's Ability To Ruin A Franchise

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.

Dungeon Keeper iOS: Never Underestimate EA's Ability To Ruin A Franchise

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.

Add a comment15 comments
JonLester  Feb. 7, 2014 at 12:02

It wasn't enough to crush Bullfrog and any hope of Dungeon Keeper 3, was it EA? It's never enough, is it? IS IT.

Thing is, I know that this isn't for us fans of the original. I know that it's supposed to be dipped into short casual sessions, and the pricing makes more sense in that context. And yet, knowing that they'd get a huge amount of flack, EA had the GALL to institute that ridiculous rating scam. Remember that you can review it freely by firing up Google Play and visiting the page that way. It's like they actively want players to hate them.

If the "free to play apocalypse" is indeed nigh, this will be one of the four horsemen.

Tsung  Feb. 7, 2014 at 13:11

Seen it before with Theme Park, what was it £70 to buy/build a rollercoaster?

Even without rating fixing, all EA does is get 1000's of fake 5* reviews added (again with Theme Park). I downloaded it upon release, tried it, realising it was a scam, rated it 1 star with hundreds of others. It only had a very few ratings over 1*. Anyways a few days later I was telling a friend about it and they took a look and BAM thousands of 5* reviews.

Rating system is flawed if the companies producing the software can rig it. Either with in games bribes (DK) or mass buying reviews (TP). If google or apple had any balls whatsoever they would pull this game for ratings fixing. But then, they are on the same gravy train!

phil16  Feb. 7, 2014 at 13:57

Completely agree with Tsung. Saw the same thing with theme park. I won't even bother trying a Free To Play EA game. They all seem to follow this template. Its not like it cost £2.00 and your done which I could probably accept. Its the pay £2.00 every time you play that winds me up.

DivideByZero  Feb. 7, 2014 at 14:18

I never play free to play games any more. The only one I had touched for a very long time was Candy Crush and as soon as King Games turned into massive wangs I removed that from my facebook and that was that.

I have never liked the concept of free to play, pay to win games and I think that people who pay for them are stupid.

phil16  Feb. 7, 2014 at 14:24

@DivideByZero - I do enjoy some F2P - World of Tanks is pretty good. I've spent some money to get extra garage spaces but no more than £5 in total (I'd have spent a lot more if it was a standalone). It can be a grindfest but its ok. I also enjoy Planetside 2 the little I've played it. It can work well. Just not when its pay to win/progress...

DivideByZero  Feb. 7, 2014 at 14:38

True, but 99.9% of F2P games you can spend £100+ and it's still a crap game.

There are a few good F2P games and I guess my comment about people being stupid for paying to play them was more based on the fact that people pay to play crap like candy crush and other junk made by people who know nothing about games for people who know nothing about games.

Give me a new £40 game on a disk over hidden smallprint microtransactions any day.

MattGardner  Feb. 7, 2014 at 14:46

I love the concept of free-to-play games. The problem isn't with the umbrella model itself, but rather with those who abuse it. There are plenty of examples of F2P done right -- titles that present you with an opportunity to experience what a game has to offer for nothing, but allow you to pay to extend or enhance that experience should you wish. And that doesn't have to mean pay-to-win at all.

Sadly, though, lazy design often wins out.

If a F2P game is successful, I'll often want to pay money here and there for little unlockables and customisation elements or treat myself to a couple of new tanks or guns or hats. I don't mind ad-supported games at all, and I'll nearly always opt to pay for ad-free services if the games in question hook me in.

I've probably spent nearly a tenner on Jetpack Joyride, just for custom Barrys. Don't regret a thing.

DivideByZero  Feb. 7, 2014 at 15:19

"There are plenty of examples of F2P done right - titles that present you with an opportunity to experience what a game has to offer for nothing"

Yeah, when I were a lad, that was called a DEMO. You may remember those or have read about them in the archives ;)

I am trying to think of a F2P game I saw recently, maybe Warframe on the PS4... had addon packs that were over £100 - for a game that is just about Call of Duty.

Buying addons for a game you love is no different if the game is bought for or F2P. However, buying energy and **** like that for some mind numbing level grinder is stupid and I stand by that.

Anarchist  Feb. 8, 2014 at 11:12

Yeah, when I were a lad, that was called a DEMO. You may remember those or have read about them in the archives

Victory to DBZ.

MattGardner  Feb. 8, 2014 at 12:37

If we're talking retro models and pedantry, it's important to make a technical distinction between demos and shareware. F2P being an evolution and expansion of the latter rather than the former (along with serving up fuller experiences than either).

"However, buying energy and **** like that for some mind numbing level grinder is stupid and I stand by that."

I don't think anyone is arguing with you there. But the operative phrase there is "mind-numbing level grinder". Bad design is bad design no matter what the pricing model. Does F2P foster lazy development and poor design? Yes. It's far more open to abuse. But writing off all F2P games because of the sins such as those of EA's here would be an unfair shame.

X10  Feb. 8, 2014 at 13:26

Yeah, when I were a lad, that was called a DEMO. You may remember those or have read about them in the archives ;)

Didn't they used to come on something called 'floppy discs'?

I remember when Free to Play meant War3z, how times have changed.

Anarchist  Feb. 8, 2014 at 13:56

No, cassettes. Stuck to the front of commodore format.

DivideByZero  Feb. 8, 2014 at 15:29

My problem with Free to Pay as a concept is that pretty much everything I see "free" actually costs a lot of money. Look at Warframe on the PS4. Free to Play - but if you want the Prime Access Inferno pack then that's £109.99... for weapons and packs in a game badged as "FREE to play". But that's not all, They have packs for £85, £60, £30... whatever money you have, they will take it... and for what - to get a game that is equivalent to another game that costs £50 all in, you can play for actual free infinitely and you can sell on when you get bored of it?

Maybe it's because I'm tight with my money. I've never paid a subscription to a game for the same reason. But for the sort of money you can spend on these mediocre free games you could buy several decent ones on disk.

F2P as a pricing model could totally work... but so could communism - but the problem is that once you have someone exploit it the whole thing goes to s***. You don't have to look at all hard to find companies exploiting the cr*p out of microtransactions and the F2P model. From the big companies (Hi EA) right down to the scummy little bottom feeders (Hi King Games).

judgejules_1999  Feb. 10, 2014 at 09:05

I persevered with Theme Park until it was maxed out, Months of patience to have only one type highest paying ride in each slot and concession stand etc... Which was idiotic as the park was full of the same thing. The Mobile game rewards you for this, unlike the original.

Didn't spend a penny on it, but took about 6 or 7 months to do it, as I refused to pay, and became incredulous that I would beat EA at their own game... In short a waste of my life and a hollow victory really, as the game was crap unlike the original.

mescalin1  Dec. 26, 2014 at 09:16

EA are a hamburger company, i am not sure why everyone is confused, i am sort of glad actually

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