Dungeon Keeper 2 featured

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.]


9 responses to “You bring a franchise back to life and everyone kicks it to death”

  1. Harbour Master Avatar

    You get Kotaku's Flappy Bird piece.

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      Jesus, yeah, the abuse that guy got from 'fans' of his game beggars belief. It's all part of the same problem if you ask me. Just look at the comment about DK's developers in the Escapist review (Jim Sterling) I linked to.

      I'm glad Totilo and the original post's author stepped forward and wrote what they did. That's the sort of thing it takes to move toward a mature critical apparatus.

      I'll add a link to their piece to my footnotes too!

      1. Harbour Master Avatar

        Yeah, it's nice they said sorry, but I feel it's like SORRY WE TROLLED YOU FOR HITS. I'M SURE WE WON'T DO IT AGAIN.

        Then again, compared to a shit your average tabloid gets up to, Kotaku is small fry.

        1. ShaunCG Avatar

          True enough. I suppose that sensationalist approach is so commonplace to try and grab attention, it's typically not questioned or challenged.

          I'm probably a naive optimist but I'd hope that if nothing else those two would apply more forethought next time something similar came around.

  2. Gregg B Avatar
    Gregg B

    As I mentioned in my last comment here, DK is very dear to me but honestly, I don't give a shit about this game in the same way I don't give a shit about a lot of games that expect me to pay continuously just to play on my terms. Dungeon Keeper will always be Bullfrog's in the same way that Thief will always be Looking Glass'. Do what you want Eidos Montreal.

    I don't object to in-game ads, I don't object to timegates, I don't object to paywalls provided a sensible one-off payment can get rid of them once and for all if I so choose. I've ended up buying quite a few games that have convinced me they're worth throwing some money at because they were free to try out. But then I hear that ads make more money than one-off payments so… um.

    And the whole Flappy Bird debacle is just incredible. I played it a few days ago and my god, is it hard and irritating, mostly because of that damn restart delay, but the hook is there and I appreciate how simple it is. Good to see Cavanagh taking a crack at it with Maverick Bird, it's the sort of game I could see him perfecting: http://distractionware.com/blog/2014/02/maverick-

    Anyway, I've not got much more to say on all this because I haven't read an awful lot about it, and because… well, it's a load of bollocks really isn't it?

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      I've not played Flappy Bird and I don't plan to try to do so (I'm sure a rogue APK or two are out there). The same goes for its clones. I honestly don't see what I'd get from the experience. Flappy Bird is the best example I've ever heard of a game that can be entirely understood by reading about it.

      What's annoyed me most about this entire thing are the high- and hobby-horses so many writers seem to have clambered on top of, all so that they can holler while shooting fish in a barrel.

  3. badgercommander Avatar

    Shaun, have you read some of the stuff we publish here?

    I would say that you did try and counter balance my initial impressions of Outernauts to curtail some of that. But where do we draw the lines? I think we have gone pretty deep on being utter shits about certain games (Golden Axe: Beast Rider, Deus Ex: Human Revolution).

    Just wait until you read my Ryse review…

    1. friendlygun Avatar

      Haha, I did think whilst writing this that each one of us could be tarred with the same brush! That said, I've no objection to admitting fault personally, if I've stepped over the line at some point.

      In any case the thrust of my objection is to vitriolic criticism that doesn't attempt to actually engage, or people drawing lines on the sand and refusing to listen to anyone who doesn't stand next to them. For all that we may have sunk teeth into various games and topics I think we've at least tried to explain and justify our reasons for doing so, and I think the only time on AR that I've in all seriousness refused to let a point be open to debate was when the historical subject of slavery came up.

      The last game I remember being extremely harsh on was Jurassic Park Builder, and that was primarily because the implementation was so awful that the usual minor positives of that type of game were submerged.

      Golden Axe Beast Rider sounded genuinely awful and you certainly conveyed that, and Dylan's DE:HR piece wasn't raging critique – it was good-natured piss-taking that took the game's tropes and turned them inwards.

      I don't think any of us have tried to say something was not a game, or try to draw lines around the medium in order to exclude, have we?

      1. badgercommnader Avatar

        No, that is fair enough.

        I actually liked this article as it made me take a step back and rethink some of my writing and where it comes from.