There are a lot of people upset with Electronic Arts, and more than a few of them are unhappy about the company's mobile re-release of Dungeon Keeper. Even the CEO called the mobile game, which is riddled with in-app purchases alien to the original, "a shame." But an empty apology is unlikely to placate the United Kingdom's Advertising Standards Authority, which today declared EA's description of the game as "free to play" to be misleading advertising.


It all started with an email ad sent out highlighting the game's free status, which it shares with a depressingly high percentage of mobile games. One consumer took issue with the phrase "get it for FREE," complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority that the gameplay was severely limited unless the player bought in-game currency with real money. Dungeon Keeper uses the popular dual-currency system: players earn one kind of money in abundance by normal play, as any game might have, but the truly worthwhile portions of the game are hidden behind a second kind of currency (in this case, "Gems") that drop at a glacial pace. You can buy gems directly from EA to speed up the game, which is essentially slowed down to motivate purchases. Quantities range from a few dollars all the way up to $100 (£70 in the UK). This strategy relies on relatively small numbers of gamers with disposable income - "whales," in the parlance of gambling and mobile games - spending huge amounts of money on ostensibly free games. For a deeper look at Dungeon Keeper's IAP system, and why it and most of its contemporaries are awful, check out this video.

EA countered the complaint, stating that it was possible for players to gain access to all the in-game levels and items without spending any real money. While that's technically true, and it's true for most of the other games that use the same system, the focus on "free" is somewhat disingenuous: even EA describes the two-currency system as "grind" and "premium." EA's official response to the ASA said that the company doesn't consider the system limiting, even though the current Dungeon Keeper build can take up to an entire day to clear out a single patch of land to expand your dungeon, something that only took a few minutes in the 1997 original.

The ASA sided with the consumer, declaring that the extremely protracted method of game progression meant that a player would eventually reach a point where no meaningful progress could be made without spending real money.

However, we understood that the rate at which they could be accrued was slow in comparison to the amount needed to play the game at a reasonable rate, where the delays did not significantly impact on the ability to continue playing. Given this, we considered that players were likely to find themselves in a situation where they wished to bypass timers to achieve the expected gameplay as above, but were unable to do so without making a monetary purchase of the Gem currency. Although the game activities were available without cost to the player, we considered that for players to achieve the gameplay experience that was reasonable for them to anticipate, it was likely that they would need to spend money on the premium currency.

The ASA declared this ad in breach of three of the Committee of Advertising Practice's rules governing misleading advertising. It further stated that EA should mention the limitations of the free-to-play system in future ads.

Now, don't run down to your local game store to rain on EA's parade right away. The Advertising Standards Authority is the UK's version of the ASRC, and like its American counterpart, it's a self-regulating body made up of representatives from the advertising industry. It's not a part of the government, and it has no way to directly affect policy. In short: EA could completely ignore this if they wanted to, though they would be risking an even bigger public relations nightmare than the one they're already in. There are a few agencies with more teeth looking into the sad state of free-to-play games, namely the European Commission and Italy's antitrust authority.

Believe it or not, there are ways to make free-to-play games that don't completely break the flow of gameplay. In-game advertising, which was the primary way of monetizing free mobile games before IAPs became all the rage, is one way. Limiting in-app purchases to cosmetic items or cheats that don't affect the core gameplay is another. It's even possible (though extremely rare) to create a game that relies on standard free-to-play mechanics and in-app purchases that isn't insanely unbalanced - see the PC games Team Fortress 2 and Hearthstone for good examples. But since the approach of EA and its mobile contemporaries like Glu and Gamevil continues to be lucrative, as evidenced by more than a million downloads for Dungeon Keeper on Android alone, don't expect the status quo to change any time soon.

Source: Advertising Standards Authority via Joystiq

Michael Crider
Michael is a native Texan and a former graphic designer. He's been covering technology in general and Android in particular since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order.

  • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

    As a lover of the original Dungeon Keeper games, I couldn't be happier someone's sticking it to EA over this. Fucked up one of my favorite games as a kid.

