Dungeon Keeper Mobile, microtransactions and gaming

Sims, sins and a light at the end of the tunnel? David has a word or two in defence of Dungeon Keeper Mobile...

There’s something painfully alluring about the premise of the original Dungeon Keeper. You get to have a go at building a death trap for clichéd fantasy heroes, which means you have an opportunity to avoid all of those silly mistakes like giving them a fair chance whilst you sit back cackling maniacally as your devious machinations fall into place.

It is a safe statement to describe Bullfrog’s classic dungeon management sims as beloved by fans. EA Mobile’s and Mythic Entertainment’s recent Dungeon Keeper Mobile re-imagining of the series, less so. Now that the dust has settled a little on this alleged crime against gaming culture, it has left some of us a bit bemused as to what the fuss was about and why so much press was generated over this. EA hardly needs or even appreciates anyone standing up for it, but in this case it hasn’t committed such a roaring sin.

The disappointment is easy to understand. If you fire up a game with the words ‘Dungeon Keeper’ in the title, you can be forgiven for expecting something that plays a bit like Dungeon Keeper, especially if you haven’t seen any of the sorts of games that pass for management sims on mobile devices these days. Gameplay wise there is practically no similarity. This is your traditional mobile money-sink-sim wearing the ill-fitting skin of something we are distressed to recognise.

Dungeon Keeper and its sequel were, however, never perfect. They were very much games bearing the Mark of Molyneux. The premise was never quite fulfilled and instead of pitting wits against aforementioned fantasy heroes and maybe squashing a barbarian warrior or two with rolling boulder traps, more often than not you found yourself engaged in abstract turf wars with keepers of other nearby dungeons. When you start playing Dungeon Keeper, the last thing you really expect is to be engaging in neighbourly disputes.

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However, the saving grace of both games was that they were incredibly enjoyable. They had humour, they were fresh and it was a different take on a well-known trope. Thinking about the games retroactively, the Dungeon Keepers also have the amplification of the nostalgia filter, hailing as they do from a time before the gaming singularity; a time when stacks of shame and the concept of an overflowing Steam list was a problem many of us would dream of. This adds the fact that a lot of people who liked Dungeon Keeper not only played it, but played it to death, burial and right through to re-animation.

EA Mobile did not defile this cherished series. The mobile abomination they have created is of course horrendous and it would be impossible to defend the game, but it’s a frustration that anyone in their right mind should have seen coming. The pain is best summed up by original creator Peter Molyneux himself who voiced the frustration of all gamers encountering a mobile game of this nature with ‘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 game pulls all the despicable monetisation tricks you’ve seen before and adds nothing new in return, but Dungeon Keeper classic is still fine.

The paraphrased Alan Moore argument of ‘the films don’t destroy the original graphic novels because they still exist on the shelf and are perfectly fine, here come and look at them’ definitely applies. I’ve seen it declared on Twitter with accompanying expletives that this argument is no good and no excuse. Whilst this holds some weight when considering vintage games where the original works do need to undergo some form of jiggery-pokery to get running on modern machines, it still applies. This isn’t however why EA Mobile shouldn’t be cast into the fiery pits of developer hell just yet either.

This is the thing that exonerates EA Mobile from some of the blame: Were we really surprised?

If the only mobile game you’ve ever played is the port of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a beautiful translation of an excellent modern release that is in itself a faithful translation of a classic PC game, maybe you are allowed to be surprised. If you have ever heard of The Simpsons: Tapped Out, you lose that right. You lose it twice if you’ve at any point seen how delighted the EA mothership is with the buckets of micro-money Tapped Out consistently drops off in time for its quarterly financial reports, which inevitably state that mobile is going to become increasingly important for the company.

It is therefore hard to be too angry with EA. Well, no, it is of course incredibly easy to be angry with EA thanks to its track record of server stability and a persistent sequelitis that abandons innovation. It’s not doing itself any favours with the frankly hilarious rating nudging shenanigans to ensure 5-star ratings on Dungeon Keeper Mobile either, especially when the hand-wringing excuse comes back that they’re only doing it to get more feedback from the player-base. What is more accurate to say is that it is becoming slightly more conflicted to be angry as the company is doing increasingly nice things for the world, like standing up for LGBT rights and whipping up a frenzy of charity money through bundle promotions. But even parking that to one side for reasons of irrelevance when it comes to game quality, the Dungeon Keeper Mobile mess is still not something you can really be legitimately angry about.

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For large companies like EA, the existence of the mobile market is like leaving a plate of chocolate biscuits in a room with an unsupervised dog. It doesn’t matter how well behaved the dog is, it will go for the biscuits. On some level, it knows you’re going to be angry, but it really wants those biscuits. EA has bills to pay, skittish investors to appease, corporate pressures that have interests at heart that are not necessarily purely consumer focussed and they are then presented with a proven method to generate revenue in the form of mobile non-games.

It’s a shame, it’s disappointing, it’s a missed opportunity, but your anger in this case cannot turn back the tide because the target audience for this really doesn’t care, won’t ever care, doesn’t know the Dungeon Keeper history and has probably already moved on anyway. There will be no retribution for EA Mobile and they don’t deserve it anyway. They are not making games for you, they are making them for a bottom line on a bank balance and they’re doing that adequately.

The baffling question is not ‘why is Dungeon Keeper Mobile awful?’ but ‘why use the Dungeon Keeper IP in the first place?’ Whiles there was clearly a business case for taking The Sims and making The Sims Social due to a crossover of interested parties, Dungeon Keeper Mobile is clearly not for Dungeon Keeper fans, made clear by the mutilated art style garishly greeting you when you fire up the app, and it’s not like it has spectacular brand recognition in the wider market. It was possibly a grab for press attention but other than that there’s very little reason to drag this nostalgia fuel through the mud.

There is something positive here. Thankfully this isn’t a bad sequel marking the nail in the coffin of a beloved series and could open the door for new Dungeon Keepers if the numbers end up looking good. EA shut the door on a third Dungeon Keeper game around a decade ago when it decided strategy games weren’t what the cool kids wanted anymore, so we can’t exactly blame this version for killing a thriving franchise. Maybe the analytics will be misinterpreted in our favour and we could have a slew of actual Dungeon Keeper sequels receiving funding before we know it. Naive? Probably. Out of the question? No and any games journalist can picture the inevitable news item they put together about EA botching the server support for the pointless internet connectivity requirement on said resulting sequel.

Dungeon Keeper Mobile is bad, but the EA Mobile/Mythic combination is not evil and they are doing their jobs admirably, albeit without the 100% score for marketing ethics that would be appreciated. The only possible result of this mess that affects the future of the Dungeon Keeper saga is a positive one and the most likely scenario does no damage, but simply does not change a thing.

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