EA's Dungeon Keeper is a real torture
Rather than condemning all F2P, Dungeon Keeper should be a lesson in what can go wrong and how to avoid it
Nobody seems to be terribly happy about the new Dungeon Keeper game. That's a sentence I hoped I'd never write, given how much I loved the original Bullfrog games - but that fact alone places me firmly within the least happy demographic of all: the original fans of the franchise. The rest of the unhappy parties can form an orderly queue behind us; that means you, game critics who think the game is terrible, mobile gamers who think it's not nearly as good as its most obvious inspiration, Clash of Clans, F2P advocates who could do without another awful example being used to unfairly crucify the entire business model, and, well, EA themselves, I expect.
Lots has been written about Dungeon Keeper in the week since it launched, almost all of it deeply critical and a good deal of it entirely fair. Dungeon Keeper is a nicely presented but mediocre game in the mobile/F2P genre it inhabits. Within the franchise it inhabits, however, it's a disastrous, idiotic travesty of a thing, a game whose design process wouldn't be out of place in the imaginative dungeons of the original titles - involving, as it did, the snapping of limbs and crunching of bones in order to stuff the screaming body of a much-loved core gamer title into a box that is distinctly too small and painfully the wrong shape. It's enough to make a Dark Mistress' eyes water.
I like the free to play business model, in principle. More than that - I think the free to play business model, still in its infancy and thus still making countless mistakes, is actually an inevitable step for the games industry. It's not going to replace other business models, which will continue to be a better fit for certain types of game and certain types of audience, but it'll probably be the most important and profitable business model in future (some would argue, convincingly enough, that it already is). From the moment it became possible to distribute games for free, it was certain that someone would do that, and devise a system for making money later, once an audience had been built up. Under the circumstances, carefully considered and ethically implemented F2P is probably the best, and fairest, system possible.
"I reject the notion that Dungeon Keeper is an illustration of F2P's intrinsic evils"
So I reject the notion that Dungeon Keeper is an illustration of F2P's intrinsic evils. It's not, any more than any number of terrible boxed games were an illustration of intrinsic evils of the retail game business model. F2P isn't intrinsically evil or bad, but it's open to abuse - just like the old boxed game model was plenty open to abuse, as you'll know if you've ever preordered an expensive game only to find that reviews were withheld until after launch, previews had been based on glimpses of unrepresentative sections of the game, screenshots and trailers were a cocktail of lies and the whole thing is actually a massive stinker. F2P trips up more often because it's new and many developers are still feeling out the parameters of the business model - and moreover, because it requires developers whose core skill is designing games to also design a business model in tandem with their game, which is a new skill that doesn't necessarily come naturally.
That means that if we're being reasonable, rather than just howling pointlessly into the wind because it makes us feel better, we need to consider Dungeon Keeper not as an omen of doom but as a learning exercise. It's obviously a mess. It's disappointed lots of people and made a core group of those people - people who ought to have been its most rapt advocates - very very angry indeed. But why is it a mess? What does Dungeon Keeper actually do wrong?
You could say "microtransactions", and you'd be right in one sense - it does microtransactions wrong, but not because microtransactions themselves are intrinsically wrong. Plenty of games handle them rather nicely and fairly. Supercell's games are pretty good examples - Hay Day is, I think, the only F2P game I've bought premium currency in, and I'm perfectly happy with the few quid I spent there, as I knew perfectly well what my money was buying and what the alternative was to acquire the things I wanted in-game. I mentioned last week my Japanese friend who has spent the equivalent of $500 in Puzzle & Dragons, and doesn't regret it in the slightest - from my own experience, P&D, the biggest-grossing F2P game in the world, is also scrupulously fair and up-front about its micro-transactions, and generous to a fault at handing out premium currency for free, thus allowing you to save up for things you want instead of feeling forced to fork out.
"P&D, the biggest-grossing F2P game in the world, is also scrupulously fair and up-front about its micro-transactions, and generous to a fault at handing out premium currency for free"
Those games - and Clash of Clans, the Supercell game to which Dungeon Keeper owes much of its genre heritage - get F2P microtransactions right. Even Candy Crush Saga, a game which I personally dislike quite intently (I think that describing yourself as a puzzle game and then confronting the player with randomly generated levels which are actually impossible to solve is a miserable failure of fundamental game design), is far from being abusive in its approach to microtransactions; a solid majority of players who complete all its levels do so without ever spending any money. I played Clash of Clans for months without spending, and I'm coming up on a year in Puzzle & Dragons without spending - both of which I still find fun, and both of which, I think it's fair to say, are genuinely living up to the promise inherent in the words "free to play". I'm quite convinced, incidentally, that they're among the world's most profitable games precisely because they allow most players to continue enjoying them for free, rather than in spite of that seemingly foolish generosity.
