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Monday, October 21, 2013

Free-to-play ruins two more classic franchises; Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeon Keeper

So, over the last week we've had two more free-to-play games based on classic franchises released; Dungeons & Dragons Arena of War by Mobage, and Dungeon Keeper by EA Mythic, the same studio responsible for taking Ultima and turning it into a free-to-play game.

I know I shouldn't have gone in expecting much from either game. Dungeons & Dragons hasn't seen a good game bearing its name since Dungeons & Dragons Tactics on the PSP, and Mobage is quite possibly the worst major free-to-play developer out there. And though I didn't mind Ultima Forever personally, I think it says a lot that I still have the free port of the original Ultima Forever on my iPad, but I've long deleted the free-to-play "modern" game.

So I really shouldn't have been surprised that neither game would live up to my expectations. But both games were so terrible that my only reaction was a deep longing to do what Stewie from Family Guy did to Will Farrell in this classic sketch:

(Apologies for the quality, this video is not mine but it was the only one I could find on YouTube)

Let's start with Dungeons & Dragons. This is the game that got me into games. If it wasn't for discovering my parent's early edition Dungeons & Dragons rule books on the bookshelf as a six year old, and then having my imagination completely unlocked by reading these books, and then discovering that there were video games available based on this games, I might never have become a gamer. 

When I think about Dungeons & Dragons I think of epic, non-linear narratives with rich, deep combat. And I think about the social side of the game too - Dungeons & Dragons isn't all about combat; it's about building epic fantasy stories as part of a group. 

What Dungeons & Dragons is not is a cheap minigame that you repeat over and over again (at least, until you run out of "energy" and need to wait a day or so to play again... or you can use real money to get the energy back immediately, of course). Arena of War is a disc flicking game with a pretend RPG mechanic laid over the top. Each turn you pull back an aiming line like you would a rubber band and let go. That will send the hero in that direction, and if they run into an enemy they'll auto-attack.

Securing "chests" (better chests cost money, naturally) by completing missions will unlock better abilities to use but really all you need to do is tap the "equip best" button, as there's no point using weaker abilities and there's no strategy involved in selecting which abilities to use at all. 

The game is also very poorly optimised for my iPad, with grainy text giving the whole experience a cheap look to it. What do we have to get a decent modern Dungeons & Dragons game? Back to Baldur's Gate I go.

Dungeon Keeper, meanwhile, manages to take the classic strategy game, and water it down to a basic tower defense game with microtransactions in abundance. The basic idea of this game is to build a dungeon and fill it with traps to beat off enemy attacking hordes. Building a dungeon involves carving out paths, occupying mines (to produce resources) and then creating rooms and traps. Finally, you'll need to recruit monsters to attack rival dungeons. 

Everything you do in this game takes time. Breaking through a single square of thick rock will take a full day. Because it's only your minions that can do that mining, and you can only have three of them in play at once (unless you spend a small fortune to unlock additional minions) it's a painful slow process at times. 

It's also very much balanced towards the attacking side of things. Successfully holding off a co-ordinated enemy attack is a monumental task. Though, of course, if you pay a load of money you're suddenly going to be better resourced than your immediate rivals. 

The most offensive part of this game though? It makes fun of the fact it's freemium. Dungeon Keeper is meant to be funny and all, but I would suggest that cynically laughing at the fact people are going to spend money on this game simply to make stuff happen faster is more than a little insulting, Mythic. 

I'm good with free-to-play when it's done right. I'm less of a fan of developers taking my favourite franchises and absolutely butchering them in an attempt to make them work as free-to-play when they never were designed around that kind of structure. 

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
Free-to-play ruins two more classic franchises; Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeon Keeper
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