    Though I can't be too mad at EA. They at least took the spirit of the original to heart. This is pretty evil, after all.

    • http://www.corbindavenport.com/ Corbin Davenport

      That's only one game series they ruined. SimCity 5 is a royal mess, didn't work properly until months after release and still is loaded to the brim with DRM.

      • xHabeasCorpusx

        I always liked the Sims but the new one is heading down the same route. You have to buy the ability to have babies. I can't believe a sequel will have less content then the original that came out years ago. Bravo EA. You're a class act.

        • shaunajdavidson

          Thelma explained I cannot believe that a stay at home mom can make $7420 in
          four weeks on the internet . more info here R­e­x­1­0­.­C­O­M­

        • Giragira

          Nope, no one said that we have to pay for toddlers and pools. They could be patched in for free like they did with other things in sims 3, or not, but before we know more people should really stop to spread false information. The only thing that we know at the moment is that they won't be there at launch, period. (and by the way, I hate EA's policies, I'm not defending them, I'm just raging at the misinformation)

      • firesoul453

        And the cities are just too small. It gets boring starting over with a new city every few hours. I really wanna build a city to the max!

    • Christian Turchetti

      i just installed that game for like 3 minutes, unistalled and cursed the EA, it is not a game, it's just an unsuccessful attempt to make money with one of my favorite games

    • Clint P

      I've never heard of this game before. Is there a place I can go to play the original? I'd like to check it out.

      • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

        Personally, Dungeon Keeper II was the best. You can buy it from GOG. They've even got some compatibility changes so it works on newer systems.

        • Clint P

          Awesome. Thanks, mate.

        • firesoul453

          I recommend GOG first for any game they have!

          DRM free is the future!

          • Godspoken

            More like DRM-free is where we started from in the first place.

      • Android Developer

        It's a game where you play the evil dungeon lord. really cool and original concept even today.

        I have no idea why it didn't continue after DK2 .

        Currently there is only an experimental game in development in kickstarter (which got what it needed) called "War For The Overworld".

  • bL4Ck

    Cancer killing video games

  • Mayoo

    I declare EA guilty ... period

  • Richard Sobey

    Just like Hay Day - want to clear some land to build on? Will probably take a few days of collecting all manner of in game items. Gave up on what was otherwise a relaxing and enjoyable game.

    • mustbepbs

      You get to a point in Hay Day where it just turns to a grind. It stops being fun and it's all about a schedule. At that point I said fuck it.

  • Jordan Khoviteri-Zadeh

    Free to play mobile gaming literally became trash the moment major publishers walked through the door.

    Anyone, ANYONE who is willing to spend more than a few quid on a mobile game (with some exceptions) is out of their fucking minds.

  • Rovex

    IAP are fine by me, but seriously, the price?! Some of the prices are just insane.

  • Jordi Gasulla

    As an active Dungeon Keeper player, I disagree. First of all, some of the things the author mentions, are wrong. They were, more or less, right, some months ago, but the situation now is very different. EA has improved the game over time in many ways, including accelerating digging times (current max time is 12 hours, that can be halved simply by slashing your imps), and most importantly, gems are now so much easier to obtain. I have not paid anything for this game and I currently posses all the imps and all the immortals (both things cost gems, but I paid for them with gems obtained playing the game). It's true that you need some patience, but if you want not to pay anything for this game, it can easily be done.

    • Matthew Fry

      How long do you think it would have taken if you'd played the original?

      • Jordi Gasulla

        It's hard to tell. Probably a few more months. But I'm a patient person. I don't really care. That's also part of the fun. Being able to say that you have done everything that can be done in a game, without having to pay your way into the game. Some games take longer and some take shorter times. But if the game wasn't fun to play, I wouldn't have played it for so long...

        • Matthew Fry

          Well, personally, I have no interest in playing a game that arbitrarily makes me wait. I don't think it's fun to play a game I need to schedule into my daily routine. I certainly don't think it's fun to open a game for 30 seconds to click a button and come back later. I really hope I'm not the only one.