Dungeon Keeper isn't a generous game. It's a grasping, unpleasant game - which is a shame, because with a more likeable, generous approach to its players, it wouldn't be a terrible game. It's certainly among the better of the Clash of Clans clones, a multitude of which fill the App Store with game mechanics and art styles shamelessly copied from Supercell's hit and absolutely zero effort at innovation. Dungeon Keeper - though I say it through gritted teeth, since the franchise abuse still rankles - has the guts of a decent mobile game that builds worthwhile variation onto the Clash of Clans formula. The problem is, you advance through that experience at a snail's pace, halted every few seconds by a glowing gem icon that invites you to spend expensive premium currency to speed up your progress. That premium currency itself arrives in an absolutely miserable trickle, rendering the notion of saving up to buy things into a sad joke.
Slowing down progress to encourage players who are really engaged with the game to spend a bit of money to advance is a core tenet of F2P design. Some people hate that, which I perfectly understand, but it's not necessarily the end of all things - it's worth pointing out that lots of non-F2P games also stretch out tasks artificially for a variety of commercial and gameplay reasons (I'd point to World of Warcraft in the first instance and Animal Crossing in the second as good examples of this). The point is that in doing this, designers need to make sure they're not compromising the fun of the game, and err on the side of generosity rather than grasping. Dungeon Keeper fails these tests. It starts asking for money almost straight away, long before any player has a chance to become really engaged or engrossed in the game, and continues to wheedle at players to pay up on an ongoing basis, ramping up within a couple of days to the point where it's taking 24 hours to complete simple tasks like digging out a square of rock, and literally weeks to finish a tunnel or room unaided by a dip in your wallet. Good F2P design is about making people really love your game and then giving them opportunities to spend money on it. Dungeon Keeper is a grubby chancer who tries to steal your wallet before the main course has even arrived on your first - and last - date.
There's an even more fundamental problem at work here, though. Making a bad, greedy F2P game with the beloved Dungeon Keeper license is inexcusable - but to be honest, making any kind of F2P game with this license was a terrible idea. Dungeon Keeper is an old franchise, one which never came to consoles - making it much loved by a significant group of gamers who are older and significantly more "core" than the primary market for mobile F2P games. If you weren't a PC gamer in the 1990s, Dungeon Keeper has almost certainly passed you by entirely. On the other hand, if you were a PC gamer in the 1990s, I think it's fair to generalise and say you're probably firmly in the camp that by and large dislikes microtransactions and considers F2P in general with suspicion - suspicion which you'll consider to be all but confirmed by Dungeon Keeper's many transgressions.
"Good F2P design is about making people really love your game and then giving them opportunities to spend money on it"
So why did EA do this? What on earth did they believe they stood to gain from resurrecting a franchise like this in a form which would be utterly despised by the only people who recognise it, while the potential audience it might reach successfully - gamers who like mobile F2P and are looking for something different in flavour and approach to Clash of Clans - will have zero brand recognition with Dungeon Keeper, but may be dissuaded by the outpouring of one-star scores on the App Store with which gamers are registering their dislike. Note too that while it's conventionally and reasonably held that the specialist games media has no impact on mobile game performance, the hatred for Dungeon Keeper has spilled over into the mainstream press - and while "no publicity is bad publicity", newspaper articles accusing your game of greedy monetisation tactics aren't the ideal way to introduce it to the public at large, while Google results populated with fiery critique and all manner of accusations don't help much either.
Ultimately, EA could have avoided this by making essentially the same game (although doing a lot more careful consideration of monetisation tactics and trying not to destroy the game's hopes of retaining players by being too greedy too early wouldn't go amiss) without the Dungeon Keeper brand and the vaguely ghoulish overtones of corpse-robbing that go with Dungeon Keeper's pilfered, ill-matched mechanisms and characters in this game. Alternatively, it could probably have made quite a decent commercial success out of a premium-priced Dungeon Keeper game carefully updating the original and launching on Steam and iPad - a game with a significant built-in audience and a huge store of goodwill, much of which has now been squandered. It could even have included some IAP further down the line for deeply devoted players, although more in the line of cosmetic items and so on than game-changing consumables. Hell, EA could have done both of those things, resuscitating a much-loved franchise and creating a brand new F2P franchise, thus ending up with two successful IPs rather than one battered, bruised and sorely abused one.
This comes back to a point I made earlier - there is an audience for F2P, a huge audience with a significant amount of spending power, but it's not the only audience (even if it's the biggest). There are other audiences who crave other genres, other business models, other price points. The notion that the vast expansion in the demographic reach of videogames is going to be attended by an absolute contraction of the possible business models for videogames is a transparent nonsense - F2P is an inevitable and by no means negative consequence of the reduction in distribution costs to (just about) zero, but it's not the only business model or price point enabled by recent technological change. The first challenge for designers, producers and executives in this new era is to figure out what business model best fits the franchise, the genre and the audience for your project. EA isn't the first company to fail that challenge, nor is Dungeon Keeper the last game which will do it - but for those of us with fond memories of Bullfrog's glory days, this is the one that leaves the most bitter taste. The lesson, however, must not be "F2P is bad" - it must be, "Do F2P where appropriate, do it with care, and do it well".