And the brouhaha around EA’s mobile Dungeon Keeper remake continues.
For those unfamiliar with Dungeon Keeper, it originally appeared as a PC game in 1997. The player assumes the role of a fantasy villain who designs and maintains a dungeon, protecting treasure against invading heroes. A sequel came out in 1999. Recently, Electronic Arts revived the franchise with a mobile version created by recently-defunct Mythic Entertainment.
To the dismay and outrage of Dungeon Keeper fans and game enthusiasts alike, the latest iteration in the franchise relies heavily on microtransactions. The game itself is available for free download; however in order to obtain the resources necessary to build and maintain a dungeon the game effectively forces users to continue to pay real money. Otherwise, players have to sit through exorbitantly long waiting times while resources are mined (Jim Sterling of The Escapist aptly described this model as “Free to Wait”) It is the microtransaction model taken to the Nth degree.
To make matters worse, Electronic Arts have stacked additional layers to the steaming pile, including blocking the ability to give the game less than a 5-star rating and deflecting criticism as just the nerd-rage of nostalgic longtime DK fans. It is the textbook example of the Free-2-Play business model at its absolute worst and has justifiably become the target of intense criticism. Even Peter Molyneux, creator of the original Dungeon Keeper, expressed his dismay over the direction EA has taken the series. In February he told the BBC: “I felt myself turning round saying, ‘What? This is ridiculous. I just want to make a dungeon. I don’t want to schedule it on my alarm clock for six days to come back for a block to be chipped.”
The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority even recently told EA they could no longer market Dungeon Keeper as a free game.
An element of that debate hinges on whether or not Dungeon Keeper qualifies as a game at all, and there have been arguments made on both sides of the issue. For example, Mike Fahey at Kotaku observed that Dungeon Keeper was not a game for the “hardcore” game enthusiast but rather the casual mobile player accustomed to microtransactions and short play sessions (see also here and here for those who say no, and here for one who says yes).
If we follow the basic characteristics of games, I argue Dungeon Keeper and similar Free-2-Play games like Farmville and Final Fantasy: All the Bravest are in fact games. They are games in the sense they have clearly-defined players, rules, and objectives. However, the players are neither the irate “hardcore” game fans nor the casual mobile crowd.
The players in the Free-2-Play game scene are the publishers themselves.
Let me be clear that this is not the case in all Free-2-Play games. Jetpack Joyride is an entertaining free game on its own as is Tiny Tower. In each the player has the option to either earn coins for in-game purchases or pay real money to buy more coins. The choice lies with the player. These games make it possible to enjoy the experience without costing the player a nickel; instead offering it as an option to change or enhance gameplay. The pay model for players can also be a vote of affirmation to the developers, a sign they made something enjoyable and worthwhile.
Games like Dungeon Keeper and Final Fantasy and the rest of their ilk however fall on the opposite end of the F2P spectrum: they are games designed with the sole purpose of siphoning money to greedy developers who see these games as the direct means to the end of optimizing their cashflow by any means. In the metagame that is the Free-2-Play model, the objective is to develop a product that will quickly generate as much money as possible. The player uses all the techniques at their disposal to maximize their profits, including but not limited to downloadable content or paywalls barring users from effectively continuing without periodic admissions fees, manipulating review scores make their games seem better, or even leveraging the name of an established franchise to bilk fans into shelling out cash. In this game the user serves as the means toward the ultimate end of a larger bottom line.
In this model the end-user is no more a player than the Space Marines in Starcraft are players. They are pawns, means to the greater end of drawing in as much money as possible. To push the Starcraft metaphor even further, the users are SCV’s: expendable and interchangeable units designed to generate resources, mining their wallets to funnel cash into the publisher machine.
Now go out there and mine those minerals! Or alternatively go on GoG and buy the original Dungeon Keeper games: .