Please Stop It: Dragon Age Legends

By Alec Meer on March 16th, 2011 at 4:28 pm.

Also, the combat's rubbish

I’d heard decent things about EA’s Facebook-based Dragon Age side-project, Legends. I am scarcely free from cyncism about Facebook gaming in its current form – so uncomfortably dependent on building compulsive play then charging to continue immediately -but I by no means believe it won’t improve. I am always willing to look and see where it’s going.

A big license and the promise of deeper mechanics sounded like it might be taking the genre/platform somewhere newer. In a way, it does – but it’s also a large and frightening backwards step for roleplaying games.

Essentially, it’s turn-based roleplaying in the Final Fantasy style. Two opposing squads of fighters line up against each other and take turns to stab/shoot/magick their enemies, with a spot of potion-glugging in between. There’s an inventory, there’s a skill tree, there’s a store, there’s even a surprising element of base-building – essentially a means of generating potions and the like. All well, all good, all a whole lot more than Facebook games generally offer.

Except you can’t achieve a god-damned thing without spending some sort of virtual currency. It’s the sheer levels of dependence built in, from all directions the tightening noose of prevented play: Crowns for potions, Crowns for energy to move to the next fight, Crowns to buy new loot, gold to upgrade your castle… And worst, worst of all, Crowns to buy a single-use horn that summons fighting companions.

You play as one character, but you cannot solo the game. You need allies. Allies will only ally with you once, then they bog off for a few real-time hours. Within 20 minutes of play, I’d run out of guys to summon, and had to dip into my very meagre assignment of free Crowns to summon a couple back. That lasted about 10 more minutes. Then I was stuck, either by running out of the Energy required to move or by butting into a fight that required strong companions and strong potions to survive. Stuck. Unless I’d spend.

I appreciate the free to play games need to make money, and I’m not averse to the concept of in-game spending (though I’m far too tight to do much of it). I am, however, averse to the game having no meaning or purpose without it. For a game about simply building a farm, maybe it’s a little more defensible to spend money on construction materials and crops. It’s a game about commerce in the first place, more or less. For a game documenting an epic roleplaying quest to help save humanity from a demonic legion, it’s ludicrous to break the fourth wall by asking that you give real-world money to an out-of-game source. What is this entity I’m buying Crowns from, and how does it bear any relation to bettering my enemies?

Legends is a modern reworking of the old coin-op side-scrolling beat ‘em/shoot ‘em ups. It’s just there to take money off you, and the question of whether compulsion is the same as legitimately being entertained is an undying one. You will face insurmountable odds at some point, and shovelling more money into this machine is the only way to keep going. Yes, there is always the option to come back in a few hours, as energy and follower-summoning recharges, but if you don’t pay you’ll only squeeze about ten minutes more out of every new session. Who’s really going to play it that way? They’ll get so little out of it.

Again – the option to pay doesn’t trouble me. Games finding new revenue streams in an increasingly digital age only makes sense. It’s that the game conspires against you in such a way that it’s essentially unavoidable which is the problem – all sense of skill and challenge is completely removed, because the game knows full well that you’re going to need a crapload of potions and mates to survive battles against stuff like wolves that can attack three times per turn. If levelling up wasn’t so glacially slow maybe I’d be bothered less too, but the trouble is there’s so little meaningful sense of progression. Excitements seem few and far between. It’s a straight grind, a horribly futile timesink with tedious, repetitive combat, and it expects you to pay for the privilege. ‘Microtransactions’, we’re told. Does this look like micro to you?

For reference, summoning a colleague back to the fight before his 2 hour recharge time is up costs 19 crowns (and will result in the next wait becoming 5 hours). So, for three times as much as buying a copy of Dragon Age II, I can buy enough crowns to respawn party members 315 times. That sounds like a big number. It isn’t. Factoring in the Energy required to play (29 crowns for 5 units of it, which is enough for one more battle, or very occasional two) as well, I suspect that wouldn’t get me much more than a week or two of not particularly intensive Facebook gaming. That is a guess, but I’m pretty convinced the sum total is nowhere near what you’d get for buying three traditional games (and especially RPGs).

