The big story in the games news world right now is EA’s mobile release of Dungeon Keeper. The original Dungeon Keeper was released in 1997 and was an instant cult hit. Gamers loved it and game designers were influenced by it. Even today, Dungeon Keeper is often among the top sellers on GOG.com.
The mobile version of Dungeon Keeper pretends to pay homage to the cult classic and instead bastardizes it with the worst free-to-play microtransactions system that many people have seen. While we’re used to free-to-play cash grabs, this might be the most blatant attempt to stop gameplay at every possible turn to squeeze the player for more money.
I don’t think, however, that the problems with Dungeon Keeper Mobile aren’t a result of the free-to-play model. If you go looking for free-to-play games, not all of them are blatant cash grabs. However, when you look at it more closely, you find that so-called games designed to print are really a mobile gaming problem.
I know that free-to-play games are often considered a blight on gaming as a whole because of a reputation to shamelessly take money – to the extent that one could accuse games of almost stealing money – from gamers to allow them to play. However, many free-to-play games don’t stop gameplay or progress to force payment.
Recently, I’ve started playing Planetside 2. For those who haven’t heard of it, Planetside 2 is a free-to-play MMO first-person shooter. Near as I can tell, though, free-to-play doesn’t really do much to inhibit your ability to play the game. Sure, you’re at the back of the queue to long into servers and continents. You don’t generate money (called “certs” in-game) very quickly so new weapons and customization options take longer to unlock. However, I don’t find this adversely affecting my gaming experience.
Looking at a more traditional MMORPG, I also played Star Wars: The Old Republic when it was free-to-play. I wasn’t a fan of some of the more odd free-to-play restrictions, such as disabling chat for F2P gamers, but you could still play through the whole game without paying a cent. It was easier if you upgraded to Preferred or Subscriber but not impossible and you weren’t actively stopped from progressing.
There are plenty of other free-to-play games that aren’t offensively bad in terms of preventing you from playing or trying to siphon money out of your wallet. MMO third-person shooter Warframe seems relatively popular among Steam users. Even those with negative reviews have put hundreds of hours into the game. StarCraft II isn’t officially free-to-play but, while it locks out most of the campaign and the Heart of the Swarm expansion, you’re given enough of a taste to figure out whether it’s worth a purchase or not. Blizzard’s free-to-play Hearthstone seems like it can be played without microtransactions but I say seems because, like most competitive-ish games, I’m terrible at it.
None of those free-to-play games that I’ve mentioned, however, are mobile games. When you start looking at mobile games, it becomes apparent that there are a lot more games in that segment of the market that try to take your money when compared to the PC and console spaces.
While creating a dungeon is one of the important gameplay elements of the original Dungeon Keeper, in the mobile version of the game, mining out a one-by-one square of dungeon can take either 4 hours or 24 hours. The game gives you gems to expedite the mining process but those quickly run out. That’s when you have to pay to just play the game. You’re effectively locked out behind a paywall.
It’s not just the free-to-play games that are littered with microtransactions. Final Fantasy: All the Bravest launched on iOS at $3.99 and was filled with enough microtransactions to push the total spending on the game over $50 before buying character revives at $0.99. Characters weren’t specifically purchased but randomly purchased from a pool and the game wasn’t even backed up with anything resembling gameplay.
There’s also the recent Star Trek: Trexels that costs $2.99 but only before you spend money to get you through the first group of levels after the tutorial. It’s not just the free-to-play games that are trying to take your money. Even the ones you pay for are trying to take you for more money.
After looking at recent evidence, it’s not free-to-play games that are inherently evil. It’s the people who make them and design them solely to steal your money at every opportunity that are evil. And it looks like it’s the mobile market that has brought out the worst in so-called game designers.
The willingness of people to pay money when playing mobile games has certainly been noticed by game developers and publishers. With more people playing games on their phones and mobile gaming being a relatively new segment of the gaming world, putting microtransactions into an emerging market where buying habits and consumer preferences are still being established makes for a great opportunity to exploit the consumer and convince them that paying to play is perfectly natural. While the core gamers who have grown up with $60 games and no microtransactions would balk at a lot of what it being put out on Android and iOS, new gamers who have only played on phones don’t know that they’re being taken by greedy corporate overlords.
I realize that gaming is a business and the goal of a business is to make money but there are better ways to make money than rig a game to force you to pay to play. Companies like EA, Square Enix and YesGnome (Star Trek: Trexels) have to realize that if you give customers a good experience, they’ll want to play and pay to play. Forcing people to pay for nothing is going to backfire in the end. The well is going to dry up and the devs making games like these won’t be around for very long when the cash stops flowing.
Angry Joe Show – Angry Christmas Review 2013 – Star Trek: Trexels (iOS)
The Escapist – Dungeon Keeper Mobile Review – Wallet Reaper
Kotaku – Final Fantasy: All the Bravest is $46 of In-App Purchases Looking for a Game
Nerd³ – Nerd³ 101 – Dungeon Keeper (Mobile)