When it was released in 1997, Electronic Arts' (NASDAQ:EA) Dungeon Keeper seemed to have everything going for it. Developed by gaming industry legend Peter Molyneux (the creator of Populous, who would go on to create hits such as Black & White and the "Fable" series for Microsoft), the strategy game provided players with a chance to play as the bad guy and build a dungeon to stop pesky heroes from looting their treasure and killing their monsters.
An expansion and a sequel followed, though the sequel wasn't quite as well received as the original. A third "Dungeon Keeper" game was put into development, but the project was eventually abandoned. For fans of the series, the August 2013 announcement of Dungeon Keeper Mobile was met with cautious optimism. After all, the mechanics of the original Dungeon Keeper did seem like they would translate well to touch-screen devices.
Horrors of the dungeon
When Dungeon Keeper Mobile was finally released, it wasn't exactly the game that fans hoped it would be. Truth be told, it was closer to being the exact opposite of what fans had hoped it would be. Instead of delivering a touch-updated "Dungeon Keeper" experience with enhanced graphics, the game featured microtransaction "progress gates" so severe that some gamers found it unplayable without frequent purchases. Actions in the game require time to complete, with some seemingly basic actions taking hours or even a full day to finish ... unless you purchase "gems" with real money. Even the tutorial that teaches new players how the game works seems to stress the importance of paying to speed up gameplay.
Even Molyneux thinks that the changes made in Dungeon Keeper Mobile to monetize the "free-to-play" game are over the top. Speaking with the BBC about the game and the lengthy waits required to perform actions without "gems," the game designer said, "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 ratings game
Complaints about the game don't stop at the monetization method that it employs. Players and reviewers have also cried foul over how the Android version of the game handles ratings in the Google Play store. Two in-game rating options are presented to players: "1-4 Stars" and "5 Stars." Selecting the "5 Stars" option takes players to the Google Play store to leave their rating, while the "1-4 Stars" option merely gives them the opportunity to send a comment about the game to EA.
EA on the defensive
EA hasn't been silent about the criticisms that Dungeon Keeper Mobile has received. Instead, the issues being criticized have been touted as intended features that (theoretically) make the game a better experience overall. Jeff Skalski, the game's senior producer, stated in an interview with Tab Times that "...Dungeon Keeper is meant to be played on the go multiple times a day with a few minutes here or there. This way of playing allows fans to naturally progress as a free player." He emphasized that the game was designed to allow players to progress (and even get "gems" in large multiplayer events) without having to pay, and that most of the team had played as free players during a 15-week limited "soft launch" period to make sure that it was enjoyable even to free players.
As for the ratings shenanigans, EA released a statement saying that the intention of the feedback option was to gather information from unsatisfied players that would be used to improve the game overall. The company also emphasized that once in the Google Play store, players were free to leave any rating they like and were not bound to the "5 Star" rating suggested by the in-game button.
A dungeon too far?
Like many publishers, EA is trying to find success in the sometimes difficult world of mobile gaming. Competing with free-to-play offerings from companies like Zynga and King, the decision to use a popular IP to build a microtransaction-driven game likely seemed like a good one at the time. Unfortunately, the game leaned too heavily on its monetization and stripped away much of the fun that made the original so enjoyable.
Not only can this affect the revenue that the game brings in, but it could have larger implications in the future. The U.K. government is taking action to hold up its consumer protection laws and end misleading or aggressive monetization in "free" games, and in time other regulators could look into the issue as well. This could leave games like Dungeon Keeper Mobile walking a tightrope to avoid fines or other legal issues, in addition to the larger concern of alienating loyal gamers in the company's grab for dollars.