The alternative to buying respawns, by the way, is to invite your friends to play. Each one who accepts becomes a usable party member, subject to the same one-shot and recharge/pay system as the standard characters. Invite enough people and perhaps you’d have enough fighters slowly recharging in the background to avoid having to pay for respawns. It is a social game, after all, although there’s no real element of playing together. It was fun to watch a little cartoon dude called Dan Griliopoulos get killed by a werewolf thing, but he had nothing to do with it. Do I want to spam all my friends into joining and then start suckling on the money-teat themselves in the name of my grinding onwards? I really don’t.

Free to play is going to play an ever more important part in PC gaming, and it’s something we’re going to have to get used to to some extent. Surely, though, there are better ways of achieving it than this money-grubbing slap in the face for any Dragon Age fan. Paying for content (i.e. DLC) will grow and grow, and there are ways to do that quite neatly, but paying to keep accessing the basic mechanics of a roleplaying game makes me feel a little ill. How can I possibly invest in my character, my motivations, even in my next piece of uber-loot when I know it’s defined by how many times I’m prepared to take out my bank card? Or even about how often I’m prepared to log back in and squeeze out ten more minutes. It’s not that simple: this is a game built around constantly and immediately wanting more.

Worst of all: the entire game is essentially a walking advertisement for Dragon Age II. An advertisement you need to pay to keep watching. For those who already own the game, it bears the difficult to resist promise of unlocking extra in-game DA2 loot, but you’ll end up either paying an awful lot or spend a lot of time fiddling about and logging in and out to get hold of it. It’s a promotional game at heart, of the sort that would have been free on an official game site a few years ago. But no, even that must come with a price attached now.

Social games and free to play games are, if not the future, a future. We can’t dismiss or ignore them. In fact, we should celebrate those of them, and those elements of them, that do approach things smartly, and in doing so bring worthy gaming to a gigantic audience. But we can make it quite clear that we expect to be treated better than this slovenly, cheating, cynical wolf in in RPG’s clothing. Especially when it’s clothing hundreds of thousands of us were very fond of.

Dragon Age has had better weeks.

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132 Comments »

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  1. Meathead says:

    Free 2 Play is a cancer upon the gaming world, not far behind DLC in my personal list of things that have the potential to ruin gaming for us. The reason so many new MMOs are starting to use that model is because its more profitable. Unfortunately for us consuers, that means you have to pay much much more than your $15 per month if you want to be playing the game ‘properly’. So if the day ever comes where the good games start using the F2P model, we’re all basically fucked.

    Wait until news stories start showing up about people who’ve spent thousands of dollars of their parents’ or partner’s money on some ‘free’ game. The whole business model is a borderline scam, which is probably why the US government has started investigating it.

    I recently spent a month playing Stronghold Kingdoms, thanks to some douche here on RPS mentioning it in an article :) I ended up quitting because
    a) I’d spent almost $50 in a month on a stupid browser game almost without thinking about it and
    b) I couldn’t compete with the people who were spending literally thousands of dollars to buff their little kingdom up.

    • Premium User Badge

      drewski says:

      I think you’re being a bit harsh on a lot of F2P MMOs, which offer you a robust, deep experience for absolutely nothing – they only charge you for what are essentially expansion packs or other non essential abilities like playing multiple characters, larger inventory space etc.

      Some of them are a lot more cynical than that, of course, but I don’t think it fair to tar them all with the same broad brush.

  2. jwfiore says:

    I think it is safe to say that Dragon Age Legends clearly promotes rape.

  3. wcaypahwat says:

    I find the price they’re asking is more insulting than them asking for money in general. 150-200 ‘crowns’ for a new hat/sword/ring?

    yeah, that’s $5 a pop.

  4. yhalothar says:

    I just ignore facebook gaming, and I’m a happier man because of that.

  5. farfox says:

    “Legends is a modern reworking of the old coin-op side-scrolling beat ‘em/shoot ‘em ups. It’s just there to take money off you, and the question of whether compulsion is the same as legitimately being entertained is an undying one. ”
    Woah, don’t compare skill based arcade games to this. At least in the arcade games, you can beat the whole game in one life. You have to keep in mind that a lot of those insane shmups and such were made by Japan, and they developd an arcade culture that better fit becoming skillful at such games than America did. Many arcade goers there can 1-coin very hard shmups, or at least close to it. That’s an actual skill based limitation, not “lolo ok solo everything unless you want to pay us money”

  6. FataMorganaPseudonym says:

    I played slogged through this chore of a so-called “game” over the course of a few days, only just long enough to get the unlocks for Dragon Age II, and now that I have done that, I am glad to say that I will never have to look at or think about Dragon Age Legends ever again. Well, at least after the Dura’s Blue Flame item unlocks anyway.

