The problems with Dungeon Keeper and why in-app purchases aren't inherently evil

Oscar Clark offers the case for the defence for IAPs and why the issues lie with game design decisions, not the business model itself
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[Oscar Clark is Evangelist for Everyplay. To find out more about what Oscar is evangelising about visit the Everyplay blog.]

EA’s release of their reworking of the Bullfrog classic Dungeon Keeper has raised a lot of righteous anger from several industry-types with blog posts and reviews with such headlines as “How IAP is destroying the industry” to “Wallet reaping”. But I wonder what this says about the state of play of our industry and also what it says about how we handle not only the business model but also our most treasured brands.

I’m trying to ignore the most hysterical frothing responses but I can’t ignore how far and wide the response to these articles has seems been trending across industry sites. So I thought it was time to take a more thoughtful look at what’s being said and what lessons we can learn. Forgive me for not wanting to draw out specific articles as I suspect that’s not particularly helpful. Instead let’s look at some of the arguments and see if we can take a constructive view of them.

Free-to-play mobile games aren’t very good

Obviously, this is a straw-man argument and even if free-to-play games aren’t your cup of tea that doesn’t mean the business model itself is inherently bad or irrevocably flawed. If that’s what we think of the competitions’ games, then isn’t that an opportunity for us to do better? For me the point of ‘Free’ is to reduce the barriers to entry; to make it easier to get players past the app store and into our game. Only then can we really show them how good it is and why playing (and paying) would be worthwhile.

The model also recognises the values that free players contribute in terms of creating critical mass of community and virality. Of course, removing the paywall has consequences as when we don’t pay upfront we have no invested utility. Free-to-play games have to work a lot harder to keep you playing. That means we have to make the game easy to pick-up and play; in the end we have to make a better game because it matters more.

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Micro-transactions are detrimental to gameplay

Another blanket statement made about in-app-purchase, but this time there is something to it. There is a real problem when real-money transactions take the player too far out of their suspension of disbelief. As designers we have to be sensitive to this and design around this restriction accordingly. One way to deal with this to be sensitive to the pace and flow of a game and to identify moments which work with the game to monetise.

Ironically the use of gems is an attempt to separate the real-money transaction from in-game experience. However, I think in the case of Dungeon Keeper, and many similar games, this distinction has lost its mystery and maybe a little more ongoing generosity would help. Another way to look at this is to use money as a design tool in itself; a way to introduce real-world consequences into the playing experience. However, we should be careful about over-using that model. Perhaps instead we can look at how we can use money to introduce new strategies of play; rather than only ever pimping out what a free player can do.

They just want your money and give you nothing

This sentiment is really quite damaging and it’s worse than where F2P games overly rely on consumable goods; those one-shot items which give short term boosts/speedups before disappearing. These can leave players feeling genuinely unhappy, as at the end of the day, what are they left with to show for their investment? If you spend £70 and all you can show for it is a cleared space in your dungeon, is that rewarding?

Don’t get me wrong consumables have a role to play alongside other in-app purchases including permanents and durables. I won’t go into the differences here and will just say we need to create anticipation and ongoing value to have happy players. If the game is little more than an exponential begging bowl you will lose trust and life-time value.

Every single person who gave this 5*s are [Expletives]!

Ooh! This one upsets me every time I hear it. Just because you are an experienced game developer/player doesn’t mean that what you like is the only definition of what is entertaining ,or indeed what is a game. We are for the first time looking at a truly mass-market audience who don’t have the same language of play that we do. That isn’t an excuse to reduce games to the lowest common denominator however and I fear that too many games treat players like children; especially in tutorials, and I would argue that the one in EA's Dungeon Keeper was overly heavy handed.

However, I don’t think that is the real issue for the game. Players are coming to it with a precise expectation and this is not intended as a recreation of the original; it’s not even an RTS. I happen to quite like it but I fear that the reaction means that it has already caused some damage to the Dungeon Keeper brand because its take on the game was not fully communicated. Whether that can be recovered is yet to be seen.

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Time delay mechanics stop my gameplay

Actually here is one I largely agree with. There is a place for ‘cool-down’ or harvesting. However, there comes a point where the time delays involved are just so painful that non-payers would just churn. Dungeon Keeper has different blocks, some of which take up to 24 hours to clear, and because you have a limited number of Imps it means you can’t do anything else. There is a value in having mechanisms which give you a reason to return, but this feels clumsy.

A different example, such as damage repairs in Real Racing 3, actually makes the game more compelling and encourages the use of other vehicles as well as creating a natural break from the experience combined with that all important reason to return. Making money out of that process is a different thing and really tricky to do without annoying players.

It costs £69 for 14000 gems!!

In one example of Dungeon Keeper the presenter complains that it takes 24 hours or costs 243 Gems to unlock a single solid block of ground which, even if we were generous and assume the “Best Value” price, costs around £1.20. The argument is flawed as it doesn’t take into account the free gems you can earn during play; but they still have a point.

However, my problem with this is that the designers haven’t taken into account the reasons why people buy. We don’t buy because we are enjoying a game, or even to overcome frustration. If it was just frustration we would churn. Players spend money in a game because they anticipate future value. For once I’m not just making that up; check this paper to see that it has been properly studied: Bong-Won Park, Kun Chang Lee: Exploring the value of purchasing online game items. Computers in Human Behavior 27(6): 2178-2185 (2011).

If this is true we have to understand what anticipation is offered for every purchase. If I want to clear the last block to now in order to get to a new gold mine I desperately need to fight off an enemy, and then perhaps I might be willing to spend some money. However, every spend has consequences and after spending £1.20 to clear that block I will question the value I have actually obtained and if I feel cheated (even if I am actually not) I will churn and we will tell other people how terrible the experience was. We need to be more careful about what we charge for and what it says about the flow of the game.

I could continue for many pages on this topic; but I suspect I would rapidly start to repeat myself. The free-to-play model is becoming toxic, but not because it’s actually inherently wrong or evil or manipulative. It’s becoming a problem because it places the emphasis on the money and not the player experience. That’s what I object to when I see a poorly implemented playing experience; but I don’t blame the model, I blame the game. And for the record I don’t feel that way with Dungeon Keeper; although I think there is plenty of room for improvement.

It’s time we stopped talking about free-to-play. That’s just one model.

Instead it’s time we focused on the player. If we want to make better games we need to understand that it’s about engaging with our audience for the long-term. We don’t want a one-night-stand, we want a relationship that brings trust, delight and joy for our players. We should be sharing our love for our amazing games with people who also care about them, and that for me means building games as a service.



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