It’s really impressive how heavily EA is investing in its cartoon villain persona over the last year or two. Their love affair with microtransactions helped destroy the Tiger Woods series in a way the washed-up sports star couldn’t, Criterion has fallen apart and with it any hopes of a new Burnout, Battlefield 4 was almost completely unplayable from its October launch through the Christmas season, and of course 2013’s Sim City was a total debacle. Still, a new year brings with it new challenges, so Dungeon Keeper has stepped up to remind people that EA thinks of them as expendable money pinatas rather than customers.
The original Dungeon Keeper was a great game, made back when Peter Molyneux and Bullfrog were names to be reckoned with. You played the dark lord of the dungeon, building up your defenses and creatures to protect your evil lair against invading heroes. It made being an evil overlord managing the building and creation of a dark lair of corruption into every bit as fun a job as it sounds, so of course its fans were looking forward to a mobile version with a shiny graphics upgrade. What they got instead of the modern remake they were hoping for was a freemium-infested mockery of a classic game, so bloated with microtransaction requirements as to be unplayable. Actions take a ridiculous amount of time to complete and can only be rushed along with gems, which of course cost real-world money. You take a lot of actions in Dungeon Keeper, so that $5 500-gem stash isn’t going to last very long. Still, we should cut it some slack because it’s not like the game cost anything, maybe spend $10 on 1200 gems or even $20 on 2500. If you like a game it’s only fair to throw the developers a few bucks, right? And then after a few satisfying rounds the gems are gone, because everything requires gems to progress, and you’re left with a game that you’ve paid what you feel is a fair price for that won’t let you play any more. It’s true that’s the standard freemium model, but Dungeon Keeper cranks it to 11 while built on the back of a PC classic. It’s a great way to ensure that a business model that’s generally loathed by the non-casual gamer will get maximum exposure.
The backlash has been harsh, but no situation is so bad that it can’t be made worse by some wonderfully stupid attempts at image management. First up, the Android app refuses to register a non-5-star rating. Any click on anything less than the full 5 stars gets sidetracked by a feedback request, with no way to register the score. Click on 5 stars and it will take you to the Google Play page, where you can edit the score into shape, but rating a game isn’t so important an action that most people will bother going around the roadblock. In an interview about the game, EA Mythic’s Jeff Skalski said “One of the important data points we’re looking at is our store ratings and downloads. At the time of this interview, App Store ratings currently sit at 4 out of 5 stars and Google Play ratings sit at 4.5 out of 5 stars.” While the iOS ratings have fallen sharply since the interview, the Google Play rating is still at a comfortable 4.4. It’s almost like rigging the voting means you get to pat yourself on the back for how awesome you are, because stats don’t lie.
The entire interview was packed full of self-serving doublespeak explaining how the game is awesome and people love it, somehow neglecting its standing in the Top 200 Grossing Apps at a miserable 104th place as of this writing. A classic PC strategy/sim has been redesigned for playing a few minutes at a time so people should expect to pay money if they want a longer play session. We all played as free players during game testing so know that progress is possible without the game being a money-sink, for those players who enjoy having fun for seconds at a time. We didn’t make the game for us, we made it for the players who love spending large buckets of cash. (I may have paraphrased his comments a bit.)
Dungeon Keeper is not a game that’s well suited for freemium gaming, and all the levers being thrown into the full-gouge settings haven’t made it a lot of friends. It’s a broken game built on the back of a beloved series, with deceptive ratings baked into the Android edition and developers who I like to think are blind rather than lying despite the rating system not really inspiring faith in anything they say. In the meantime, the PC and Mac versions of both Dungeon Keeper 1 and 2 have hit the top downloads over at GOG, so if you’re feeling a bit nostalgic you can toss a good company $10 to fully own a DRM-free pair of games that let you play as much as you like.