We’re Losing the War on Microtransactions

We all know that microtransactions are becoming more and more integral to their respective games, convoluting competition and damaging publishing rights, but we’ve still been able to (begrudgingly and reluctantly) coexist with them. Final Fantasy: All the Bravest was a downright travesty, one of the most manipulative and dishonest releases to come from any franchise. When you have to either wait three minutes to revive a party member or pay real money to speed it up, that’s putting up a paywall that literally prevents you from continuing. You’re forced to just…wait. All the Bravest was widely panned for this issue alone, earning a number of dubious honors, including places on many gamers’ and publications’ “worst of 2013” lists. But as much of a wreck All the Bravest is, it’s not the worst use of microtransactions. That’s very hard to believe, but something has gone lower. A game has made microtransactions even worse than All the Bravest did.


A 2013 mobile release of the critically acclaimed 1997 game Dungeon Keeper is where the entire microtransaction idea reaches its lowest point thus far. I know what you’re thinking: how in the world can a game abuse microtransactions more than Final Fantasy: All the Bravest did? I asked myself the same question, but lo and behold, Dungeon Keeper on iOS and Android did not fail to deliver that answer. Dungeon Keeper on mobile devices takes that already terrible idea and amplifies the inconvenience to unparalleled levels.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dungeon Keeper, the idea of the game is to create your own labyrinth which yet can set with traps, spells and minions, but to design the dungeon, you must clear out or “mine” spaces on the board. In the original release, you would have to take a certain amount of time to fully clear out the space, but on the mobile version, it takes upwards to 24 hours for a single space to be cleared. If waiting 15 or so minutes for your party to be revived in All the Bravest was a nightmare (and it was), this is something otherworldly in its existence. Someone clearly thought that a 24-hour waiting period was a passable gameplay mechanic to this game that had been released countless times before, but with a much more reasonable structure.

So, 24 hours is bad. What do you expect to be able to do to speed that up? Seriously, you have three guesses, and the first two don’t count. You can spend gems to “rush” it. Of course, gems can be earned by spending real money, allowing you to bypass the 24-hour waiting period simply by having the money to do it. That is a brick wall that prevents you from playing. It’s a way of pulling the plug on your game until you pay the publisher money, while they hide behind the label “free” on the app stores.


Look at the above screenshot of the available values of gems that you can purchase with the in-app store. Notice how the value of gems steadily increases, before capping out at the maximum package of 14,000 gems. The price? $123.11. If you travel over to GOG.com, however, the full game on Dungeon Keeper is actually $5.99, and it takes a considerably shortened work time on a tile (from 24 hours to less than five seconds). I’m sure you can see the problem here, how the mobile version is pushing these absurdly unreasonable microtransactions with a “free” model , while the original PC game can be downloaded at an extremely understandable price (and without a terrible paywall time of 24 hours or so).

A lot of companies are trying to levee the outcry against micropayments, claiming their use of them is a way to “accelerate” gameplay. They’ve said that they’re optional. This is not a case like that. Dungeon Keeper’s microtransactions are not optional. If you have to wait 24 hours to make that small and simple of an action, that is a lockout. That is a mandatory eviction out of the house that you can’t reverse until you pay the rent that just happened to be in the small and messy fine print.


But the reason that Dungeon Keeper on mobile is such a monumentally evil endeavor is where this concept is being implemented: free-to-play games on a mobile app market. If you’ve been keeping track of the industry these days, you’ll know that a majority of the mobile game market is made up of the younger kids, kids who probably didn’t start playing games when Mario, Sonic or even Master Chief was new. That means that kids are starting with mobile games like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope and…mobile Dungeon Keeper.

They don’t know that there were games long ago that might have been more expensive, but didn’t have microtransactions in the slightest. You got a full game in 1997 and it was awesome. These kids are being raised in a culture where this isn’t just acceptable, but also the default. Kids are now expecting to see microtransactions of this magnitude in their games, and since it’s so common, they don’t know about the older alternative. They don’t understand that they don’t have to pay money to keep playing. You can have fun without worrying about how much money you’re spending on gems or coins or tokens or whatever. Worse yet, when these kids move onto full-fledged console games like Dead Space or Forza Motorsport, the games still are using microtransactions. They are reinforcing the idea that they are standard and are to be expected. These new gamers are being raised on microtransactions.

And to prove this blind acceptance to microtransactions once more, Dungeon Keeper has a 4.6 out of 5 rating on the Google Play store, build up from over 42 thousand ratings. People are buying this game and liking it, making it not only one of the best-received games on the Google Play store, but also one of the most downloaded ones with hundreds of thousands of installations on Android alone. It’s downright frightening to see this, and any long-time gamer is being forced to watch this happen. I feel like Roddy Piper in that sci-fi film They Live, where something terrible is going on, but the masses can’t see how bad it is (and trust me, I’m not alone in knowing this). This is happening right under everyone’s noses, yet very little is being done to push it back down.


Believe it or not, I’m still convinced that there is a way to make microtransactions work. Even after all this, even after so much mass desensitization to players and so much underhandedness by publishers, I still believe that microtransactions can be used without making gamers look like fools. Dungeon Keeper on mobile, however, is the polar opposite. It’s a game that literally cannot function without that extra purchase from the player. Gamers are being forced to see long-beloved franchises like Final Fantasy and Dungeon Keeper be perverted and used as a kind of fee-based premium, and quite honestly, we’re steadily losing the ability to speak out against them. While long-time gamers are denouncing their use and condemning their implementation into games, others are passively brushing it off their shoulders and just hitting the payment button on their smartphone.

As gamers, we have a right to protect the integrity of our culture, but Dungeon Keeper on mobile is probably the biggest challenge we’ve faced yet in defending video games from this practice. It’s a cash-grab from start to finish, and quite frankly, no one (gamer or not) should be forced to accept it.