The IAP Inspector

A generous heart: The monetization of Kingdom Hearts Unchained X

A generous heart: The monetization of Kingdom Hearts Unchained X

Welcome back to the In-App Purchase Inspector- our regular look at free-to-play games from the consumer's perspective.

In each instalment, we consider the incentives or pressure applied to make in-app purchases, their perceived value, the expansion offered by IAPs and the overall value of the experience.

The end goal is to see whether the game makes a good enough case for us to part with our cash, or whether players are content - or engaged enough - to 'freeload'.

This time, we're taking a look at Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts Unchained X, the mobile version of a browser-based spin-off of the original JRPG series.

Taking a step back

The Kingdom Hearts games are now so dense with story and lore that to try and explain it to a newcomer would be nigh-on impossible.

So it's probably for the best that Square Enix decided to drop the whole thing for its F2P spin-off, setting the game 100 years before the events of the main series.

Already popular in Japan as browser game Kingdom Hearts X, the Unchained edition makes a few key changes to suit it to a mobile audience.

For example, the open world has been replaced with a series of small stages, you use Ability Points to enter the stages instead of on attacking enemies, and combat has been simplified a little bit too.

Kingdom Hearts Unchained X doles out free Jewels like they're going out of fashion.

It's now entirely accessible to anyone, even those who've never engaged with Kingdom Hearts in any way before.

And it's all the better for it – the mobile focused redesign has worked wonders, and it's an incredibly fun game to play.

All about the munny

But, of course, what we're really interested in is how good it is at monetising itself.

There's a wide number of mechanics at play here, each with their own currencies – you'll use Ability Points, Avatar Coins, Munny and Jewels throughout the game to progress.

But only Jewels can be bought with real money. Everything else has to be earned through playing the game.

Jewels can be used to buy Medals, which you use in combat to attack enemies, and can only be levelled up by merging them with other Medals.

And you can use Jewels to open up new Avatar Boards, which give you access to new costumes and improved stats for your character.

Run with the Jewels

As is the Japanese way with mobile games, Kingdom Hearts Unchained X doles out free Jewels like they're going out of fashion, so you're never left wanting for more.

Daily login bonuses keep you topped up nicely, along with the ability to earn Jewels through simply playing the game, and these rewards are so generous that it doesn't make sense to buy any Jewel packs.

Though if it wasn't so generous, the Jewel packs themselves might put players off.

Awkwardly priced so that you need to buy three of the smallest packs (100 Jewels for £0.79/$0.99) just to receive one Medal, it's clearly designed to nudge players towards buying bigger packs.

It doesn't make sense to buy any Jewel packs.

But buying one of these packs just to top-up seems ultimately pointless when you can simply wait for the next login reward, or just keep playing the game and eventually earn Jewels in-game.

However, you will, at some point, need to buy these medals if you have any hope of working your way through the game.

Gacha again

Each Medal has one of three attributes, each of which is strong and weak against the other two, in a rock-paper-scissors style.

Each enemy also has one of these attributes, so you'll need a range of medals on hand to take on the enemies.

In the typical Japanese way, Medals are doled out with a gacha mechanic – you never know for sure which one you're going to get, so you need to keep buying in order to stack your roster efficiently.

It's hard to see the game monetising well, aside from mega-fans desperate to dress up as Donald Duck.

But again, the game's generosity kicks in. Each Medal Pack has guaranteed high-level Medals available, so you're never left wanting for more, and can usually form a workable set-up from what you have.

Disney challenge

The problem this causes is that the game can be a little too easy.

Generosity may make the player feel valued, but it also means that you can have a formidable team early on without much effort.

That said, the game neatly counters this with objectives in each mission, such as finishing every fight in one turn, which add an additional bit of challenge and strategy.

And, again, you're healthily rewarded for completing these objectives, though often just with small items and Avatar Coins, so you're not becoming further overpowered.

Lookin' good

The only thing that might really entice players to spend would be the Avatar Boards, as some of the outfits and accessories available are time-limited, and the boards are totally optional to open.

The clothes are also gender-locked, so if you're looking to unlock outfits for both male and female avatars, you'll need to unlock and complete each board to do so.

That said, you're given boards to start on that don't have a premium barrier blocking them as you progress through the game, so again, you're less incentivised to pay.

Keep your fans close

It's a retention-first, monetisation-second approach that feels incredibly familiar to the implementation seen in Tales of LINK, for example.

It's also hard to fault a game that values its players' retention over their wallets.

There's plenty to buy with real money if you so desire, but the game is so generous with its premium currency that you never really need to, or have any real incentive to.

Indeed, it's hard to see the game monetising particularly well, aside from mega-fans of the series who are desperate to dress up as Donald Duck.

But, as with the aforementioned Tales of LINK, it's also hard to fault a game that values its player's retention over their wallets.

So while Kingdom Hearts Unchained X may not make a lot of business sense, from a player perspective, it's a win-win.

You get a condensed, accessible entry into the Kingdom Hearts series, and you'll only ever have to pay up if you really can't wait to unlock a new pair of gloves.

Deputy Editor

Ric likes to read epic poems and watch classic films to hide the fact he plays way too many games. The facade has thus far not been very effective.

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