Week in Mobile: Heroes of Dragon Age shows why big companies get free-to-play wrong
On Monday, Electronic Arts announced a Dragon Age title for mobile devices that probably no one was hoping for. Heroes of Dragon Age turns the fantasy role-playing series into a squad-based combat game. It’s free to play, and players build their party up with 3D figurines of monsters and characters. They can confront other teams and climb the leaderboards.
It doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for Dragon Age, but then again, this kind of announcement isn't new to gamers these days. As big and wonderful as the mobile scene has become, it’s hard to not feel like certain companies abuse it for all the wrong reasons: quick cash flow and not the love for a game. Free-to-play can pervert a series and warp our expectations for what a game should and ought to be.
EA isn’t all that popular to begin with. Last year, people voted it the Worst Company in America, condemning it over Bank of America. And it’s certainly one example of a publisher that sniffed out the benefits of microtransactions (or “premium services”) and is gorging on the results at the cost of customer loyalty and approval. But it’s not the only big company to see the words “free-to-play” as an invitation to farm money at the greater expense of a franchise’s reputation.
Ubisoft is another, with Prince of Persia: The Shadow and the Flame this summer. Both titles seem to be the exact opposite of what fans want, but the pull and promise of mobile revenue seems too strong for companies like EA and Ubisoft to resist.
But not all mobile games based on big properties are going to be bad or even trashy — in other words, filled with tasteless and offensive in-app purchases and ads that send fans the message that they’re not respected or appreciated as an audience and have simply become associated with their bank accounts.
In other cases, mobile releases are a way to milk old favorites while the nostalgia is hot and powerful enough to draw out purchases. Such might be the case with EA and Mythic’s Dungeon Keeper reboot of the original PC strategy game, but we’ll have to wait and see.
It’s really no wonder that the mere phrase “free-to-play” is a turnoff for so many gamers. They have no assurance as to whether a publisher will play fairly or try to pump them for money, and to console and PC gamers like fans of Prince of Persia, Dragon Age, and even classics like Dungeon Keeper, the second reality not only tarnishes their expectations but also signals a decline in how companies view and treat them as players.
I respect a mobile game that costs 99 cents or even a few dollars much more than I do one that tries to find every possible way to shake money from my pockets. It’s natural that we’re suspicious, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, gamers got tired of it and no longer considered $10, $30, or $60 as big of a risk as free-to-play and were much happier giving the developers their dues.
Mobile games can be a wonderful thing. They’re a chance for innovation and an opportunity for smaller studios to get their games out to a potentially huge audience. It’s a crowded market for sure, but that’s where indie is headed. Independent developers are rushing out at full force, more than ever, as Sony’s and Microsoft’s decisions to support them at any level shows that the next generation could very much belong to them.
It’s much easier to appreciate games that start out on the mobile platform or developers that have good intentions for bringing a property to iOS or Android than it is to respect bigger companies like EA and Ubisoft, which pervert our long-held impressions of series some of us have grown up with. By routinely exploiting the free-to-play model, they warp our perceptions of what a fair product is and how much money any game is worth. If companies don’t want free-to-play to mean financial gain at the cost of trust, then they need to be put more thought into how they approach their transition into mobile.