“A house built on greed cannot long endure.”
Have you ever considered just how much the games industry owes to Farmville (2009)? The idea likely sounds ludicrous to most gamers. However, without the major success of Farmville and it’s spiritual successors on social media (Criminal Case (2012), Candy Crush Saga (2012) and Game of Thrones: Ascent (2013) to name the largest), microtransactions may never have made their way into the triple-A market. Like it or not, free-to-play games are the future the games industry is headed towards.
When broken down to its components, microtransactions make sense. Gamers get to play for free at their own payment scale, and developers get to combat piracy while being able to cater for gamers with five or five hundred pounds. With this model everybody plays, and everybody wins. It’s precisely because the idea of microtransactions as a business model works that gamers should collectively turn around and say to Electronic Arts, “What the hell have you done to Dungeon Keeper?!”
For those of you who don’t know, here’s the skinny. Dungeon Keeper was a real-time strategy game that appeared in 1997; the final project by Bullfrog Productions under Peter Molyneux before he left to form Lionhead Studios. The game was simple: using a set of minions and the Hand of Evil (it was the Nineties) you must carve out an evil-spewing dungeon of your very own. After it’s built, you don’t just put your feet up and start choosing the soft furnishings, no sir! You use your new dungeon to lure heroes, do-gooders and dungeon crawlers. Once they’re good and lured, you have to stop them from killing your minions and nicking all your pilfered loot with an assortment of pitfalls, ploys and booby traps.
The first game was considered a classic but after a moderately successful sequel and a cancelled third instalment, Bullfrog Productions decided to cancel the franchise. And with that, Dungeon Keeper faded into obscurity for over a decade. There’s no corpse of a classic game so dead that it won’t be brought back to life, and EA has been bringing dead properties back with such conviction that they seem to be run by a team of necromancers. So in December 2013, Electronic Arts executives gathered in a misty graveyard and after making a pact with the Grim Reaper, Dungeon Keeper Mobile was born anew.
Like many things raised from the dead, the franchise’s return didn’t improve. Gone were the real-time strategy elements and in their place were poorly implemented microtransactions. Where building a room in the original took seconds, digging out one block in the mobile version can take between four and twenty-four hours. This process can be sped up by buying gems, the game’s currency, which you pay for with real money. For the low price of £69.99, you can buy enough gems to dig out a whole 56 blocks of space. To put that in perspective, the original game had 16 different kinds of rooms, each being around 25 blocks big, and you would likely be building the same room multiple times through the course of the game. Even when you’ve bought those 56 blocks, you don’t really enjoy them as you would if you earned them in the game. You have it because you paid for it, and looking at the pixels of empty space in your pretend dungeon you’ve just put down seventy pounds of cash to have, it’s hard not to feel ripped off. Because under this system, that’s exactly what’s happened!
This is a problem because EA has clout. Already bad free-to-play models such as the multiplayer features in Ryse: Son of Rome (2013), the donuts in The Simpsons: Tapped Out (2013) and absolutely everything in Final Fantasy: All the Bravest (2013) dominate the microtransaction scene. With EA adopting these bad business practices instead of being a role model for free-to-play games, many companies are outright avoiding microtransactions altogether. After all, why would other game developers want to associate their product with microtransactions if the word is constantly being sullied with awful games like Dungeon Keeper Mobile? These are short term profits potentially ruining a great way to play games.
An example of microtransactions done well is Team Fortress 2 (2007); a game which made the jump from paid game to free-to-play back in 2011. Every character class is available to you from the moment you begin the game and Valve constantly provides updates, tweaks and fixes for the core game everybody has access to. So what does Valve do differently to EA with their microtransactions? Valve’s free-to-play model gives you the option to purchase extra weapons and cosmetics for your character; hats in particular. And yet this works because the hats are a fantastic bonus to the experience, with the satisfaction of buying silly cosmetics merely acting as the delicious cherry on top. Valve knows that players would delight in running around in a game they love wearing a top hat or killing people by smacking them with a fish. Gaining the loyalty of a customer with a great service is the most important part of a free-to-play game, as that loyalty can turn casual players into paying customers.
So do not be fooled. Dungeon Keeper Mobile is not a free-to-play game. It isn’t even a game. This is a company performing psychological warfare. A trick to see just how long a game can test a player’s patience before they start desperately flinging cash at it. Microtransactions can be a sustainable part of gaming, as Team Fortress 2 and the more recent Loadout (2013) prove. But should players ever find themselves battling a game with their wallet in order to have any fun, something has gone terribly wrong.