A look at games based on microtransactions and whether or not they're really all that evil after all.
There are an awful lot of games out there that allow you to play for free these days. Microtransactions, once derided as an idea for online business, have suddenly become almost distressingly common. One need look no further than Fallen London or Lords of Ultima to see examples of fairly successful games built upon nothing but the idea of microtransactions (although tellingly Fallen London has added the option to become an "exceptional friend" and subscribe rather than submit to microtransactions). The problem is that a lot of people who are more concerned with the art of making games than the profits that can be gained by making games (like most critics, for example) regard these games, perhaps rightfully, with a deep sadness. How cynical, they say. This game severely restricts what you can do, slapping timers and a limited amount of actions per-day on things, dangling the promise of Extra Time! Extra Moves! Special Items! in front of the player, when very often it seems as if the real problem is that playing the games without these perks renders them almost unplayable -- or so the thinking goes.
I'd heard about the Facebook game Dragon Age Legends through my brother, whose stubborn refusal to shut the hell up about anything remotely connected to Bioware is invaluable, and after reading Alec Meer's review over on Rock Paper Shotgun, I decided to finally give the thing a whirl and see how it stacked up to the other two microtransaction-based games I already play on a regular basis -- namely the aforementioned Lords of Ultima and Fallen London. What I've come away with after spending a few days of playing Legends is that it is far more aggressive in its attempts to take the player's money, and the game is the poorer for it, especially when you look at the promotional game for the first game in the series, the excellent Dragon Age Journeys (which I have continued to play despite the unfortunate fact that the unlockable content that the game offered can no longer be accessed).
First, let's look at how Lords of Ultima operates. This is probably the least intrusive of the three when it comes to asking for money, allowing the player to more or less function as well as any paying customer. The options available for pay are items that speed up construction times or that bestow resources on the player, and those items can all be earned through completing quests or raiding dungeons. You can play Lords of Ultima slowly, only logging in once or twice a day to check on construction or on recruitment, and the game plays well. It's less compelling than some other games, but it is at heart Sim Medieval Towne, really. I myself just enjoy building cities, and that's what Lords of Ultima lets you do, only you can also send armies to fight a dragon as well. It helps that the game is also presented nicely, and the graphics are even pleasant to look at. It's not a visually gorgeous game by any standard, but it works. It's also very clearly been well supported by the developers, as it has regular maintenance, the server is well maintained, and the game has yet to lag or bug on me in any way. This is what most games of this sort should aspire to. In all honesty, it's the equivalent of setting up a tip jar when it comes to asking you for money, merely reminding you with gentle nudges that, yes, you could buy yourself a defense minister who would be able to run the city when you're not logged in. If you wanted.
The lengthy build times are also, in some way, oddly satisfying. It feels like there is really a lot of work going on in my bustling town and being able to pop in during the day just to check on how the construction's going or how the recruitment's going is strangely compelling. It doesn't eat up time, and it is a nice game to pick up for a few minutes. It's a game, much like the other ones that I'm discussing, that works well as a totally free game provided you're willing to play it infrequently. By contrast, the amount of things that you can get done in Fallen London in a day seems staggering.
In some way, though, Fallen London is barely a game at all. You choose to attempt tasks based on various attributes, and if they are high enough, you will succeed, and if you fail, you will not. Such gameplay is barely perceptible as a mechanic, although one can certainly spend time trying to grind stats upward -- for, when your stats increase, so do your story possibilities. There are cards, too, of course, which provide additional stories for your character to encounter. Failure can lead to insanity, death, exile, or imprisonment, but fortunately each of these fail states are reversible if you keep playing. It's an interesting concept, and one of the nicest things about the game is that once again there's no real prodding toward paying money. It's slightly more aggressive, however, than the previous entry. There are certain story options that require Fate to play -- and Fate costs money.
There's a limit to how many actions that you can perform per day, which can be increased by becoming an Exceptional Friend (the subscription route, paying 35 Fate per month, which costs about $.25 a point, makes the subscription a paltry $8.75). You can spend Fate to restore actions as well, which is a pretty silly mechanic as actions come back on their own, given enough time. It takes over an hour for the "action candle" to restore itself completely, and so, much like Lords of Ultima, the game works best when played once or twice a day, which in the case of Fallen London, works to its advantage. The gameplay isn't strong enough to warrant spending more than ten or twenty minutes at a time on it anyway. The game allows the candle to be completely restored instantly for free once every twenty four hours, by essentially promoting the game via Twitter, which itself obviates the need to really spend money. The game is playable without paying, and running against the paywall is not a frequent experience. Once again, this is more like it should be -- a few reminders here and there that paying money for the game would be a nice thing to do once in a while because it will help keep the game up and running. The tip jar image works here as well. Only perhaps this time, the tip jar has a colorful sign on it in an attempt to catch the eye.
Dragon Age Legends' metaphorical tip jar is the equivalent of stopping every five seconds to shake a noisy tin cup in the face of its audience. The gameplay is not awful, but it is very bare-bones -- one might call it "old school" in terms of its turn-based combat, which is not terrible. Indeed, there's good old fashioned combat to be had here, and it's good. Bizarrely, they chose to abandon the hexagonal combat of Dragon Age Journeys. Even more bizarrely, EA didn't continue the Dragon Age Journeys series. Journeys was better in every way with a better story, better gameplay, and slightly more polished graphics.
Legends has a cartoonish look that isn't terrible to look at, and it chooses to use music from the other Dragon Age games, which is a fairly good decision on the developers part. The combat isn't very involved, but it doesn't need to be. Much like the other two games that I've discussed, this isn't meant to be an in-depth game. This is a game that is played to kill a little free time, and while it is lacking in any real depth in story or even gameplay, it's just fun enough to keep me going back to it. The addition of your "estate," in which you can add rooms in order to produce potions and other items, is also enjoyable to play with. It also helps that playing the game unlocks items within Dragon Age 2 (much like Dragon Age Journeys did, in fact). This is a game that I would happily play if not for the restrictions on it. See, you can only summon your party members once every couple of hours. If you want to summon them more often, you have to spend crowns. Crowns cost money. Every five seconds, it seems, a tip appears reminding you that you can spend money on this game, and it will make the game better. Like Fallen London, you get a limited amount of actions -- except doing things costs 3-4 units of energy instead of just the one action point.
This means you run out of energy quickly, which in turn means you are prodded to take energy drinks, which -- surprise! -- cost crowns, which cost money. Like I said earlier, this isn't terrible because Fallen London does the same thing, and I have a soft spot for Fallen London. The difference here is that at best you are going to be able to play three or four rounds of combat before you run out of party members for a solid two hours, and woe to you if one of your allies falls in battle because that's a five hour wait for them to recover (although I actually like this mechanic because it makes death something properly bad that should be avoided at all costs). The problem is that the game is good enough that running into the paywall is more annoying than it is in a game like Lords of Ultima or Fallen London. The annoyance is only increased by the knowledge that EA knows how to do a better game than this because they made Dragon Age Journeys which did everything that Legends does -- only it did it without a paywall, without the need to be on Facebook (which is not my website of choice), and with a more in-depth combat system.
The cynicism that Dragon Age Legends provokes is related to fact that the player knows that EA has done it better for free years ago. EA could have done so again, but instead went for the cash grab, trying to get in on the "social game" market, which I don't begrudge them for in the slightest (if you're a developer, you want to make money off of your games, and that's legitimate) but to release a weaker version of Journeys as that moneymaker? That's terrible. I still play it, of course. I'm a sucker, what can I say? Well, that and the game has gained an additional meta-game for me, which is to not pay for it and yet still play it regularly. So far, I'm winning.