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 Space Ape's Rival Kingdoms: Age of Ruin, the strategy management game taking on Clash of Clans.
The strategy management genre on mobile is a packed one, most notably consisting of Supercell's Clash of Clans, NEXON's DomiNations, and indeed Space Ape's previous game Samurai Siege.
However, with Rival Kingdoms it feels like the London-based studio has honed the formula to a great degree of playability and polish, while simultaneously attempting to lure the hardcore away from the cartoon-esque visuals that overwhelmingly characterise its competitors.
Visually, it ticks all the right boxes: subtly impressive UI, satisfying 3D sieges, and even a particularly on-trend Game of Thrones-style map screen all prevent it from feeling too derivative of its genre forbears.
And indeed, its fantasy story arc - a nice if relatively optional accompaniment to the single-player component - is a rather serious affair penned by Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett.
The main difference between Rival Kingdoms and its most formidable competitor Clash of Clans can be immediately noted in their wildly different approaches to marketing, then - the former shoots for fantasy epic, while the latter goes for knockabout slapstick.
Both valid approaches, but what does the hardcore spin of Rival Kingdoms say about the audience it is attempting to cultivate? And what are its key strategies for monetising the resulting player-base?
The long haul
One of the first things you notice about Rival Kingdoms, and perhaps a symptom of it courting a hardcore crowd traditionally less receptive to free-to-play monetisation, is how generous it is right off the bat.
Space Ape Games is seemingly betting big on long-term retention, nurturing an audience of keen players before introducing the full extent of its monetisation rather than prompting immediate uninstalls with a harsh grab right out of the gate.
Indeed, the perks for a new player here go beyond the usual reciprocity phase, in that they actually offer a fairly considerable lifespan.
The first handful of building upgrades allow you to skip the wait timers, and for the first 10 times you run out of Battle Stones - the game's energy system - you're granted a full refill free of charge.
Furthermore, you start out with 500 gold and 1,200 diamonds (worth just over $4.99 in real money), which is more than enough to begin making good progress uninhibited by a pressure to spend.
A belief in the quality of the experience means there's no impetus to aggressively monetise players in the short-term.
It's a bold strategy that speaks to Space Ape's confidence in its product, a belief in the quality of the experience meaning that there's no impetus to aggressively monetise players in the short-term. Instead, it oils the wheels of progress for those who choose to spend, with no real pressure on those who choose not to.
The freebies operate almost as a 'try before you buy' scheme for the IAPs, giving you adequate opportunity to decide whether or not the perks they offer are worthwhile for you.
Another rather explicit admission of the game's hardcore leaning is the occasional appearance of advertisements for YouTubers showing off certain aspects of the game. One in particular is from BjCanDive, described as “one of the most strategic and informative YouTubers in the RTS genre.”
There's a sense, then, of Rival Kingdoms aligning itself with the PC gaming community here, in attempting to create a genuinely communal and strategic element that keeps players engaged. Its focus is the monetisation of enthusiasts, not of the restricted and begrudging.
Kingdoms of gold
After the initial phase of generosity from Space Ape, should you feel the need to splash out on any IAPs, things are fairly straightforward. Diamonds, the primary hard currency in Rival Kingdoms, range from packs of 1,000 for $4.99 to 30,000 for $99.99.
Meanwhile, the soft currency - Gold - is, like so many other games in the genre, accrued automatically depending on the level of your camp's Gold Smelters and the capacity of your Gold Storage.
However, should you find yourself running low - an eventuality I found to be very unlikely - you can grab some more in exchange for Diamonds. It's not a fixed rate, as it's based on your Gold Storage capacity, but IAPs allow you to fill your coffers 25, 50, or 90 percent.
The fact is, though, that both are doled out quite regularly in standard play. Attacking the strongholds of other players is the best way to quickly earn gold, as they're created by mere mortals like you or I, and therefore are often vulnerable. However, it does mean that the spoils of war may not blow you away.
Battles in the single-player campaign, while far more impenetrable, will often yield better rewards. There are also daily rewards, offering everything from Gold, Diamonds, and even new Ancients - powerful beings who bolster your army with elemental powers, of whom there are many to collect.
Not to mention Quests, a rolling tally of your in-game achievements that culminates in some quite handsome Gold and Diamond rewards for milestones such as upgrading your defences to a certain level or winning a certain amount of Gold in battle.
Aside from the main two currencies, we have Rings. These are somewhat scarcer. They are given out occasionally, be it through quest rewards or for maintaining a win streak, but ordinarily in far smaller quantities.
Similarly, Loyalty Points is a currency exclusive to those who win Kingdom Raids, and in turn can be spent on Loyalty Chests. Much like Rings, while hard to come by, it is nice to see two additional currencies that reward progress over spending.
Embracing your rivals
I've only spent $4.99 in Rival Kingdoms so far, but I couldn't rule out making another investment. The 1,000 diamonds that purchase got me, along with the rest fed to me along the way by Space Ape, have been more than enough to keep me going thus far.
And enjoying myself, too. Rival Kingdoms is by far the slickest I've played for this series, and its generosity is a by-product of that swagger.
It's a game that knows it doesn't need to cynically force you to keep playing (and indeed paying), confident that you'll come back regardless.