Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Dungeon Hunter 4 and the Death of Innocence

When I was a young child my dad brought home a games console. This was before the days of the Atari 2600 and, to be honest he'd probably picked it up at a market, knowing him, but it played different varieties of pong and I loved it. My brother and I would spend hours laid out in front of our black and white telly, with rhythmic beeping and shouts of triumph providing a backdrop to many a Saturday afternoon. 

Fast forward 30+ years and, yes, I may have kids of my own and more responsibilities than I ever thought possible but I still play games whenever I can. I've championed them to my friends, defended them against their detractors and encouraged others to play them.  Games are joyous things in my opinion.  So much more involving than TV or film; they encourage participation, lay down challenges for their players to overcome
 and the best ones draw you in and make you a part of their story in a way that no other medium can achieve. 

And this, really, is why I get so supremely pissed off with things like Dungeon Hunter 4.

Dungeon Hunter 4 is an example of a genre which seems to occur in mobile gaming most of all - free to play. I have no idea why this is the case (although examples do appear on PC at times) but if I had to guess I would say that this payment model is seen as the perfect fit for an audience which tends to play in short bursts over extended periods, whilst travelling or during breaks at work. Free to play, as the name implies, means that you can play the game for free, usually with optional upgrades or equipment available to buy from an in-game shop for real life cash. This means that you can try it and then invest money in it later if you like - that's your choice. Sounds good, doesn't it?

The game itself is a top down action RPG. It reminds me a bit of Gauntlet, if you remember that. There are 4 classes - heavy warrior, light bouncy martial artist “son of the east” type warrior, a mage warrior and an archer... warrior. You are some kind of chosen one, obviously, and it's your job to fight the demons and save the world and all that usual stuff. You do this by travelling about killing things and getting gold and occasionally going to towns and having conversations with a series of stock fantasy game type characters. You can buy new equipment from local shopkeepers, as well as from a kind of over-arching ever-present cosmic uber shop which we'll talk about later; and you can craft new items or improve the ones you have by embedding charms in them. Similarly you can improve your character by gaining experience, levelling up and allocating points to skills in pretty standard RPG fashion.

And this, really, is my first problem with this game. It's like the designers had a checklist. "Crafting? Yeah, yeah, we got the crafting. Gems? Yeah man, gems are there. OK then, basic RPG mechanics? Don't insult me man! Who the hell doesn't have basic RPG mechanics these days? Sheesh! Basic RPG mechanics! What do you think I am, some kind of idiot?” To be honest my attitude to this may be coloured by my feelings about other parts of the game but it comes across as fantasy by numbers, as if they could just change a few variables and it would be set in the future, or any other milieu.

There are also some basic control issues. I played as a Sentinel (which is the archer warrior type) and my arrows would often fly out in exactly the opposite direction to what I intended. The game gives you two virtual thumbsticks with which to control your character and the movement works fine but attacking didn't for me - especially when things got a bit frantic.

However, my main problem with Dungeon Hunter 4 is the free to pay model that it uses. There are 2 types of currency in the game - gold and gems. You get gold in the usual way, by killing monsters and looting chests but gems must be bought with actual real money, or earned by completing challenges or advertising the game on social media.

Now I fully understand that people want to be paid for their work and I have absolutely no problem with that, but I find the free to pay (or freemium) thing problematic in lots of ways. I mean, it may be there as a response to piracy (in which case maybe think about this horror of a game the next time you look at your favourite torrent site), but it's quite obvious that lots of horrible people have done lots of horrible research and decided that this is the best way to market their horrible game. They wouldn't do it otherwise. People have said that gamers who object to freemium are being snobby, that 'casual gamers' (which is a pretty depressing term) are seen as mindless sheep being led to the next credit card transaction while the hardcore remain gloriously aloof. My mum plays Candy Crush and all I will say is that you have obviously never met her if you think that this model rings true. Anyway, it's not about 'casual' and 'hardcore', it's about a game being built entirely around advertising, it's about a game being bare-facedly after your cash, it's about the end of that glorious childhood obsession with fun and the sad realisation that this is what's left.

Here's an example. When you start up Dungeon Hunter 4 you see an advert for an item to buy which will 'make your life easier'. Skip past that and choose 'continue' from the map and you see a loading screen, with another advert for another item. When that has finished loading the game tells you to 'touch the screen to continue' and THE ADVERT STARTS TO FLASH. As if that is the icon you need to press. Hours and hours of playing games, all of your conditioning, tells you that you need to press the flashing icon but you don't, it's just an advert. In fact you need to press anywhere else and this continues throughout. Every time you see a loading screen there's an advert. Every time you try to buy anything there are massively powerful items there on sale in exchange for real money and you can access the shop at any time, it has its own button. It's like trying to play Monopoly while a weird dog who has been fully trained in "closing out opportunities" and "maintaining his pipeline" is dry humping your leg. It even tells you you're missing out if you don't take it up on its fabulous offers. It's your loss! Buy this shit you fucking loser! Jesus Christ, I don’t play games to get told off.

I just want to be your friend.  And sell you stuff.
And it's not just the advertising. This need to get money from you even permeates the game's structure itself. This ranges from the incidental (taking charms out of equipment or merging them takes time and this can be skipped by paying some cash) through the important (healing potions replenish over time but can also, of course, be bought) to the absolutely fundamental (how can you, as a developer, optimise the difficulty of your game when half of your players will be using normal equipment and the other half will have spent money in order to get the best stuff?). A game shouldn't be designed like this, the way it actually works shouldn't be aimed specifically at parting the player from their cash and this is why freemium is so annoying. Games like this are not real. They're just a framework on which to hang a generic, formulaic skin with the sole target of making as much money as possible. Fun isn't the most important thing anymore; achievement, story, emotional engagement... all of these things aren't the prime focus of creating this game, this is all about taking your money from you as efficiently as possible.

And I find this so depressing. When my dad brought home that console this is not how I wanted things to turn out. I wanted endless Saturday afternoons laid in front of the telly, stretching away to infinity. Instead I've got this abomination masquerading as a game, thrusting its unmentionables at my leg whilst imploring me to take it up on its amazing deals. This isn’t gaming, this isn’t even a game – this is purely a marketing opportunity, a sales pitch, a soulless imitation of the real thing. And that is something pretty sad.

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