The IAP Inspector

How does Nicki Minaj: The Empire monetise?

How does Nicki Minaj: The Empire monetise?

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 Glu Mobile's latest celebirty sim Nicki Minaj: The Empire.

Recapturing former glories?

When Glu launched Kim Kardashian: Hollywood to great success in 2014, it seemed the firm had hit upon a winning formula.

With the game itself a simple combination of picking outfits and making mostly inconsequential dialogue choices as you ride Kim's coattails to stardom, it seemed to be a formula that could be replicated with any number of celebrity likenesses.

No Glu celebrity game has yet reached the levels of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.

And it was. Katy Perry Pop, Kendall & Kylie and Britney Spears: American Dream all followed, but none reached anywhere near the levels set by Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.

Particularly in the case of the now-canned Katy Perry Pop, these failings could be partly attributed to design choices that unnecessarily overcomplicated the experience.

However, in Nicki Minaj, Glu Mobile has arguably captured its biggest and most relevant celebrity partner since Kim Kardashian. Can it prove that the formula still works?

The same road to fame

That certainly appears to be the intention, as there have been few meaningful changes for this entry.

Much like Katy Perry Pop and Britney Spears: American Dream, the player takes the role of an aspiring musician who - OMG - gets discovered by and taken under the wing of their favourite artist.

This one has a rap focus, starting out in Queens, NY - an isometric setting this time, rather than the simple 2D worlds of previous titles - while focusing on rhymes and rivalries to get ahead.

But the core loop remains the same: spend soft currency Cash to move to a location and follow the objective, use Energy to complete actions - such as recording and performing - thus growing your status and earning more Cash.

The loop is the same: spend Cash to move to a location, use Energy to complete actions, earn more Cash.

You can then invest the Cash back into new outfits, which in turn increases your style level and provides a social advantage and a bonus for certain actions such as stage performances.

Energy crisis

There are three main currencies in Nicki Minaj: The Empire - Energy, Cash (soft currency) and Crowns (hard).

But as with all of Glu's celebrity games, Energy is the most important.

Each action has an assigned time limit in which to complete it, with the player's success at the end of that time ranked between one and five stars.

And though each star represents only a single action - a certain pose or lyric, for instance - each can cost several Energy points to fully complete.

This means that, for more complex or significant moments, you'll either have to periodically dip in and out within the time limit to get a decent score, accept a poor rank, or pay for more Energy.

Every meaningful action comes with an Energy cost attached.

Recharging as it does at a relatively sluggish one per five minutes, there is unquestionably pressure for the player to do so - not least just to end the tedium of sitting through it.

No money, no empire

New energy can be bought using Crowns - which, in turn, are available in bundles ranging from $4.99 for 50 to $99.99 for 1250.

Six Crowns (worth approximately $0.60) will get you five Energy, while 40 Crowns (approx. $4) will get you 50.

But considering that pretty much every meaningful action in Nicki Minaj: The Empire comes with an Energy cost attached, the cost is high and the lifespan is short for these purchases.

Another use of Crowns comes in the form of certain dialogue choices or options that you can only take if you spend hard currency.

One asks if you want to invite Nicki herself to have your back in a rap battle, while another has a high-profile character offering you a shout-out on in-game social network 'Tweeter' in return for a few Crowns.

There are certain dialogue choices that you can only take if you spend hard currency.

These are pitched as true impulse purchases, and rely on the player buying into the flow of social currency around which the game's celebrity world is built - and to which Glu frequently alludes in a surprisingly knowing fashion.

Spending to earn

Thankfully, the flow of soft currency Cash is sufficient to keep most players satisfied and able to buy new outfits as they please - although some premium clothing items cost Crowns.

Should you be running low, however, Cash itself is available in bundles ranging from $4.99 for 5,000 to $99.99 for 175,000.

An added benefit to any purchase - at any tier - is that it removes all in-game ads forever. And while their implementation is hardly intrusive, it's a nice bonus.

However, the simple fact is that all purchases - and indeed the starter bundle, which offers two exclusive items, 15 Energy, 50 Crowns and 2000 Cash for $9.99 - offer too little bang for their buck.

But while it may be unfair, where a game like Nicki Minaj: The Empire gets away with its stinginess - unlike, say, Galaxy on Fire 3: Manticore - is because of the play patterns it encourages.

It's very much designed around drop-in and drop-out gameplay, making its harsh gating less fatiguing.

But all in all, it's hard to see anyone except the committed Nicki Minaj fan seeing enough to drop money here.

Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's a Staff Writer for PocketGamer.biz, a regular reviewer for PocketGamer.co.uk, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.

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