You bring a franchise back to life and everyone kicks it to death

It’s been quite astonishing watching the discussion (furor, brouhaha, katzenjammer, bilious spleen-venting; describe it as you see fit) around EA’s mobile Dungeon Keeper unfold. I had actually thought that my piece, in which I gave Dungeon Keeper thirty minutes to prove its worth, was fairly harsh treatment. I had no idea what was to come.

I should have anticipated it as the original Bullfrog DK games are justly celebrated classics and have been available in re-released form on GOG.com for quite some time now. More to the point, I should have anticipated what would quickly prove to be another flashpoint in games media. It’s the old guard versus the new. PC versus mobile. One-time purchase versus in-app purchasing, microtransactions, the freemium model.

When Dungeon Keeper and DK2 were released the big-box format of PC releases was still a thing, for heaven’s sake. Most games journalists today around or over the age of thirty probably hold Bullfrog’s games dear in the heart, part of their formative experiences in what I’ve seen unironically described as “gaming’s golden years”. Hey, guys, the 90s brought us a lot of classics but don’t tell me you actually miss the early days of DirectX, messing about with dreadful driver support, paying upwards of £40 for a game when you’d not even seen gameplay footage let alone played a demo, or Lara Croft beach towels.

That’s another kettle of fish, though. My point is that Dungeon Keeper from EA provided another opportunity for the airing of various expected grievances. Anger toward IAP and freemium, a more nuanced anger toward the same handled poorly, alongside gaming snobbery about Dungeon Keeper not even constituting a game and the old ‘core’ versus mobile canard.

I try to engage with games operating on these modern models because they are the present – though I’m less certain about their future. It’s indisputable that it is possible for them to be handled sensibly, whether on mobile or other platforms. I don’t have any objection to paying a quid or two in a free app when I’ve already derived several hours of enjoyment from it. That’s far less than the cost of beer, even shit beer.

It’s also indisputable that Dungeon Keeper is a substantial mis-step from EA. It constantly rattles its collection plate under your nose, jibing you for your ‘stinginess’ within the first few minutes. Not only that but the game runs out of steam in exceedingly short order if players don’t cough up (yes, I caved in and played a little more after I wrote my previous piece), meaning that its game design is not built around IAP offering an enhancement to the experience but IAP as the core driver of the experience. It’s design-imposed scarcity, and that is Not Fun.

It’s also extraordinarily expensive with its lowest-priced currency bundle – £3 – allowing you to save yourself maybe an hour or two of cooldown timers. For a meaningful amount of time to be saved  and progress to be made – and this is my calculation in-line with what the game requires in terms of progress markers, underground excavation, room construction etc – you’d need to cough up about £20. Now, that’s not a vast sum of money for a game, although it’s four times what many consider the cap for what a mobile game should cost (here’s where some of us point at outfits like Slytherine Studios and cough politely).

But all that ‘investment’ does is hop you forwards, say, the equivalent of a few days in elapsed time. Once that’s accomplished the same cycle starts again. Games like this are about progress and Dungeon Keeper’s rate of progress is miserly. And to think Plants vs. Zombies 2 was criticised for the same! Even Peter Molyneux has passed comment on the game’s execution, and say what you like about Molyneux but he’s not prone to criticising what’s done with game series he was once involved in. Dungeon Keeper has set a new low bar for EA on this one – although I’d argue it’s still an improvement on the turgid webgame grease of yesteryear like Evony.

All of this does not excuse efforts to draw a divide between on the one hand Dungeon Keeper alongside some nebulously-defined ‘things like it’, and on the other ‘real games’. ‘Proper’ games. That stuff we like. That thing I mean when I point at it. Etc. You don’t get to divorce an entire array of games from game-dom on the basis that you don’t like some of the models in there, whether they’re business or mechanical. Criticise the model, criticise its employment, criticise whatever you like – but don’t try and sell me or your readers on some bullshit appeal to authority, some rose-tinted gesture toward ‘real games’ whether everything is great and nothing is problematic.

This Metro review is hilarious – “A sickening perversion of the whole concept of video games, with nothing in the way of gameplay just constant cajoling for you to bribe your way to victory” – but on closer reflection it’s guilty of this rhetorical trick, this amplifying of opinion for the sake of entertainment, the downward-pointing Emperor’s thumb before the baying crowd. “Dungeon Keeper is not a video game, not any more. Instead it’s just a virtual beggar, constantly demanding your spare change and offering nothing in return.” It is funny, it has the ring of truth to it, but it is not accurate. It is a lazy analysis. Not-games are bad. Games are good. How can you argue with something like that?

But then that’s part of the problem with games journalism today. It’s not necessarily about who has the most nuanced understanding or analysis of the game or the situation or the debate. For too many it’s about who can shout the loudest, phrase their opinion in the most excoriating terms, or shut down a disagreement the fastest. And while vituperation and aggressive condemnation can serve their purpose, the problem with deploying that mode is that you usually don’t end up with a discussion. You end up with an echo chamber, and a critically denuded journalism. 

[Additional links in connection with this post: Mary Hamilton, Pocket Tactics, Kotaku.]