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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dungeon Hunter 4 and the trouble with the free-to-play fun tax

Two minutes: that’s about how long it took before Dungeon Hunter 4’s in-app purchase system first reared its ugly head, with the tutorial explaining that equipment upgrades could be “sped up” by paying a few gems. Mind you, I wasn’t encouraged to spend any money yet; that wouldn’t happen for another two minutes, once I saw the first “special offer” on a loading screen suggesting I spend some gems on an item (nevermind that I hadn’t seen much in the way of action yet). A minute later came the introduction to the Dungeon Hunter item shop, where I learned all about buying gear (it was on sale!).
The first few gem expenditures of Gameloft’s Dungeon Hunter 4 are free, a tacit advertisement for how easy it is to bolster your gaming experience by forking over a few bucks—the game is free-to-play, after all. It’s otherwise a typical dungeon crawler designed to tap into that visceral need many of us share to whack monsters and acquire loot; a drive arguably left unfulfilled as Diablo III proved to be a bit of a dud and so few contenders to the throne have emerged. But it falls into the same pit as so many other free-to-play games: what’s the appropriate level of nickel-and-diming?
Free-to-play mobile games exist in a weird space. They’re largely designed to function like the arcade games of yore, doling out just enough fun to keep your coins en route to their coffers. In Dungeon Hunter 4, this comes in a form that follows fairly typical free-to-play tropes.  Time is money: everything is on an arbitrary timer: upgrading a piece of armor you’ve found will cost some gold (dropped by enemies), but also take a few minutes. You’re free to continue on your quest while waiting for your gear to magically spruce itself up, or you can spend a few gems and make the process instantaneous; 200 gems will set you back $2. Ditto for potions: you can only carry three at a time, and you’ll need to wait four hours for a new potion to appear in your inventory—they’re otherwise only available from the gem shop, for 20 gems apiece.
It doesn’t seem so bad, at first. Your health regenerates over time (albeit slowly), and fills completely whenever you gain a level, or start a new map. There’s also no real death penalty; once your character falls in battle you’re given an arcade-style countdown and encouraged to spend a few gems to pop back into the action, but you can instead simply head to the entrance of the map, with all of your progress up to that point preserved.
But after a while, the nagging starts to weigh on you. Every loading screen cheekily encourages you to spend some gems on items if you’re having a bit of trouble. The waves of enemies are fast and furious (as befitting a dungeon crawler), and fights can often be won or lost depending on how reluctant you are to tap that health potion button to stay in the fight. And then there’s the inventory, which is aggravatingly stocked with high-level items you don’t actually own, but can be unlocked for a few hundred gems.
They’re nice items, in the sense that purchasing one will likely make progressing through the game’s content a breeze. But this is the same issue that’s plagued Diablo III since launch: why churn through waves of demonic hordes when a hefty bankroll anda quick trip to the auction house can make progression trivial? I shudder to think about what Dungeon Hunter 4’s player-vs-player arenas are like if everyone can just spend cash to unlock the best gear and abilities; pay-to-win at its most egregious.
My gut instinct is to ignore games like this, and let the free market’s will be done. If someone enjoys the experience and decides to sink their money into outfitting their avatar with loot, more power to them; the rest of us can vote with our wallets. That approach hasn’t quite worked with Diablo III, but Torchlight II is rather good and Diablo III’s console incarnation is scrapping both the auction house and the onerous lack of an offline mode. That’s something, right?
Not quite. The state of free-to-play games is troubling, if only because enough consumers are forking over enough cash to keep these sorts of games lucrative.
But I can’t quite chalk Dungeon Hunter 4’s annoyances up to greed—not entirely, at least. There is of course no such thing as free; games are expensive to make, and developers need to recoup their costs somehow. Dungeon Hunter 4’s narrative may be a bit shallow (here be demons, slay them) but the fully voice-acted dialogue and decent visual and atmospheric effects lend quite a bit of polish to the experience. I’d still prefer to tackle these hordes with a mouse and keyboard or even a gamepad but the controls are solid for a touch-screen device, and the combat, while simple, is rather fun. I never felt inclined to spend any money on gems, as the gear I was picking up was appropriate for the fights I was facing. Even that fear of using of potions wasn’t a problem, as I could simply play a bit more defensively or put my iPad down when I’d run out of supplies and get back to work.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t nearly as bad as EA’s Real Racing 3, which would hobble your racing performance to the point where your only real options are to take an extended break or fork over some cash. Despite Gameloft’s hawkish drive to shove in-app purchases in my face, I still found myself having a good time.
Which is a shame, really. I’m not averse to spending money on games I enjoy, as evinced by my MMO subscriptions or gem purchases in Guild Wars 2. And I’ll admit, drawing that line in the sand between creating a compelling, free experience and avoiding insolvency is a tough one: consider Mikengreg’s Gasketball, a free iOS app that saw a fair number of downloads and acclaim, but largely failed to get players to fork over some cash for their entertainment. But as interesting as Gameloft’s dungeon-crawler is, the deluge of in-app purchases is far more off-putting than any in-game advertising, or simply slapping a large price up front.
I get it: mobile developers need to adapt to a changing market and changing tastes, and more gamers are becoming increasingly averse to spending cash on mobile games, but seem willing to chipping in a buck at a time to spice up their experience. Dungeon Hunter 4 takes this paradigm a bit too far.
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