          • Jordi Gasulla

            Well, not everybody likes the same games. You don't like it, just don't play it. Nobody is forcing you, right? But going all the way and charging a company with misleading advertising when it is possible to play completely for free...

    • Android Developer

      How come I diged all of the gems and couldn't buy all of the imps and immortals?
      I only spent on new imps and one immortal (which got its price halved BTW) .
      also, 12 hours for accelerating digging times is only true if you got all imps.

      • Jordi Gasulla

        The only thing that I did not pay full price (in gems) was the last imp (the sixth) that I was able to buy heavily discounted (1500 gems instead of 5400, if I recall correctly). Other than that, full price for all the imps and immortals. The leagues gave a lot of free gems, if you were able to keep going from one league to the next. Right now, my rating is 3075. If I´m able to make it to Dread League (3200), I will get 2250 gems!

        • Android Developer

          Really weird. I bought all imps except for the last one and a single immortal which had a discount for (1500 instead of normal price).
          the last imp takes 4200 gems...
          Not only that, but gold and stones mines are fully upgraded, yet it take a huge amount of time to gather enough to upgrade the buildings.
          Even by plundering others, this takes a lot of time.

  • ShahinTr

    Hopefully this should be a warning to others.

  • Just_Some_Nobody

    This is what happens because _nobody_ wants to pay for apps.
    This is the culmination of years of people cheaping out on developers.

    Get angry with me if you want, but my point is valid.

    • Android Developer

      but this is just too much, no?

      • Just_Some_Nobody

        Oh, I'm not saying they are doing good by doing this. I'm saying, we likely would not have gotten into this situation had people been more willing to pay for games straight up. But people have this "apps should be free" mindset now. And it's not all users faults, either. App devs are just as much to blame for getting users to want apps for free.

        Problem is, money has to come from somewhere. And everything can't be ad supported. That ship is about sunk; I mean half the internet is useless now because pages spend 2 minutes loading ads.

        • Aborto

          Sadly you are right, the blame has to be put as much on cheap consumers as greedy developers.

          I have gone entirely in the other direction, I expect the game to cost money, the more the better, and I don't even bother to look at the free section of the Play store any more.

          If a game costs $5-$10 I assume its good and buy it for the hell of it, if its free or cheaper than $2 I am instantly suspicious it will be unbalanced crap like almost everything released now.

          • MyLeftNut

            Yeah, but some developers still try to nickle and dime you like crazy. I only buy paid games because I can't stand ads in games but I've bought games in the past for $4.99 or more only to find out when I start playing that there are in-app purchases for me to actually unlock the full game. Now it's less of an issue since the Play Store implemented the in-app purchases tag but it was an issue previously.

            It's like buying a $60 game just find content in the game that is only unlockable by spending extra cash. That's why Capcom got chewed out by fans over Street Fighter. The game should be playable in it's totality once I pay for it. Content introduce after the fact is different.

          • Aborto

            Yep, that has happened to me as well, generally only EA, gameloft and a few of the other big companies have the nerve to charge large amounts and still ask for IAP's though. I guess avoid any AAA developers and avoid any free games and you are usually safe.

          • DAMIJO

            You mean like buying COD:Ghosts and having to pay money for dlc

          • MyLeftNut

            Case in point, I paid $4.99 for a dictionary app only to find that I would have to pay extra for access to the thesaurus, common idioms...and so on.

  • Wesley Modderkolk

    "In short: EA could completely ignore this if they wanted to, though they would be risking an even bigger public relations nightmare than the one they're already in. "

    EA has been a PR-nightmare for the past few years, and it didn't seem to hurt them in the slightest bit. Expect EA to ignore it because this PR-nightmare will look like absolutely nothing, because EA = PR-nightmare.

  • Matthew Fry

    All Dungeon Keeper Mobile in its initial incarnation did was push the F2P mechanics to their eventual conclusion. Pay to play with heavy handed incentives. EA is only guilty of not doing it slowly over years so people wouldn't notice.

  • cy_n_ic

    Unfortunately bad publicity is still publicity...

  • http://mekakiwi.blogspot.com.br/ ED-Z が あらわれた!

