Dungeon Keeper mobile: why ‘free-to-play’ is losing its meaning

Wednesday, 5th February 2014 11:40 GMT By Dave Cook

Dungeon Keeper shows that the term ‘free-to-play’ is losing its meaning. VG247′s Dave Cook is fed up of the fleecing, and suggests that you take a stand.


“The rich just keep getting richer, don’t they Keeper?”

That’s a line from EA’s new Dungeon Keeper reboot, a title that proves once again that the term free-to-play is fast becoming a misnomer. It’s a term used to lure in consumers who have a warped sense of value thanks to the generous 69p entry point on iTunes. For years now, developers have sacrificed their own profitability by releasing games at under a dollar because it’s the only way they can compete with the free market and big-money clone production lines like It’s a sickening state of affairs.

There was a time where mobile gaming promised to bring democracy and prosperity back to independent game production. We’d see small teams make their bread from the comfort of their own bedrooms, becoming the next wave of big studio talent and introducing new, innovative ideas to the industry. For the majority this is now a pipe dream, unattainable in a market that currently places fleecing and monetisation at its fore. Mobile marketplaces have now become a lottery that few win, and where the price of admission is perilously high.

It is a tricky market to succeed in, given both the volume of new games releasing on iOS and Android each week, and the way that new releases quickly get buried in the store after just a few days. Unless you have the publishing might of Gameloft behind you, the chances of turning a solid profit become drastically reduced. I’ve seen iTunes metric sheets that represent a cliff edge after the first week of sale, never returning to that initial run of success.

So what’s the solution? In-app purchases are something of a ‘hot button’ in the free arena right now, and they have been worked into the mobile infrastructure as a way of producing long-tail sales. The mentality is that you get a lot of people spending a little as they play, and it soon mounts up. Developers need to make money to survive, this is true even if you’re a two-person team on a University campus or a juggernaut like EA, but this in-app purchasing lark has become a bitter pill to swallow.

In Dungeon Keeper it has become truly poisonous. Reviews of the game have been going live this week. Here’s a break-down of the numbers so far:

Destructoid – 4/10
Metro – 0/10
The Escapist – half a star out of five.
Eurogamer – 1/10
148 Apps – 4 stars out of 5.
PocketGamer – 7/10.

I’ve been playing around with the game for a short while this morning, and it truly is a bastardisation of the playful nature of Peter Molyneux’s original series. It is free-to-play yes, and while that is still a generous-enough prospect, the title has been specifically designed to make that gratis experience simply insufferable. It’s another game that features an entrenched resource – this time Gems – to fund your Dungeon’s creation, and naturally you can buy extra gems if you need them.


Here’s a copy-paste of Dungeon Keeper’s in-app purchasing menu from iTunes:

Bucket of Gems – $19.99
Pile of Gems – $9.99
Fistful of Gems – $4.99
Stack of Gem – s$7.99
Mountain of Gems – $99.99
Crate of Gems – $49.99

It’s at this point you may be thinking ‘but you don’t have to pay for these extra gems.’ You’d be correct, but know this; every time you command an imp to excavate part of your mine you must wait a full minute before it’s done, every new trap or structure takes times, every single thing you do in the building portion of this game takes an unfair amount of time – unless you pay gems to speed up the process.

You are hounded to spend gems on boosting your crafting speed constantly. As the review from Metro notes, “Dungeon Keeper barely waits until the tutorial is over before making it very clear it’s free-to-play in name only. The rooms you task the imps with building all take time to excavate and you’ll quickly find that even the smallest can take several hours unless you spend gems to speed things up.”

You are begged to spend money on more gems during the game’s tutorial, along with ‘witty’ jokes about not being stingy, and even a crack about how spending money on more gems is a ‘polarising solution.’ I’m not laughing, and neither should you. You cannot allow studios and publishers to keep treating you like dullards who will readily spend money like gullible idiots. You’re better than that. The industry is better than that.

This is an anorexic excuse for a game with no demeaning features beneath its childish veneer. The idea that you should pay to reduce waiting times instead of actually playing a game, is astonishing, and sets a bad precedent for games that continue to rely on energy systems and other notorious pay-wall tactics. EA should be ashamed of itself.

