Defending Dungeon Keeper

It's enough already.

I've been following Dungeon Keeper Mobile for awhile now. I happen to live in one of the soft-launch countries, so I've had more time with the game than many. It's been released in all countries recently, and I’ve been talking to fellow gamers, watching reviews, seeing scores, and overall I’m incredibly happy for my friends at Mythic for making what looks to be a highly successful title. Even when it’s not your own product, you can’t help but feel good about someone else’s success. 

But there are, of course, dissenting opinions. Opinions that are perfectly valid, even if I don’t always agree with them. But it’s some of the churlish bitching about IAP, the accusations of greed and, unfortunately, the predictable-but-still-highly-inappropriate assessment of the developers’ character that has me writing this article. And it's enough. There have been plenty of press articles covering the aspects of this game which are less than agreeable to particular cross-sections of the community, and very, very loud opinions speaking about why they, the critic, have been left feeling insulted at the fact that a game has been designed for a market that they are not traditionally a part of. I think it's time to hear from someone who apparently belongs in that market.

Before I go any farther, let me lay my cards on the table.

I am an EA employee.
I work at a studio that has absolutely nothing to do with the product I am about to speak of.
I have a family member that does work on this product.
I have an active distaste for most mobile games.
I can’t stand F2P games.
I cannot stop playing Dungeon Keeper.

Since it’s the festering dislike over the amount time it takes to complete some tasks in the game that’s making the most noise at the moment, I figure I can get right to the point here.

As someone who does not play mobile games, I was pleasantly surprised by how fun and engaging this F2P app was. Finally, a mobile app that fits my fairly disorderly gaming habits that are squeezed between work and married life with three children. Based on the reviews I see, there are gobs of people who share that sentiment. But it’s the turgid backlash at the IAP model that surprised me, or rather the reasoning behind it. “The waiting without paying makes the game unplayable,” is perhaps the most crystallized summation that I am able to glean from the criticism. The time mechanic is viewed by some as a roadblock in between them and any enjoyment of the product. Personally, I think that’s an incredibly kneejerk reaction, and borders on ignorance of both historical and trending game delivery models.

Building up an experience over the elapsing of time has been a successful mechanic in many forms through the entertainment field. Why then are we so shocked when developers dare to build this mechanic into a title as a way to encourage steady play habits, and potentially guard against burnout? Frankly, I think it’s downright disappointing that so many mobile games out there depend on instant gratification like a crutch, seeking your attention and ad revenue for 10 minutes before moving on. I think the throwaway nature of some titles is why mobile gaming, in my opinion, still struggles with its identity. Binging on time wasters can be fun sometimes, and we cannot fault developers who strive to craft that kind of experience. But on the flipside, we cannot, and should not fault developers who wish to craft a more elongated experience, be it for monetary purposes or as a design mechanic meant to aid in gameplay digestion. Or both, as the case may be. Stretching the experience out over hours and days is what makes me come back to the game on a regimented basis. This is not a binge activity unless you front the money to make it one, and personally, I’m completely okay with that.

I can already hear what some of you are saying. The value added by waiting is fake. It’s an artificial stopgap, it’s there only to piss me off and make me fork over my money. If you’re the cynical type, I suppose that would seem like the case. However, sense of value through artificial means is neither new nor unheard of, and it would be folly to suggest that its application as a design device is invalid. Think about all of the crazy loot that you’ve probably acquired in gaming over the years: armor sets, scores, weapons, and achievements that may have taken you days, weeks, even years to pull together. I can think back to Everquest, a brutal game by any standard, when I drooled over ye olde Armor of Ro set for the paladin class. (For the uninitiated, the Armor of Ro was one of the original class sets introduced to Everquest that had you gather resources together to forge.) A paladin in Ro could look like they were made out of tin foil and cheese, but would have armor stats to make anyone envious. Even though I craved the set, I couldn’t just have it fall in my lap. I had to work for it, squat for it, spend several days straight killing stinking gargoyles in Mistmoore to pull a single granite stone out of their pixeled asses, only to die at the zone line fleeing from a will sapper. But when I forged my first Bracer of Ro, there was a moment of magic. Not because of the stats or the visual. It was because there was something on my screen that represented the work I had put into my objective. I kept my original Bracer of Ro squirreled away in my bank, years after it had failed to be of use to me.

The parallel I’m trying to make here, is investment. Investments in games take all different forms, and even though the result of said investment is completely fake, the investment itself is quite real. The feeling of accomplishment from seeing it through is very real. So when one of my Dungeon Keeper imps completes a long workshop upgrade, thereby unlocking several more devious traps for me to build, I feel good. I’ve waited for those traps, and I’ve weathered the storm of other players attempting to gank me while my main defense is down for maintenance. My revenge will be that much sweeter with several days’ accumulation of new player targets, soon-to-be victims.

To wit, I have been playing Dungeon Keeper for 2 months now. I have 4 imps, 2 immortals, and I’m in the higher tier of the trophy ladder. I play probably 6 times or more per day. Go ahead. Ask my wife how much I play this game and she’ll probably roll her eyes. And you know what? I feel a little ashamed of this, but I have not spent a dime yet. I plan on doing so in order to snag some more imps and grab another immortal, but primarily, I want to spend some money on a product that I feel is very deserving of it. Reviews that decry the inability to do anything while they wait for tasks to complete are, in fact, doing something wrong, because in between your imps completing tasks (and a majority of the dungeon blocks take a paltry 3 seconds to dig, stop complaining!), there are other players to sack, replays to watch, dungeons to visit and study for strategic refinement, re-ordering of rooms and traps to complete, and resources to click. Always resources to click. My point is, there is plenty to playing available here.

The most unfortunate part about this snafu is that it detracts from things about this game that are without a doubt well-done. Regardless of what you may feel about the IAP model, the actual gameplay experience is smooth, extremely fun, and chock-full of little touches that really deserve praise. Watching minions currently being upgraded gather at the training room, hearing imps mumble to one another, being mesmerized by the special effects detail, giggling with glee when a perfectly placed boulder rubs out an entire battalion of skeletons. I could go on and on. If you haven’t given this product an honest try, you really should. My dungeon’s name is Herpaderp, and if you steal my immortal I will come down on you like a ton of bricks, son! You ain’t seen a dungeon heart snipe like the one I roll.

The thing that I have disliked about freemium-style models is the need to pay in order to stay competitive. The pay to win, if you will. It’s not my cup of tea, because I dislike arms races that are linked to my wallet. In contrast, I think the way Mythic has handled it is actually quite elegant. In this style of IAP, the player is free to pay for a privilege, namely the expediting of tasks. But if you don’t want to pay for that privilege, you won’t be left in the dust as a result, unlike some other apps out there. You’re not left with half a game if you choose to go that route, or even half an experience. For free, you get to play the same exact game as the guy who sinks $50 into it, and you get access to everything that the person who sinks $10 into it does. The only thing that will differ between these people is the digestion of their play time as a result of what they’re willing to spend. I think that’s a stellar approach. It’s a mechanic that keeps players like myself thirsty, a guided sip of playtime here and there instead of the gulp that makes me sick and swear off the stuff for good.

It’s a game mechanic that, be it direct or indirect, keeps me coming back again and again. That’s what successful games are built for.

No comments:

Post a Comment