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Consumers are finally on the right side of the battle line in the ongoing war between gaming media, gamers and Electronic Arts' shady business dealings with Dungeon Keeper. The company has come under fire from a number of reputable tech sites, pundits and even the original Dungeon Keeper creator himself, Peter Molyneux.
Why the hate? Why the turmoil? What happened? What went wrong?
Well, when the words “Electronic Arts” and “game monetization” are involved, do you really have to ask?
BBC News – yes, the event got so out of hand that the BBC had to get involved – does an in-depth report on the series of events that led up to this monumental moment of spotlighting catastrophic business methods.
Dungeon Keeper recently rolled out onto app stores for mobile devices. Publishers are still keen on riding the wave of mobile casuals to those great, unforeseen heights of financial acclivity. The problem came in with the game's microtransactions.
The game's pay-walls were so obtrusive to the gameplay that it actually caused Eurogamer to give Dungeon Keeper a 1 out of 10. Not to be outdone by Eurogamer, The Metro took it a step further and actually gave the game a 0 out of 10, calling it “microtransaction hell”. Ouch.
The game was even pelted with negative criticisms by fan-favorite Jim Sterling at The Escapist; and lambasted by game critics and gamers alike across a wide swathe of gaming and tech sites. Heck, Dungeon Keeper is one of the rare games on Metacritic where it shares equals amounts of zeroes and ones from professional critics and average consumers alike.
EA basically took the model from Real Racing 3 that first received wide amounts of criticisms for its timer-based microtransaction model, where gamers either had to pay real money to expedite car repairs or wait it out for several hours, and elevated the concept to the next level.
In Dungeon Keeper, the strategy game involves base building and expanding your dungeon empire. In order to do so you'll need to terraform through caverns, but in order to do so without waiting days (yes, days) to mine through a few rocks, you'll need to pay out real money. It's pay or wait gameplay.
Peter Molyneux told BBC...
"I felt myself turning round saying, 'What? This is ridiculous. 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,'"
But that's not even the worst part about it. The worst part about it, as expounded by AlphaOmegaSin so eloquently, is that EA is re-routing negative criticisms about the game by aiming to prevent gamers from giving a score lower than “5” for the game's rating on the Google Play store.
As reported by Joystiq, anything between “1” and “4” will redirect players to EA's feedback page, where-as a perfect “5” will let gamers continue to play.
In simple terms: EA is trying to fix the review aggregate so when unsuspecting customers see the game on the app store, it only shows an average high score (since most people won't be able to give it a low score without going out of their way to do so).
As noted on Pocket Gamer, the game was sitting at 4.5 out of 5 stars on the app store, at the time of their publishing the article. A far cry from the professional and customer ratings found on the Metacritic page, eh?
EA didn't take the criticisms lying down, however. They fired pack with a PR-friendly response to Eurogamer, with a spokesperson stating...
"The 'rate this app' feature in the Google Play version of Dungeon Keeper was designed to help us collect valuable feedback from players who don't feel the game is worth a top rating,"
These kind of tactics, however, are not going unnoticed by authorities. Recently, the UK's Office of Fair Trade has been monitoring some of these microtransaction games; and content gouging done in an disingenuous way is no longer going to be tolerated.
GamaSutra caught up with Ukie, who has been working with the OFT to better help protect some European consumers from tactics aimed at designing the game so as to enforce purchases with unsuspecting pay-wall barriers; many times with kids being the culprits for such purchases.
Ukie CEO Dr. Jo Twist, commented to GamaSutra, saying...
"We need to make sure we balance the opportunity and growth of innovative business models in the industry with sensible measures to protecting players," .... "We are pleased to see the OFT recognise that parents need to be more aware of and use parental controls that are available on devices. Protecting consumers is a shared responsibility across those who make and sell games, as well as parents and carers."
Gouging players with content pay-walls at every turn and setting up barriers to help persuade players toward turning over cash at every click is a despicable route for a company to take. Thankfully, the UK's trade body commissions are stepping up to the plate.
Also, props to gaming media for taking the issue seriously this time around and coming to the aid of informing and warning gamers. Ensuring that these sort of practices are chastised in the appropriate manner just might stave off that gaming crash so many gamers fear.