Does this sound like something you’d want to actually sit down and play while on a short bus journey? The lion’s share of mobile games have been designed for this very purpose, but you’d likely reach the end of your journey before your imps have finished making whatever it is you asked them to make. So I ask you; are you willing to play a game only to wait minute after minute before its core features and mechanics complete themselves?

I absolutely refuse to play this game any longer. It defies the term ‘free-to-play,’ by having the gall to enforce such restrictions on players. EA has no right to call this a free game when monetisation is essential to make it function as a normal game should. We are being suckered in by these tactics all too readily now, and I am frankly stunned by the number of glittering five-star Dungeon Keeper reviews on Google Play right now.

I feel that many gamers have been kind to this because of their nostalgia for the original. Nostalgia has also become a product, a way of using your fond memories against you, coercing you into investing more money to relive cherished moments from your childhood. Except Dungeon Keeper doesn’t deserve to stand beside its predecessor; it lacks the heart and soul of Molyneux’s creation, and furthers the worrying reality that developer can keep getting away with this.

You can see it all around you if you care to look hard enough. Purchasing Forza 5′s high-tier cars demanded constant grinding around a reduced track roster, Gran Turismo 6 included paid boosters and some developers of Steam Early Access titles are simply pushing their luck in monetising their barely complete products.

Unfortunately, these examples and Dungeon Keeper can only further stigmatise the free market, which actually plays home to several positive examples of monetisation done right. Team Fortress 2, World of Tanks, PlanetSide 2 and Dota 2 are just some examples of games offering real substance while staying free in the majority. EA’s example needn’t tarnish that space with a wide brush.

But the next time you see the term ‘free-to-play’ attached to a game; stop and refrain from instantly downloading it. Think about what that term actually means first.



  1. macronia

    freemium should be eliminated

    #1 11 months ago
  2. Talkar

    It is really abysmal how customers are treated by publisheres these days..
    But to point to TF2 and Dota 2 as examples of how it should be done is a bit extreme, considering they have the full might of the income of steam behind them, so they can get away with selling nothing.
    And considering we don’t know if TF2 and Dota 2 are making a substantial profit, or even a profit at all, since Valve doesn’t talk to anyone about anything, well IMO it just seems odd to include those as examples :P

    #2 11 months ago
  3. mistermogul

    “We’d see small teams make their bread from the comfort of their own bedrooms”

    What they bake as well as code? Talented f*ckers these indies!

    #3 11 months ago
  4. Darkfield

    got 3 words for ya “Path of Exile” tell me now if that isn’t the best free 2 play game of all times.

    #4 11 months ago
  5. silkvg247

    It’s been going on a lot longer than dungeon keeper. It sickens me too. I feel more sorry for the current generation of gamers, growing up with this cesspit of “fremium” games and being used to it like it’s the norm.

    I am very picky about which free to play games I download. I usually stick with the ad supported ones.. a good one I just grabbed was “Hungry Cat Picross”; totally ad supported. Don’t get me wrong, the ads are annoying, especially when they pop up but that’s easily ignored. If it were EA, instead of ads you’d have to pay to fill your paint pot to actually be able to play.

    If/when I release a game, I’m just gonna charge what I think it’s worth. No ads. No fremium. It’ll either sell or not sell, in either case I don’t care because the fun is in making the game in the first place.

    #5 11 months ago
  6. mistermogul

    “But the next time you see the term ‘free-to-play’ attached to a game; stop and refrain from instantly downloading it.”

    Yeah it got to the point with me ages ago when I read “free to play”, it translated into “pay to win” and I now automatically ignore 99% of these games because of it.

    Gaming has certainly taken a few wrong turns over the last 5 or so years and this is another example.

    Also this seems to typify EA’s bastardization of many franchises in recent years. They’re the game company that is totally out of touch with gamers. They wonder why people don’t like them and then give us shit like this and Sim City! lol

    #6 11 months ago
  7. deathm00n

    Great article as always Dave. I hate so much this kind of game, I’ve downloaded it yesterday, when I found out it was the free-to-watch (as I call) kind of game I’ve lost my faith in EA for cellphones businness. The same thing for The Simpsons Tapped Out (altough it’s more balanced and bearable). I get so happy when I find a game that is not free-to-watch (this week I downloaded Dice Heroes, I recommend it). But I guess I’m just giving up on playing in a cellphone, it’s like digging through a mountain of shit to ocasionaly finding a golden turd.