    Serves Them Right.
    It's not like I'm against IAP, but when you must pay to win or pay to "unslow" gameplay (yes, not accelerate gameplay) I feel like I'm being scammed.
    Some games can get absurdly boring after a while if you must wait for hours (or even for a whole day) to see any progress.

    Solution: Don't play it. Don't even install it.

    • Tomasz Kuczynski

      I don't mind waiting, but where I get annoyed is when making a single purchase causes the game to prevent you from getting as much of the free premium currency. I don't know if they do it here, but Hay Day does it where you don't get the offer to watch videos for premium currency if you make any purchases.

      • http://mekakiwi.blogspot.com.br/ ED-Z が あらわれた!

        I don't mind wait either, as long they don't virtually stop the gameplay unless you pay.
        I've played a lot of game where you must wait to get things done, Civ, Age of Empires and many, many others. But these "waitings" are there for balance the gameplay, very different from those games where you have to wait just to force you into buy "acceleration".

  • Full Time Titty Master

    Failure to comply with the ASA or repeat offending can lead to the ASA passing the case on to OFT or OFCOM

  • Steve Freeman

    I have absolutely zero issues playing this type of F2P game. In fact I have several on my phone which I play every day.

    That being said...I'll be damned if I'm going to pay the kind of amounts they're usually asking for in-game real money currency. In one of the games I play, Evoker, the cheapest package for gems costs $6. And the only item you can buy with that is practically worthless. To get an item that has 4 chances at worthwhile cards, you would have to pay at least $24. And since each card can be evolved up to 5x, and each card only comes at evolution 1...well, you would have to spend a lot to get cards with a damn, and enough of them to evolve them high enough.

    Other games I play have similarly high costs. If the prices were SIGNIFICANTLY lower, I would be more likely to buy items every so often. However, at the price they're demanding...fuck that. Especially since nearly all of these games have performance or balancing issues, and I'm not going to reward a company for creating a buggy game by giving them a bunch of my money.

  • Will Tisdale

    The ASA is a complete waste of time. The only 'enforcement' action they ever take is to say 'don't do it again', by which point it's too late anyway. They should have ordered that EA retract and apologise to the people it had misled.

    The stupid thing is that all they would need to do to comply is put a tiny bit of text in 6pt font at the bottom of the ad...

  • someone755

    EA is to gaming what Facebook is to social media.

  • GJV

    You have to work hard to be a more hated company than Comcast, yet EA has succeeded.

  • Fatal1ty_93_RUS

    Serves these fuckers right

  • Tia Ling

    Everbody feel free use my copy & paste standard text for most IAP games...One fits "all" :p

    IAP Paywalled Timegrinder - Beware

    Goverments should forbid Google & Apple to do in-app-purchases. This game should be with free demo and then 3 dollars once and for all...or ingame ads. Want to build more than 1 item - Pay or wait 100 years ! Upgrade a building 1-7 days wait. Yeah, games used to be fun and it used to be about fun gameplay. Now games are about waiting. Playing this like "a normal game" costs you a few hundred dollars. IAP ! Timegrinding & permanent paywalls...

    • Godspoken

      or we could not.

  • Godspoken

    I just don't get why F2P is so crap on mobile. Until FFXIV, I played exclusively F2P MMOs due to being a kid with no regular income, and, unlike mobile games, they generally let you play a very sizeable amount (games with energy systems let you play for a couple hours without telling you to go by a potion for $5) and explore all areas in the game, which makes me actually like the game and want to spend a decent amount money on it (mostly for cosmetic items like armor or clothes to look good) when I have it available to spend. With mobile games, they let you play for five minutes and then demand money for you to continue doing anything, which annoys me, gives me an unfavorable impression of the game and its developers and does NOT make me inclined to spend money. All this while delivering consistently terrible and unexciting gameplay compared to their more well-established PC F2P counterparts.

  • Aidan Arguin

    I'm not TOO mad at EA, it's just origin that makes the sims 2 better than any game they've ever made.

    • Aidan Arguin

      And I'm saying this as I'm playing the sims 2...