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EA's Dungeon Keeper is mired in IAP and shady review manipulation

EA's remake of the Peter Molyneux classic for mobile represents some of the more unscrupulous tactics mobile gaming has to offer.

EA's remake of the Peter Molyneux classic for mobile represents some of the more unscrupulous tactics mobile gaming has to offer.

(Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)

The style of EA's remake of Dungeon Keeper for mobile is familiar. Like Tiny Tower, The Simpsons: Tapped Out, Dragon Village, Fantasy Town, a bunch of Kairosoft games, Sim City, even My Little Pony, Dungeon Keeper is, at its core, a town-building game — taking the resource management aspect of the RTS and turning it into its own beast. Granted, there's a little more to Dungeon Keeper — you need to attack other dungeons and defend your own — but we've seen it all in some form or another before.

And yet Dungeon Keeper — available for free for iOS and Android — gets it so badly wrong.

It was, I hoped, with an open mind that I downloaded the game, in spite of its user rating of 0.3 (out of 10) on Metacritic. I play, probably, more mobile games than anyone I know; I'm happy, generally, to pay a few bucks here and there via microtransaction (or in-app purchases, IAP) if I'm enjoying a title. And, initially, the game was nothing extraordinary. For a few minutes, it seemed to be progressing at a decent pace.

But a couple of misplaced taps later and I had a wait of four hours before I could continue, unless I wanted to pay what seemed an exorbitant amount of the game's premium currency — 100 gems. These can be bought via IAP for a minimum amount of AU$5.49 for 500 (although if you're feeling flush, you can grab 14,000 for AU$109.99). This was 10 minutes into the game.

I can't recall a faster escalation. Never have I played a game that forced the player's hand so quickly.

IAP has only in the last few years taken hold as a method of monetisation in games, and it works. Even though mobile gamers tend to play in shorter increments, that does not mean that they're happy to be railroaded into extended wait times if they're enjoying play. When the alternative is spending a few bucks, many will do so. The problem is that publishers — and it seems it's the big, wealthy publishers that are the most guilty of this — get greedy and shoehorn in IAP so that it's unavoidable.

The best games that implement IAP are the ones that don't hold your game for ransom if you don't pay up. They add content to the game when you pay, rather than taking something away if you don't.

To be fair to Dungeon Keeper, it's certainly not the worst offender we've seen. Although it escalated quickly, it is possible to get gems — albeit very slowly — in-game without spending money by excavating your dungeon and completing quests. When you find yourself locked into a four-hour task, you can cancel, but it rapidly gets to a point where all you can do is long, extended tasks.

However, it did two things I specifically asked it not to do: I chose not to have it send push notifications, and I chose not to sign in via the Game Center. Yet somehow, push notifications were enabled and I was logged in under the Game Center.

The game itself was collecting quite a few good reviews on both iOS and Android, until it was revealed that, if you try to rate the game via the in-game rating system, any review of less than five stars took you not to the app store, but to an email form to explain why you didn't want to give the game five stars. EA explained that it simply wanted to make sure it was collecting relevant player feedback, which does make sense, although rerouting less than stellar reviews to do so is a little on the manipulative side. Since players realised this fact, the game has been receiving significantly worse reviews as more players go directly to the relevant marketplace to rate it.

It's a shame that the game has failed on these levels. There's some very solid gameplay at its core — and we even think some value-add IAP would be worth the spend. But as it currently stands, Dungeon Keeper doesn't offer enough in return for what it wants players to give. Even Peter Molyneux thinks so.