    I did not and will not spend a single penny on it, nor did I ever feel the urge to do so. Ten minutes at a stint was about all I could stand of it anyway. Why should I pay actual money to torture myself even more than that?

    Dragon Age Journeys was far far FAR superior to this lame, money-grubbing piece of Facebook poop. If this is even remotely indicative of what other Facebook games are like, then I’m glad that I’ve never bothered to try them. It makes me feel that my decision to just immediately block any and all apps whenever I get an invite from someone is the right one.

  7. migo_monday says:

    The piece above is really good, if you’re looking to feel self-righteous about Facebook games and enjoy the sight of a blogger pontificating.

    If you’re interested in an actual review, or real information about the future of Facebook gaming (I’d think that an actual games journalist would bother to mention the game was designed by Soren Johnson), here’s Tom Chick:

    http://www.quartertothree.com/fp/2011/03/17/dragon-age-legends-is-a-facebook-game-for-people-who-like-animal-parties/

    Chick just says: “But the obvious caveat is that it’s built for Facebook. It’s got its share of microtransactions and spam nags, but they’re easily enough ignored. The basic resource is time, so if you just wait long enough, like real life, eventually everything will happen.”

    He spends the rest of the review talking about the game mechanics and their effects. Which I think is more interesting than all this posturing about how Facebook games are like the slave trade. But I do understand that it takes much more effort to write a decent critique, so I can’t entirely blame Meer.

  8. Daniel Klein says:

    First, the article got a big old “well d’uh!” from me. This confirms my hatred for all things facebook gaming. It’s a shame, because actually social games? That could be AMAZING.

    Secondly, I think that market forces will indeed decide, but they will not decide in favour of these ill-guided short term money grabs. Well-done free to play, in any setting, is a force to reckon with. Here’s a three step guide to becoming very very rich:

    1) Make a genuinely fun game
    2) Sell non-essentials
    3) Profit

    You’ll get tons of players who never pay a dime, and that’s fine. Because you know what these players are doing, if you made a properly social game? That’s right, they are the game. They build value by enjoying the game for free. And those that do end up paying, out of good will, because they’re enjoying themselves so much, they will not pay once or twice and then stop playing, as would most likely be the case with a Facebook game–they will become recurring customers.

  9. Ergonomic Cat says:

    I seem to be in the minority, but I don’t have any issue with this. You have energy, you have friends. When one of them runs out, you close the game and go do something else. If this was what you sat down to do for the night, then it sucks monkeys. If it’s one of the 4-5 facebook games you play in an hour or so of free time, I don’t see the issue. Even the crafting encourages that – it takes 1-2 hours to craft items, up to 15-20 if you do big batches. That screams out “Play for a bit, then come back later.”

    Levelling makes a huge difference, because you get new skills, which define how you play. Picking up the first skill is pretty weak, but after that, they’re all pretty nice.

    I played through 4 character resets without spending a dollar on the game and enjoyed it. There’s even a page where you can go to just craft and collect items, to keep that part going. I’ve spent $10 on it now, because I liked the upgrade to my house, and I wanted to see if the store items made a difference (not that I could see), but I don’t feel the need to spend any more ever again….

  10. Redford says:

    The worst part of this is not that this is a horribly unfriendly transaction game.

    The worst part of this is when Dragon Age 1, a flash game called “Dragon Age: Journeys” was released. Instead of a pay-by-fly facebook game, it was a real, actual game. A tactical RPG with character building elements. It was quite fun, and well-made, and as far as flash games go (and especially flash RPGs) well above the bar. It was an episodic affair and it was promised that as each chapter of dragon age was released, a new chapter of the flash game story would also be released.

    Now, inevitability, I know where all the assets and effort for the creation of that flash game went – to create a terrible facebook game which simply operates like a magical money printer for Bioware instead of the interesting little tactical RPG we had before which will never be completed due to the current corporate “idea” that people who play games enjoy paying for everything.

  11. jinxed says:

    Free to play is the future of PC gaming?
    Ha!
    It’s a good possibility that free to plays with always be popular to some degree in the future, but saying that it’s the future is complete bullcrap and that free to plays will dominate over ahem TRUE real games is true ignorance.