App Store stats prove that EA’s free-to-play Dungeon Keeper is doomed

That awful smell.

That awful smell.

Since EA’s free-to-play reincarnation of the fondly-remembered PC strategy series Dungeon Keeper arrived on Thursday, there’s been a storm of outrage in the gaming press at what a crass, undisguised money grab the game is. This new Dungeon Keeper bears no resemblance to the Bullfrog classic aside from its appearance — it’s just freemium gaming champion Clash of Clans wearing a new hat, and is equally devoid of real gameplay.

I’m not using this post to join the chorus decrying the game’s quality. I took my shots at Dungeon Keeper months ago, when it was obvious the game was going to be an exercise in tedium. I also don’t really have anything to say about playing F2P games that Mark Brown hasn’t already said on his blog this morning. I’m not even going to talk about how the craze for F2P games is an obvious bubble.

No, I want to talk about the business strategy behind EA’s new Dungeon Keeper. Because in a word, it’s stupid. But you need not take my word for it. The App Store itself will tell you: classic gaming franchises mean nothing to free-to-play gamers.

The last game in the Dungeon Keeper franchise came out in 1999. Anyone with fond memories of playing that game is likely to be north of 25 years old at this point — which is the demographic slice least likely to spend money on freemium games. By ingesting the much-beloved Dungeon Keeper brand and excreting a game that is (by admission) entirely unlike the original games, EA have willfully alienated Dungeon Keeper fans.

But so what? Dungeon Keeper fans (and the hardcore gamer demographic they represent) are a small subset of the gaming market as a whole, and pissing them off won’t sink a widely-marketed game. But here’s EA’s second mistake: classic gaming franchises have no pull with free-to-play gamers.

The whole purpose of recycling an old franchise is to take advantage of its brand recognition and installed fan base. We’ve already demonstrated that the fan base is just pissed off by the new Dungeon Keeper, but what about brand recognition among more casual gamers? According to new App Store sales data, it doesn’t exist.

Last year, big hardcore game publishers released a number of free-to-play games cladded in the branding of classic game franchises. To name just a few, there was EA’s Ultima Forever and Plants vs Zombies 2, Square Enix’s Final Fantasy: All The Bravest, Sega’s Sonic Dash. These titles represent five of the biggest brands in all of gaming history, juggernauts with unmatched name recognition among hardcore gamers — and not one was a bona fide hit.

Here’s analytics firm App Annie’s top 10 global mobile games by revenue for 2013:

1. Puzzle & Dragons, GungHo Online
2. Candy Crush Saga, King
3. Clash of Clans, Supercell
4. Hay Day, Supercell
The Simpsons: Tapped Out, Electronic Arts
6. The Hobbit: Kingdoms, Kabam
7. Slotomania, Caesars Entertainment
8. Megapolis, Social Quantum
9. Pokopang, LINE
10. Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North, Kabam

There is not one single game on that list that represents a classic gaming franchise. Feel free to dig deeper into the stats, you won’t find any. Keep in mind that Plants vs Zombies 2 is a game that EA made a $1.3 billion dollar studio acquisition to produce — not showing up even close to the top 10 is an abject disaster.

But free-to-play gamers don’t care about brands like Plants vs Zombies or Ultima. The rise of smartphones have created an entirely new market for games — one that is totally disconnected from traditional “core” gamers.

Since 2007, there are now millions of people around the world who now own their first game console: an iPhone. Many of these folks aren’t core gamers, and they’re not interested in pursuing gaming as a hobby. They want games to kill time in line at the bank, or on the bus to work in the morning. They have no idea what Dungeon Keeper is, and they’re unlikely to want to invest the time to find out.

The idea that free-to-play is “killing” gaming is obviously an exaggeration. There continues to be an enormous market for core games, and core gaming on smartphones and tablets (our bread and butter here at Pocket Tactics) is just starting to hit its stride. But clearly there’s a much larger pool of non-core gamers out there spending money. EA’s mistake is in attempting to lure that new group in with bait intended for the old one.

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