Dungeons and add-ons: in-app purchases are killing mobile games
7th Feb 2014 | 12:27
Misadventures in Dungeon Keeping
Imagine if you were followed around all day by a little man who kept asking you for money.
Not with menaces, just a wee fellow who would occasionally stick his head around the door and rattle a collection tin at you. Sometimes he might whisper a brief reminder about your responsibilities and that he could help. Really, he could make them all go away... for a price.
Well, thanks to the wonders of modern smartphone technology this entertaining scenario can be yours.
All you have to do is download EA's new free-to-play game, Dungeon Keeper and you too can experience a daily shakedown for loose change in the name of retro gaming 'fun'.
Dungeon Keeper, you see, is a Free-to-Play game. In the wacky, topsy-turvy world of gaming, this means that it will cost you money and you can't really play it otherwise. Free-to-Play (F2P hereafter, I'm getting annoyed even typing it) is the business model that is killing gaming. Not for games publishers, mind. Just for players.
When you download an F2P game you are usually presented with a cut-down or limited version of a game that you can enhance by making in-app purchases.
Sometimes these microtransactions just make the game a bit easier (an early example being the level-beating Mighty Eagle from Angry Birds) or more aesthetically pleasing (you might buy a new outfit for a character, say). Increasingly, however, developers are making in-app purchases the only way to ensure that the game is playable.
The original Dungeon Keeper was a PC strategy game that put you in the role of a stereotypical Dark Lord who had to stock His dungeon full of monsters and traps to repel any heroes who might come a-callin'.
The mobile remake takes that basic template and tries to 'update' it with the same kind of F2P mechanic found in games like Clash Of Clans and Candy Crush - a series of timers that slow gameplay down unless you spend an in-game currency to speed things up again.
These in-game currencies (Gems, in the case of Dungeon Keeper) can only be found in short supply in the game proper, meaning you have to top them up with actual, real-life currency to avoid frustration.
What can be an annoyance in some games has here been turned up to eleven, making Dungeon Keeper less of a game and more a sort of siphon you can attach to the side of your wallet in return for its measly offerings of mobile entertainment.
Advanced dungeon keeping
To build a world-class Dungeon there are certain things that you need to do. You have to dig out spaces to fit special rooms like a Hatchery (to breed chickens, your minion's favourite food) or a Library that you can use to research spells with which to confound your enemies.
Helpfully, there are several open areas already visible on the game map that you could use for this, but you still have to dig out corridors through the earth and rock in order to reach them. The problem with this is that almost every action in the game has a timer attached. Summon a demonic helper or a heavily armed Troll to defend your gates and you must wait a short while - a few seconds perhaps, or a few minutes - for it to arrive. You can pay out a gem or two to avoid the wait, though. And you do because, well, who wants to wait?
Digging tunnels takes longer depending on the kind of rock your Imp helpers are chipping away at. Just a short while after I began playing properly (having already been charged a fair few gems during the tutorial) I started to dig my way towards a suitable room for a Hatchery when I noticed that the timer for one of the blocks read '1d'. Not one old Penny, one actual day of real-time play. Or I could just pay a few hundred gems to get things moving..
Having used up about half of my starting 500 gems I tapped the little '+' icon next to the gem counter and got a swift lesson in F2P economics. Prices start at £2.99 for 500 gems and go up to - please, do brace yourself - £69.99 for 14,000 pretend jewels.
Seventy quid might sound like a lot - because it IS a lot - but, hey, at least that will let you dig out 56 entire squares on a map crammed full of the hardest variety of virtual rock before you have to start drumming your fingers and leaving the game running overnight while you charge your phone.
In what I can only assume was a sort of joke on the part of the developers, the top-whack option was labelled 'Best value'. It made me laugh, anyway. In a sense.
Now, I like playing games on my phone. I like Dungeons. I would probably enjoy Keeping them. There is however no scenario, no combination of events that doesn't involve my family being kidnapped in which I will spend seventy quid simply in order to play a 'free' game in non-geological time.
This kind of cynical, money-grubbing app should be easy to ignore. Both the App Store and Google play have many great games for which you can pay once and play forever. Titles like Minecraft or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that cost a bit to begin with but are then yours to play as often as you wish.
The trouble is, people do sometimes cough up for in-app purchases and if developers get the balance just right then the rewards can be immense. F2P games often have excellent presentation and usually offer at least a short burst of good gameplay in the beginning (oddly, Dungeon Keeper seems to have forgotten this part) ranking highly on download charts for this reason.
Gamers lose out, of course, with hobbled games offering thinner and thinner slices of entertainment in return for the time and money invested in them. With games like Dungeon Keeper, it is hard to see the sharp end of the F2P model as anything more than a scam at gamers' expense.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with paying for extra content in a game but it should be just that - extras that give more enjoyment, not a temporary fix that makes the game behave like a game rather than a dismal cash funnel.