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Dungeon Hunter 4 and the trouble with the free-to-play fun tax

Nate Ralph | April 15, 2013
Microtransactions are here to stay, but what's the appropriate amount of nickel-and-diming?

Two minutes: that's about how long it took before Dungeon Hunter 4's in-app purchase system first reared its ugly head, with the tutorial explaining that equipment upgrades could be "sped up" by paying a few gems. Mind you, I wasn't encouraged to spend any money yet; that wouldn't happen for another two minutes, once I saw the first "special offer" on a loading screen suggesting I spend some gems on an item (nevermind that I hadn't seen much in the way of action yet). A minute later came the introduction to the Dungeon Hunter item shop, where I learned all about buying gear (it was on sale!).

The first few gem expenditures of Gameloft's Dungeon Hunter 4 are free, a tacit advertisement for how easy it is to bolster your gaming experience by forking over a few bucks--the game is free-to-play, after all. It's otherwise a typical dungeon crawler designed to tap into that visceral need many of us share to whack monsters and acquire loot; a drive arguably left unfulfilled as Diablo III proved to be a bit of a dud and so few contenders to the throne have emerged. But it falls into the same pit as so many other free-to-play games: what's the appropriate level of nickel-and-diming?

Free-to-play mobile games exist in a weird space. They're largely designed to function like the arcade games of yore, doling out just enough fun to keep your coins en route to their coffers. In Dungeon Hunter 4, this comes in a form that follows fairly typical free-to-play tropes.  Time is money: everything is on an arbitrary timer: upgrading a piece of armor you've found will cost some gold (dropped by enemies), but also take a few minutes. You're free to continue on your quest while waiting for your gear to magically spruce itself up, or you can spend a few gems and make the process instantaneous; 200 gems will set you back $2. Ditto for potions: you can only carry three at a time, and you'll need to wait four hours for a new potion to appear in your inventory--they're otherwise only available from the gem shop, for 20 gems apiece.

It doesn't seem so bad, at first. Your health regenerates over time (albeit slowly), and fills completely whenever you gain a level, or start a new map. There's also no real death penalty; once your character falls in battle you're given an arcade-style countdown and encouraged to spend a few gems to pop back into the action, but you can instead simply head to the entrance of the map, with all of your progress up to that point preserved.


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