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

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 King.com. 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.

About the Author

Dave Cook avatar

Dave Cook


Living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Writing a game called Jettison and a book called Seventh Circle. Loves spicy food.

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