A few months ago I made the case that Electronic Arts is a horribly run company. Not just for the fans, but also the investors. There seems to be this attitude among gamers that the investors must be happy with the EA leadership because the company isn’t losing money. But investors aren’t going to be happy with you just because you haven’t gone out of business in the same way that your parents aren’t going to be happy with your schoolwork just because you haven’t flunked out yet. Mere survival isn’t good enough. You’re expected to reach your full potential. The recent controversy over the Dungeon Keeper reboot is a perfect example of EA’s failure to use their assets properly and instead turning gold into disappointment.
The background paragraph: The original Dungeon Keeper was released in 1997 and went on to become a classic. It was a mildly subversive strategy game where you played the part of the villain, building a massive sprawling dungeon to fend off the waves of heroes that invaded your realm. It had a kind of city-building / management vibe, but I’ve also thought the dungeon layout bore a striking resemblance to to what would later become the tower defense genre. The game got a sequel in 1999, and then went dark with the absorption and dismantling of developer Bullfrog by Electronic Arts. Fans have been clamoring for a sequel for years, and in December of 2013 EA released Dungeon Keeper mobile, a free-to-wait disaster that outraged fans of the classic and failed to offer anything to engage newcomers. A few months later one of the developers dismissed the resulting fan outrage, saying that people were “playing it wrong”. (And ignoring the fact that plenty of other mobile games managed to make a profit without creating so much backlash.)
Disclosure: I haven’t played the game personally. I’m going by the videos, screenshots, and detailed descriptions of the game provided by my colleagues. The critical appraisal of this game is pretty universal and I think it’s reasonable to accept their description of the ordeal without needing to go through it myself, but I just want to make it clear that my analysis is based on the reports of people I trust and not first-hand experience. Okay? Great.
This brings us to last week, when a few people began looking at some of the things EA Mobile head Frank Gibeau had said at E3. He had a lot to say, and nearly all of it was mind-boggling to me, filled with things so divorced from reality that I couldn’t tell if he was out of touch or deliberately misrepresenting events. I’d need to go over it a line at a time to really do it justice, but for the sake of keeping this focused I want to stick to just one thing he said in response to the Dungeon Keeper Mobile controversy:
Brands ultimately have a certain amount of permission that you can make changes to, and I think we might have innovated too much or tried some different things that people just weren’t ready for.
This isn’t even an apology. It’s barely an admission of a mistake. There’s nothing about this statement that could possibly mollify the fans. In fact, it’s almost perfectly engineered to enrage them further. But I don’t think he had his customers in mind when he said this. His statements were made to GamesIndustry International at E3 last month, and I have to think they were tailored more for business partners and investors than for consumers.
This isn’t just insider gaming news for those who were looking forward to a proper Dungeon Keeper reboot. This also counts as financial news for people trying to appraise how EA is doing. Sure, the story ran here on the Escapist, but it also ran at Forbes. There are plenty of people who don’t game who have a stake in making sure EA does more than just stay in business. A lot of those people are not impressed, and Dungeon Keeper Mobile is a perfect example of how bad the company is at using their resources. It’s not just one mistake or one bad call, but a systemic failure from start to finish:
Failure to understand their market
The original Dungeon Keeper was a late 90’s PC exclusive. It was a game you played for hours at a stretch, which focused on planning and strategy, with a dash of player creativity thrown in. This is completely at odds with the focus and intent of mobile freemium market. It’s not that you can’t make a good freemium game from Dungeon Keeper, it’s that it doesn’t make any sense to attempt to do so.
It’s like getting the rights to make a sequel to Blade Runner and using it to make an indie-styled rom-com about disaffected post-college millennials living in suburban Ohio, looking for love and careers while searching for meaning in a world of infinitely prolonged adolescence. (Starring Michael Cera.) The new movie has nothing to offer fans of the original, and the name Blade Runner has no power over this new market they’re chasing. There’s no synergy here. This makes no business sense. You can’t “build” on the Dungeon Keeper name if you’re starting over with a new audience, on a new platform, featuring completely different gameplay, tone, rhythm, art style, and interface. Even if Dungeon Keeper Mobile was a great game, the Dungeon Keeper name was still useless here and all it can do is cause confusion. (Which it did.)
This is obvious to anyone who played the original. You don’t need to be an industry insider to understand this.
Failure to understand the basic principles of game design
Let’s set aside the ridiculous pricing scheme of Dungeon Keeper Mobile and focus on the gameplay. What is the core engagement? Assuming you had a version that was completely free to play without needing to put in any money at all, what goals and feedback loops would entice the player to take another turn? What decisions are they making? What systems are they exploring? There’s nothing here.
You don’t need to be a professional game designer to see this. Literally any amount of playtesting would have revealed that the game lacked engagement. Even starry-eyed 20-something indies making simple games for Steam or mobiles understand the basics of identifying a core engagement and doing basic playtesting.
Failure to understand the freemium mobile market
Let’s pretend that Dungeon Keeper Mobile had interesting gameplay. (Or any gameplay.) How would the player discover it? The standard model is to allow the player to explore the game freely for some length of time. First you let them have some fun and get invested in the game, then you begin harassing them for cash to allow them to keep playing. But DKM begins before you’re out of the tutorial. You don’t even know what the game is yet, much less if you’ll like it or not. This isn’t a slow buildup, luring players in gradually before they realize how much the game is going to cost them long-term. This is putting a pay wall in front of the game itself, giving the player a powerful incentive to close the game right away and look at one of the thousands of other games that offer more and ask less.
Again, this should not be a surprise to anyone with a passing familiarity with mobile games. This is lesson one of “how to make freemium mobile games”.
Failure to manage PR
As always, EA follows their bungling with PR that makes things much worse. After making a game that was a complete failure on all levels, they make a public statement that blames fans for their own obvious failures, and does so in a way that seems to imply fans are a bunch of ungrateful morons for rejecting their glorious vision. Even if you’re clueless enough to think that, Public Relations 101 teaches that you should at least have the presence of mind not to say it.
The game was was just “too innovative”. You weren’t “ready for it”. (As if someday the public will develop an insatiable hunger for terrible empty gameplay.) It’s not a bad game, you’re just bad at enjoying it. This statement is like burning someone’s house down in a kitchen fire and then claiming they “Just weren’t ready for exotic cuisine.” It’s not just a transparent attempt to put a positive spin on an egregious blunder, it’s a failure to accept responsibility. It’s blaming the victim. It’s showing that you haven’t even listened to their complaints.
I’m sure the typical EA apologist will claim (without evidence) that all of this is okay because Dungeon Keeper Mobile “made money”, as if simply generating some income could justify this kind of incompetence. But the question isn’t “Did the game make money?” but “Could the game have made vastly MORE money if it had been properly managed?”
The recent reboot of X-Com shows that there’s a viable market for revivals of classics. (And if we want to judge which game is more successful: XCOM got an expansion. Does anyone think EA is still pouring money into Dungeon Keeper Mobile?) EA could have given the fans the Dungeon Keeper sequel they’ve been asking for. EA could have made a decent freemium game. They did neither, instead wasting money developing and marketing a game that nobody wanted. They didn’t just fail to make money, they wasted money, damaged IP, and scuttled what could have been the re-launch of a successful and profitable series. They did this by making obvious rookie mistakes, and when called on it they made statements that further angered, insulted, and frustrated the gaming public.
Whether they’re talking to their customers or their investors, EA has a lot to answer for. The fact that FIFA, Madden, The Sims, and Battlefield make money by simply doing what they’ve always done doesn’t relieve the leadership of their obligation to understand the market they’re in, the products they make, and the customers they supposedly serve.