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.