The Dungeon Keeper saga continues, this time with news that the numerous five-star Google Play ratings for the game might not have been obtained through strictly ethical means.
EA Mythic Producer Jeff Skalski was keen to point critics of the new game in the direction of the Google Play star ratings as evidence that he and his team had "made a game for mobile gamers and they like it" -- but delving a little deeper into the Android version of the game reveals a system at play that has the potential to skew the game's ratings in direction favorable to those who wish its exploitative, intrusive free-to-play model to continue unchecked.
Indie game developer Mike Robinson tweeted the following screenshot earlier today, showing a dialog box that pops up before any in-app purchases on the Android version of the game. As with many other mobile games, it is strongly implied that five-star ratings are "needed" to keep the game free and to keep providing updates, and two options are given to players -- rate the game five stars, or rate the game between one and four stars.
Here's the twist: tapping the "1-4 Stars" option doesn't take you to the Google Play store to write a review at all. Instead, it pops up this dialog box:
(Tapping the "5 Stars" box does indeed take you to Google Play, where you are, in fact, free to lie to EA and give the game 1-4 stars if you wish, but this isn't made at all clear when the box first pops up.)
While the fact that EA Mythic is seemingly genuinely soliciting feedback from customers who do not wish to rate the game 5 stars is perhaps worthy of some praise, the implementation of this system is deeply, deeply troublesome. There's nothing stopping users switching over to the Google Play store manually and writing a 1-4 star review themselves, but at present, the way the game implements this dialog box provides significantly less friction to players who agree to give the game five stars and thus, in turn, makes the game significantly more likely to attract 5-star reviews than more negative feedback. The language used, too -- "5-Star ratings from you help us provide free updates!" -- is manipulative and deceptive; there's no direct correlation between how many 5-star reviews a game or app has and a developer's capability to continue working on it, and yet this is a rating-begging tactic used by many iOS and Android titles, and one that seemingly works.
Interestingly, the above dialog only appears on the Android version of the game; the iOS version, meanwhile, displays this message instead:
This may account for the fact that the App Store average star rating for the game is dropping like a rock in several territories around the world -- it's down to three stars in the UK and US, and down to two in Germany, where the earlier Dungeon Keeper games were particularly popular -- while the Android version has, at the time of writing, supposedly attracted over 66,000 5-star ratings. Not bad for a game that has a 0.2 Metacritic user score at the time of writing -- and a 47/100 critic rating, for that matter.
Frustratingly, tactics like this are not, strictly speaking, against the terms and conditions of Google Play or the App Store because they're not directly offering an incentive for players to give high ratings. They're certainly questionable from an ethics perspective, however -- and good enough reason to take Skalski's use of the Google Play ratings as evidence that people "like" the game with a very generous pinch of salt.