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Impression: Shadow Kings: Dark Ages

The glorious city of Inanage.

The glorious city of Inanage.

So, Shadow Kings: Dark Ages is a F2P browser-based game (there is also a mobile version) from Goodgamestudios that bills itself on being an MMO. I suppose that definition could work if we assume that games like Clash of Clans and Castle Clash and so on are MMOs as well. One thing that Shadow Kings does have over the others is a sort of world map which determines who you can attack rather than it being a random match-up.

One thing that is conspicuously and absurdly missing compared to other such titles however is, you know, combat. No, seriously, there is a planning stage for combat – allowing you to assign attackers and siege equipment to the left, center, or right flanks – but all actual combat is handled instantaneously off-screen in a generic battle report. You can use your mages for espionage or sabotage, split your forces to attack a city from three angles, give your troops ladders and battering rams, and the result is… this:

Oh. Okay.

Oh. Okay.

Without an actual visual combat system in place, all of the traditional trappings of this genre of game are exposed in sharp relief. For example, there is a city-building aspect to the game where you need to balance wood, rock, and food production to keep keep the war machine moving. But since you never actually see your city being attacked, the placement of buildings within the city is entirely irrelevant. Which means enemy city layout is irrelevant. Which makes the various troop compositions you can recruit largely irrelevant. Which leads you to question what the game bit is even supposed to be.

Waiting... waiting... waiting...

Waiting… waiting… waiting…

Near as I can tell, Shadow Kings is Progress Quest with a snappy app interface and copious amounts of in-game purchases to speed things up. There is a quest system to sort of guide your various actions, but it does not take too long to start running into build times measuring in the hours. Building takes time. Upgrading takes time. Recruiting troops takes time, sending them out to attack something takes time, combat is instant and off-screen, and then there is the return trip home.

In additional to the RMT Gems, Gold is another resource that is only generated when you “collect taxes.” You do so by picking a time interval from the given list, and then clicking on the Collect Taxes button at the end of the timer; leave it inactive too long and you will lose an escalating percentage of the amount you would have gained. In a bizarre (or dare I say novel) twist, you actually get rewarded more the shorter the timer happens to be. For example, right now I can collect 5g after 3 minutes. Or 15g at 15 minutes. Or 20g at 30 minutes. Obviously that is to encourage you to stay logged on to secure these funds, but that sort of runs counter to the entire rest of the game in which you are better off queuing a bunch of actions and either Alt-Tabbing to do something else or simply closing the Tab altogether.

It should also be noted that 5 hours is the longest time interval that you can collect taxes… for free. Picking 8.5, 12, or 24 hours as intervals to collect taxes actually costs Gems, with the latter being the equivalent of about $0.35 (assuming none of the frequently advertised Gem sales).

Money shot.

Money shot.

I remain completely and utterly amazed that a team of game designers could construct what could otherwise be a competitor for Clash of Clans/Castle Clash minus the one prevailing, absolutely critical component of player agency: combat. Arguably, there is really no game here. It is a creature of meat and bone with no internal organs. I am trying to imagine a company in which the art, music, and UI teams all finish their work (and it’s pretty good work) while the team in charge of the gameplay walked off the job. Even if it were something simple like watching your little dwarves wail on the walls for a few minutes, I feel like that might have been enough; I mean, beyond troop placement at the start of a battle, you don’t have any control over your dudes in Clash of Clans either. But with combat missing, there is really no context in which to place all the timers you end up having to wait (or pay) to wind down.

So… err… yeah. That’s Shadow Kings: Dark Ages in a nutshell.

Dungeon Keeper

Heard about that Dungeon Keeper controversy? You’d be forgiven for thinking that EA must have cooked up some particularly nefarious innovation in the mobile wallet extraction app market, but the reality is that this game is merely another straw on a camel-back-breaking pile. From the article:

Whenever you write about this phenomenon, the common complaint from people making the games in question is that not all of them are bad. As Thomas Baekdal realised though, the problem is definition. When your free-to-play game is all economy mechanics rather than game mechanics, when your game is all business design rather than game design, you’re not actually making a game – you’re constructing a scam, whether you realise it or not. If you’re doing it knowingly, you’re just a high-tech gangster.

If we get right down to it, I almost agree with him.

Yeah, no thanks.

Yeah, no thanks.

It is not a particularly robust defense to say that Dungeon Keeper isn’t doing anything worse than what other games have done before. Tobold compared it to Clash of Clans, which I haven’t played, but I have played Castle Clash which I assume to be similar. And between Dungeon Keeper and Castle Clash, there are a lot similarities, mechanics-wise: building troops (which takes time), harvesting resources (which takes time), removing obstacles on the game map (which takes time), attacking other players’ maps and stealing their resources (which is kinda fun). Indeed, about the only real difference between the flavors is how quickly you can reach the sticker-shock of needing to waiting 24+ hours for an action to complete; Dungeon Keeper immediately requires a day to dig a particular type of dirt block along the edges of the map (but there’s plenty of inner-map space), whereas Castle Clash took a while before revealing building upgrades would eventually start taking 7-10+ days.

In fact, as I type this, I have 5 days to go to upgrade my Gold Mine to level 16, 2 days and 10 hours for my Barracks to hit level 14, and it’d take 15 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes if I queued up the level 3 training to improve my Ornithopter troops. As near as I can tell, it’d cost roughly $1 in gems to knock off one full day of one timer.

This design is more effective than you'd think.

This design is more effective than you’d think.

The trick about these games is sort of the trick about Hearthstone: as long as it isn’t your primary source of entertainment, the restrictions are mostly irrelevant. I “play” Castle Clash maybe 3-5 times a day, for about five minutes at a time. Under this schedule, there really is no difference between an action that takes 10 minutes and one that takes 3 hours, as I’m either done with my break at work or whatever loading screen I was waiting on for my PC game has finished. If you only play Hearthstone every 2-3 days, then you will have enough gold to pretty much do whatever you want in each play session. You generally only really get into trouble with F2P games when you feel compelled to play them every day for hours.

Of course, that’s kind of the rub. Tobold is challenging people to think up a better alternative to the wait mechanic that doesn’t result in finishing the game in an hour, but it does sort of strike me as profoundly cynical to engineer a game where not playing is a game mechanic, especially when you offer money to bypass it. I don’t think it’s “entitlement” to ask for a game I can reasonably play for more than 10 minutes at a time, if I have need to. I have zero complaints for having spent a few bucks apiece for Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, Dungeon Raid, 10000000, Where’s My Water, and so on, so the admonition of “game devs need to eat” rings hollow. Especially when it’s suggested that dropping $20 on Dungeon Keeper for more imps – which will allow you to run twice as many 24+ hour queues at a time, but still otherwise constrict you to 10-minute play sessions – is considered “reasonable.”

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

All that being said though, I have officially added Dungeon Keeper to my game app rotation. I’m not a fan of it’s constant up-selling in terms of ringtones/wallpapers and such, or the badgering for me to log onto my Google+ account (which I silenced by creating a fake profile), but it’s otherwise a perfectly serviceable Progress Quest-style game for those who derive pleasure from time-management multitasking. Between Dungeon Keeper, Castle Clash, and Candy Crush Saga, I can have an almost uninterrupted 30 minutes (!) of gameplay.

Which is a pretty sad thing to get excited about, don’t get me wrong. But there’s only so much you can do when you’ve beaten all the other mobile games you’ve paid for.