What I learned from the experience is that, divorced from its regular context as a Facebook app, Dragon Age: Legends doesn't hold up. While it's worth trying the game out to see what possibilities exist for RPGs in the social gaming space, it was just as interesting an excercise in understanding how the various mechanics and systems in Legends were specifically tailored for social media platforms... and also has something to say about the quality of other social titles.
Time vs. Money
The vast majority of social games are built entirely around cyclical mechanics that encourage (and often require) players to spend lots of time performing repetitive actions in order to facilitate game progress, which in turn provides the impetus for spending real currency on the game to speed up that progress or bypass the repetitive (and eventually tedious) tasks. Civilization World, for example, ties player progress to resource intake, and after the tutorials are completed progress becomes extremely slow, with very few actions available to break up the monotony. In order to get to the "fun parts", spending real currency for resource packages (food, science, etc.) becomes a big draw.
Dragon Age: Legends is not founded upon the same mechanics - in many respects, it resembles a much more typical free to play model. While players can opt to spend real currency on a wide variety of items and upgrades, all of them can be obtained in-game. What's different is that these are (mostly) optional rather than mandatory, and the amount of time waiting to get back to those "good parts" is almost entirely eliminated - you might be missing out on a few bombs or potions, but there is nothing preventing you from trying out the next battle on the map.
|Even with an energy limit in the Facebook version, once the training wheels are off, player ability has a bigger influence on forward progress than said limits.|
As an RPG with tactical turn-based combat, as well as its own full-blown story, Legends features much softer limits. Hero units are required for combat, and heroes must rest after completing fights or falling in battle, determined by a global energy meter. However, new hero units are provided both by the game and by other players, so having a stable of friends playing the game means that players probably won't ever run out of hero units, unless they spend hours upon hours on the game every day. Energy recharges over time and can be filled by spending currency, but players have more control over their rate of progress directly through their own actions (namely, by winning battles).
The most obvious change made to gameplay with the removal of the social media platform is that all microtransaction-based content has effectively been rendered irrelevant, and therefore much of it has been removed. For example, it's no longer possible to add friends to your friends list, which means that heroes don't get tired out or incapacitated after battles - you can play with the same ones as long as you want, which in turn means that the primary limit on gameplay has been removed from the desktop version of Legends.
This has an interesting impact on gameplay. One of the reasons Dragon Age: Legends has such a huge roster of hero units available is because progress rate is linked to how often you can battle. If my heroes are all tired for 5 minutes after a fight, I have 3 heroes per fight, and I have 5 heroes, adding a 6th hero effectively increases the amount of battles I can have. By "juggling" heroes effectively, players could maximize play-time - now, that strategy is rendered moot.
|When party members are on a limited-use basis, a layer of strategy is added to overcoming encounters - but when you can use anyone at any time, the combat loses a degree of depth.|
The consequences of this can be felt throughout the rest of the game. Because fighting with a constant revolving door of heroes is no longer required, the differences between them aren't nearly as important - the finer differences between the classes and weapon types have very little consequence on actual gameplay, and instead of having to, say, save your mages for a boss encounter, or your rogues for handling large groups with their "rain of arrows"-type skills, now, all that really matters is raw damage output. Once I found a hero I liked, I never, ever changed him or her out. In other words, one of the main gameplay dynamics is gone, and with it, much of the strategy.
There are other, smaller issues with the gameplay systems that come as a result of the lack of a social network to plug into. Now, the player's keep, effectively the standard mobile/social gaming vanity item (i.e. a house), has been reduced in value. While the keep actually has more consequence in Legends than the houses in many other social games, because it's used to craft new items or brew potions (via assigned workers), without friends to show it off to or time limits on heroes to consider, actually upgrading and customizing the keep isn't very worthwhile.
By far the biggest problem, though, is that the core gameplay, without the time limits added on to break gameplay into small chunks, or friends to talk to and interact with in various ways, is fairly repetitive and underwhelming. There's a level of satisfaction there by following the storyline (which is decent enough for a social game), and the combat is certainly decent, but the encounter design, consisting of waves of the same enemies over and over again, leaves a lot to be desired. What's fun in 10-20 minute bursts can't stand up when it's basically all there is to do in the game. Moreover, as the game isn't especially challenging, and new content is added with the previous expectation that players would play over weeks instead of hours in mind, the feeling of grind sets in much faster.
Although Dragon Age: Legends isn't an especially great game taken out of its online context, the most interesting thing I noticed about it was that all the underpinnings of a solid, albeit simplified RPG system were in place. There's inventory management and loot drops. There's leveling up complete with new skills that add a lot of functionality in combat. Battles themselves are turn-based and, past the tutorial, require some thought and prioritizing, with all the makings of a good combat system. The world map travel, while mostly linear, is the weakest link, but with more branching paths and decisions to make in the story, it could be fairly effective as well.
In other words, while Legends can't really stand up as a game worth playing in its own right, more so than most social games, it doesn't derive meaning entirely from its social functions. It's still got the same game mechanics and conceits of its "big brothers" and arguably even has more depth in its combat than most other RPGs on the market today. This is a far cry from many other social games, where the game is less fun for its own sake and more a glossy front for a carefully calculated addition machine. Legends isn't really fun without Facebook, but the issue is less one of design and more of content.
Although Dragon Age: Legends is now offline, I hope that the lessons it teaches won't be lost on other developers. Social games represent, potentially, the future of mainstream gaming, and I think it'd be a real shame for all such games to draw their inspiration primarily from Farmville's endless treadmill and cute but ultimately empty framework. Players are still willing to spend money on traditional titles because they offer features and compelling content that social games don't - but there's no reason why designing a game for Facebook has to abandon fun in favour of rigid adherence to metrics and pay-to-win models.