    #7 11 months ago
  8. CyberMarco

    Nice read Dave, +1.

    It all boils down to profit and capitalism. The more popular and promising for profits the gaming industry becomes there more guys-in-suit we should expect, tearing a new one in another industry yet again.

    But consumers are responsible for this too, it seems ignorance is bliss.

    #8 11 months ago
  9. SplatteredHouse

    Drive-by IP assassination attempt by EA.

    #9 11 months ago
  10. karma

    Any game that mentions F2P or equivalent gets an automatic thumbs down from me. They just aren’t worth the dl bandwidth or initial playtime to find out that there is yet another pay hurdle to jump to keep the fun going.

    #10 11 months ago
  11. GrimRita

    I think you need to change the headline Dave to ‘why EA is destroying free to play’. I’ve seen the reviews, I have seen the endless player reviews ripping in to how EA has locked levels (even after a tutorial!) with purchased unlocks allowing earlier progression.

    I personally feel that yet again the big players have stepped into an arena that they haven’t a bloody clue about. Unfortunately, they are destroying F2P for the smaller indie developer who can and has made good Freemium games without eating into game play.

    Had EA released this on the PC with this free to play mode, I doubt very much if these review sites would have kicked off so much, given just how large a player EA are.

    Flappy Birds is another classic example of media snobbery. Most on sites like Pocket Gamer, IGN etc ignored it as they just couldn’t see the appeal, however over night, the most popular man on youtube plays it, and now its #1. That’s the problem. Media focus too much on the big players and have lost touch with what makes the mobile market great – Indies.

    I’m about to release an update for one of my games on Android with is currently free(no IAPS either) with a free version and a paid version offering much more and both staying IAP free. But companies like EA are making it harder and harder for the small player to exist when they fuck around with a free to play method that simply takes the piss.

    #11 11 months ago
  12. IntrovertedOne

    If they do this with the upcoming ‘Evil Genius’ reboot it will break my heart.

    ‘Free to play’ sucks, and I’d like to see it disappear but as long as there are 10 year olds with access to their parents credit cards it’s not going to stop.

    So if publishers want to create free to play IP’s that’s fine, but don’t destroy classic games we love by forcing us to pay for something we’ve always done for free.

    #12 11 months ago
  13. SplatteredHouse

    “Flappy Birds is another classic example of media snobbery”

    I don’t know about Flappy Bird (although, I do now know of it, and it frankly, looks hilarious – the person “playing” being the butt of the joke), but away from that, another example of media snobbery I’d also point to is regarding Loadout, which I don’t know why more places aren’t covering what looks like an eminently playable, and enjoyable game (as well as being another example belonging on Dave’s “Nice” list of F2P titles)

    #13 11 months ago
  14. Cobra951

    I’m going to quote a friend here.

    “Why are there so many 5 star reviews? Well, the game prompts you to rate it and says ‘Give us 5 stars to receive free gems!’ Interestingly, the developers can’t actually tell what rating you gave so you could give it a 1 star rating and still get the gems, but the in-game prompt of course doesn’t tell you that.”

    #14 11 months ago
  15. fearmonkey

    There is an EA exec out there somewhere that everyone yessed them to death when they came up with this idea for a new Dungeon Keeper game. EA really needs to look at what they release, and realize that if they want people to have better opinions of them, to not release garbage like this and milk IP with games that don’t live up to it’s legacy (Wing Commander anyone?)

    EA needs to realize that their old and beloved IP’s should be respected, because the cash grab games may make them money in the short run, but leave a sour taste in the mouth of those that loved the IP, and ruins any goodwill that was starting to happen.

    How can we take them seriously when they say they are trying to turn the gamer opinion around when they release vile garbage like this?

    #15 11 months ago
  16. Telepathic.Geometry

    Nice article Dave. I hate this so-called free-to-play shite. Kill it with fire fast.

    I’m playing Candy Crush a lot recently, and although I can feel the game trying to get its hooks into your wallet, and although the prices for boosters and lives etc. is fucking outrageous, and ALTHOUGH King are complete cunts, I would say that as a free to play title, it’s just about on the right side of the line.

    It is playable, and enjoyable for the most part. They do make you wait, but every day (or every few hours), I can get in about as much gameplay as I actually want. Dungeon Keeper sounds like an abomination though. I’m tempted to download it just to see how bad it is…

    #16 11 months ago

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