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EA responds to fevered 'Dungeon Keeper' paywall criticism

by Paul Semel

February 5 2014

The game's senior producer says players should play in short bursts—or pay to play longer. 

Earlier this week, Electronic Arts released Dungeon Keeper, an iOS and Android version of the classic PC strategy series (read the TabTimes Games review here). Many were excited for this tablet and smartphone remake, but when they finally played it they were instead disappointed, even angered, by the game’s rather aggressive microtransactions.

We reached out to EA Mythic’s Jeff Skalski, the game’s senior producer, who was eager to respond to the criticisms. See the first part of our interview here.

TabTimes Games: So let’s start with a little background. How do microtransactions work in Dungeon Keeper?

Jeff Skalski: With Dungeon Keeper, and just about any free-to-play title, the burden is on the developers to ensure that we’re giving players the most entertaining mobile gaming experience that’s as true to the franchise as possible. The benefit of free-to-play games is that it empowers players, there’s no risk involved to download it and try it out. They can experience the game and determine what level of commitment they want to make. We specifically chose to make the game this way so the classic franchise would be accessible to as many people as possible. 

One thing we really want to express—and it’s something that hasn’t really been touched on in a lot of the discussion about the game that we’ve seen—is that in Dungeon Keeper, all content is accessible to paying and non-paying players. We didn’t design this as a “pay to play” or “pay to win” game. It is designed as a free-to-play title where players can commit time or money towards their play experience, and every piece of content in the game is accessible without having to spend a dime. 

So what could you pay for in the game, then? If you’d like, you can pay to expedite wait times, dig times, unit production and upgrades, cosmetic enhancements, and bolster defenses for a period of time.

Why did you decide to go this route with them, as opposed to a different way?

In mobile games, there are two models: pay-to-download and free-to-play. Pay-to-download puts up high barriers to bringing new people into the game; with free-to-play, a lot more people will be interested in trying it out and seeing what Dungeon Keeper is all about. 

Our challenge was figure how to best adapt the Dungeon Keeper humor and lore we love so much to the model and platform. Luckily for us, tower defense strategy games are already well-established in mobile and we had a good starting point to innovate from.

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As you’re hopefully aware, this has become a point of contention with fans. Some have said there’s too many microtranscations, that the game is structured in such a way that you have to buy stuff to make any real progress. Do you think these criticism are fair?

We’re very aware. The team that worked on the game has read pretty much every tweet, article, Facebook post, and blog comment that’s been written about the game since it launched. Most of us spent our weekend scouring the Internet. We’re huge fans of the PC game, and like everyone on the Internet who’s commented on our mobile version, we’ve played the original version and we get pretty nostalgic about it. By the same token, we all play a lot of mobile games ourselves so our primary goal was figuring out how to make the game free-to-download so as many people could try it as possible. As I noted earlier, we wanted to share some of the Dungeon Keeper joy with people who have never played, or even heard of, the original PC game. 

It’s important to emphasize that we designed a game that is built around the typical mobile play patterns. This means Dungeon Keeper is meant to be played on the go multiple times a day with a few minutes here or there. This way of playing allows fans to naturally progress as a free player. 

That’s not to say you can’t quickly blow past 30 minutes in one sitting by summoning new minions, reorganizing your dungeon layout, find a keeper to attack, check in with your guild, queue up your next digs then take on a new event raid before calling it a night. 

To that end, yes, we’ve designed the game to offer players the option to spend money if they’d like to speed up their gameplay.

As for whether we think the microstransactions are fair? Well, most of the team, including myself, played as free players all throughout our 15 week soft launch. It was important for us to know that even a non-spender could enjoy our game and make progress. 

Right, but it’s not just critics, fans have been making the same complaint.

We’re still figuring that out. One of the important data points we’re looking at is our store ratings and downloads. At the time of this interview, App Store ratings currently sit at 4 out of 5 stars and Google Play ratings sit at 4.5 out of 5 stars [Ed. Note: It's been one day since this inverview was published, and the App Store rating has fallen to 3 out of 5 stars. I've also been told that the game somewhat underhandedly attempts to prevent players from rating it below five stars, which probably helps explain some of the high ratings.] We’re also seeing a lot of game downloads and in-game engagement so that tells us there is a large group of people who are playing and enjoying the game. Obviously, this is counter to some of the angry reactions we’ve seen around the internet, so we’re still trying to look at all of these data points.

I think any time you re-make anything that is much beloved and has a great sense of nostalgia for people—be it a game, a movie, or whatever—people are going to be very protective of it. They have fond memories of it. We, as gamers, have our own fond memories of it. For a lot of gamers, the original Dungeon Keeper was one of their first experiences with great strategy games. Our intention with the mobile version was to give as many people as possible a taste of that original Dungeon Keeper experience, and for some people, that’s not the way they want to re-visit the franchise. 

Part of the problem, it’s been suggested, is that you can no longer dig gold yourself, and that to get gems, which are the more important currency, you have to buy them. Do you think that’s part of the problem?

There are ways to win gems by the event raid that we run weekly, even for those players who dig out every one of their tiles. Moving forward we will be introducing even more ways for players to acquire gems. 

Some have also said that this lacks the humor of the original. Again, do you think these criticism are fair?

I would disagree with that. We have a lot of funny content within Dungeon Keeper. In fact, there are over 500 recording lines just from the original Horny voice actor and fan-favorite Richard Ridings, but we also understand what’s funny to one person may not be to the next.

Are there any plans to change anything? 

Mythic is committed to continuously fine tuning the player experience based upon fan feedback. We’re looking at a ton of data right now to help inform that: media reviews, comments, and reviews from players, and a bunch of in-game data like downloads, and engagement. It’s too early for us to get an accurate sense of what changes might be needed, but we didn’t make this game for ourselves, we made it for the players. We know that you can never please everyone, but we want this to be a game that most of our intended audience enjoys. 

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Read our Dungeon Keeper review for the TabTimes Games take on EA's latest tablet game.

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