Dungeon Keeper Case Study: Free-to-Play Games Are Not Free Games

Why is the jump to free-to-play almost always hailed as such a good thing when it comes as a failure of the subscription model? How far can you take micro-transactions?

Why is the jump to free-to-play almost always hailed as such a good thing when it comes as a failure of the subscription model? How far can you take micro-transactions?
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(Warning: The YouTube video review linked in the header contains profanity.)

With the rise of every new MMO experience comes a new rehashing of the age-old question: to use the subscription model or to not use the subscription model?

So far, it has been difficult to find anything that isn’t a Blizzard game struggling to maintain a sustainable population – although the newly-minted WildStar hasn’t shown signs of flagging yet, and Elder Scrolls Online seems to continue standing tall in spite of a whole host of launch issues, so that standing record remains to be seen.

But with regards to erstwhile “WoW killers” of the past; Rift, Star Wars: the Old Republic, Aion, TERA, etc. they have all fallen from the subscription bandwagon, because player subscriptions were not enough to carry the costs of the game. There are plenty of different reasons why these games failed, many of which are discussed here in Let’s Talk MMO: Subscription or Free-to-Play Cash ShopsAnd yet, no matter “the real reasons why,” they all share a similar story. 

Sooner or later, you’ll see someone call it: “this is going free-to-play in less than six months.” 

And it’s usually true.

But why is this always hailed as such a good thing by people who held out on playing it at launch, even if those cases (e.g. TERA vs. SWTOR) where the jump to F2P was done quite well? What is so pleasurable about playing a watered-down, desperately ad-riddled grindfest of a game with halved XP and zero chance for the best player perks? 

When a game goes free-to-play, it does not mean you are playing the game for free.

Of course, there is an interesting counter-argument to this… but it crops up in the mobile market, not in desktop gaming.

The reason for this is often because casual mobile gaming is almost entirely designed for wasting as much time as possible, and often in the most brainless way possible. There is very little skill involved in playing Candy Crush. That won’t stop you from playing the whole busride through, right?

As such, it is much easier to weigh a casual mobile game evenly when it comes to playing it completely free versus paying for various upgrades and in-game currencies for faster progression. When the point of the game is repetitive time-wasting, well, what’s a little more time?

The bigger issues arise when it’s not just “a little more time.” 

It can in fact be a lot of time. Way too much time in fact, to the point where a game is virtually unplayable as a free player.

Enter Dungeon Keeper. The original strategy game by Bullfrog Productions was released by EA in 1997 for the PC, to critical acclaim, and spawned a second Dungeon Keeper 2. A third installment was planned but eventually scrapped, as well as an Asia-only MMORPG. Since then, the franchise has lain essentially dormant until recently when EA brought it back to life, cartoonified and updated for playing on the go. 

Fans of the original game were highly unimpressed. Fans of playing free-to-play games for free… were also unimpressed. 

While many of the game mechanics may not be clear right away from the screenshot above, note that the time to advance one space in building your dungeon will take almost 24 hours real time in one direction, or 3.5 in the other.

Or you could pay.

One space.

While other critics have deemed the Dungeon Keeper mobile game an insult to the Dungeon Keeper franchise, I would go further to say this is an insult to basic human intelligence.

This is not “fun,” even in a mindless sense. It is a straight money-grab and no one, absolutely no one, should be able to argue otherwise.

The funny part is that EA certainly tried to, when a UK watchdog called them out before the Advertising Standards Authority, citing their Dungeon Keeper advert was “misleading because it omitted significant information.”

The gaming giant responded by saying it had not misled or omitted information from the ad, stating “in-game content is available to all players, whether or not they make in-app purchases”, and that “gameplay without in-app purchasing is not severely limited”.

In fact, EA made quite a compelling case, showing proof that it was certainly possible to acquire all three types of in-game currency, that all content and activities are achievable without paying, and data that showed non-spenders were well represented in the number of players who reached the middle and end of the game, even that non-spenders did not reach these points “substantially slower” than spenders.

Upon investigating, the ASA found the ad breached its code, since banning it from the UK… and this is why:

“We understood that several mechanisms within the game took a significant amount of time to be completed, and that these would only be speeded up by using the premium gem currency,” the ASA said.

“We noted that, although some of these actions could be done simultaneously, there was a limit to how many actions could happen at the same time and that the length of the countdown timers increased according to how far the player had progressed in aspects of the game.

“We therefore regarded it as extremely likely that players would reach a position where they would be unable to take any further meaningful or progressive action in the game until a timer had finished or been skipped, and that these periods would become longer and more significant, and the cost of skipping increasingly higher, as the player progressed.”

“From the information available in the ad, players would expect the gameplay progression and their ability to advance to be unhindered by unexpected and excessively onerous delays, and we therefore considered that the length and frequency of these countdown events was beyond that which would be reasonably expected by players,” the ASA declared.

“We consequently considered it likely that many players would regard the gameplay experience as unexpectedly curtailed and as a result would need to spend gems in order to achieve the form of gameplay anticipated.”

With this end result comes with a great sense of relief. At the very least, EA can’t simply get away with pawning off this terrible excuse of a game as a game – and a free game at that.

However we are still a long, long way from seeing the end of mercenary micro-transactions for the sake of slowing down player progression. And it will take a lot of people noticing it and opposing it for this model to change.

About the author

Stephanie Tang

Avid PC gamer, long-time console lover. I enjoy shooting things in the face and am dangerously addicted to pretty. I'm also a cat.