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UK agency calls Dungeon Keeper 'free-to-play' advertising misleading

updated 10:39 pm EDT, Thu July 3, 2014

Regulator recognizes game can be played for free, but it's 'severely limited'

It appears that regulators are catching onto the idea that Electronic Art's (EA) Dungeon Keeper mobile game isn't really what could be considered a "free-to-play" game. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), an independent regulator of ads in the UK, ruled this week that ads promoting the game as free-to-play must not appear in the future.

The inability to play Dungeon Keeper on Android or iOS without spending money has been a major complaint about the game since its release in January. While the client can be downloaded free of charge, the high cost of in-game items, use of timers and slow rate of currency collection disrupts what could be considered "expected gameplay" according to the advertisements. Because of this, the game feels like it forces players into buying premium in-app currency to bypass timers and achieve a "reasonable rate" of gameplay.

The ASA felt that the advertising from an email that indicated players could get "Dungeon Keeper on mobile for free" is misleading, as it left out several key pieces of information. The regulator agreed that technically the game could be downloaded and played for free, but the experience isn't as promised by the ad. Players that choose not to buy in-app currency are forced to endure significant delays and other limitations in gameplay if the premium currency isn't spent.

According to the ruling, EA stated that it didn't believe the game is "severely limited" unless players made in-app purchases. The company says that all of the content is available to all players. Premium currency can also be acquired without purchase by in-game actions and achievements, allowing players that don't spend money to have the same advantages as those that do.

Information was provided to explain the average expected experience for spenders and non-spenders, showing that the mechanics of Dungeon Keeper were "well within the average length and frequency." Even if there was no monetization in the game, EA says that the timers, the largest limiting factor of gameplay, would be present as they are tied to strategy and balanced gameplay.

While the ASA agreed on some fronts about the basic claims of the game, it still ruled that the ad is misleading. During the investigation of Dungeon Keeper, the regulator found that EA didn't make the nature of purchases within the app clear. While disclaimers appeared on the app pages, the references and what effect they have on the game aren't included in the body of the ad. Furthermore, the expected gameplay of a free-to-play game, even with monetization in place, shouldn't be "excessively restricted."

"Although we acknowledged that a timer mechanism could be a legitimate part of gameplay experience, the nature of the timer frequency and length in Dungeon Keeper, in combination with the way it was monetized, was likely to create a game experience for non-spenders that did not reflect their reasonable expectations from the content of the ad," states the report. "Because the game had the potential to restrict gameplay beyond that which would be expected by consumers and the ad did not make this aspect of the role of in-app purchasing clear, we concluded that it was misleading."

The liberal application of the free-to-play label to Dungeon Keeper hasn't been the only trouble the game has stirred up. Like many free games available on app stores, Dungeon Keeper asks players to rate the game if they enjoyed it. However, on the Android version players could choose to rate the game with one button that indicated one to four stars or a second that rated it five stars.

As reported in February, the first button wouldn't actually rate the game, instead prompting users to give Electronic Arts feedback. Those unsatisfied with Dungeon Keeper had to navigate to Google Play directly in order to rate the title less than five stars. Those that selected the five star box were directed to the store to leave their rating.

Currently, Dungeon Keeper holds a four-star average rating on Google Play, with 171,930 ratings entered. Of those ratings, 103,895 are five star, while 28,349 are one star. It also holds a four-star rating on iTunes, with 668 ratings. Five star ratings come to a total of 355, with one star ratings listed as 77. Metacritic paints a different picture, with a score of 42 out of 100 from 22 critics, and 0.4 out of 10 as a result of 550 ratings.

by MacNN Staff



  1. elroth

    Junior Member

    Joined: 07-05-06

    Is there an honest company anywhere, anymore?

  1. downpour

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 09-20-11

    Well I've been playing this game for a while and I haven't payed a penny.

    So I'm not sure how it's misleading.

  1. DiabloConQueso

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 06-11-08

    I view these types of "pay to progress faster" apps in the same light I view the "Express Pass" things they offer at amusement parks where if you pay an additional fee, you can bypass the long lines for rides.

    If you've got the money, it's really nice to be able to take advantage of the advanced progress speed, but if you don't have the money, some tend to look at those that do have the money and take advantage of those perks with disdain.

    The ultimate question is, "Is Dungeon Keeper advertising the speed of their 'Express Pass' as part of the free experience?"

    People would be up-in-arms if Six Flags said, "5 minute or less wait times for all rides, for free!" but when you got to the park, you found out it was an additional fee to take advantage of that, and that the actual "free" wait time was 2 hours. That's most decidedly deceptive marketing.

    Is Dungeon Keeper doing the mobile app equivalent of that?

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