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 C.A.T.S.: Crash Arena Turbo Stars, a competitive midcore effort from Cut the Rope developer ZeptoLab that hit an impressive eight million downloads in its first weekend.
Best known for its casual series Cut the Rope - and its cute protagonist Om Nom, which quickly became famous in its own right - Russian studio ZeptoLab's first game of a more midcore bent was King of Thieves.
Launched in early 2015, the studio has been open about the struggles it faced with King of Thieves and the changes it was forced to introduce as a result. However, it was eventually able to make the game a success and it looks like it's been a valuable learning experience for the developer.
Indeed, C.A.T.S. is clearly an evolution of many ideas present in King of Thieves.
Just as the appeal of King of Thieves was in setting up traps to form a fiendish defence, C.A.T.S. also allows the player to show their creative flair by decking out modular fighting machines for felines to do battle in.
It's a simple drag-and-drop affair for the most part, with more complex strategy involved in levelling up parts and designing a unit that can withstand various forms of attack, but like King of Thieves it errs on the right side of midcore with its bright and appealing aesthetic.
A different beast
The key difference, though, is that in King of Thieves much of the minute-to-minute gameplay was about one-touch platforming.
In C.A.T.S., following a trend popularised in Asia, actual bouts play out by themselves and leave the player to focus on tweaking and upgrading their weaponised vehicle.
Interestingly, despite this, there's a definite eSports feel to the whole affair. Fights are quick and easy to watch, and you can bet items on the outcome of bouts between other players. Expect to see ZeptoLab make more of this in the future.
But it's in the game's monetisation design that the benefit of ZeptoLab's experience with King of Thieves really shows. While King of Thieves was inelegant, with luck-based systems that occasionally felt unfair, C.A.T.S. is far more considered.
Connecting the pieces
To succeed in C.A.T.S. you'll need a good vehicle, and to build a good vehicle you'll need good parts.
C.A.T.S. joins the growing number of games taking inspiration from Clash Royale.
Finding the right combination of body, wheels and weapon is very much of the essence of the game, and where the thurst of the monetidsation is directed.
Joining the growing number of games taking inspiration from Clash Royale, C.A.T.S. features a system whereby boxes of rewards are earned for beating other players, but can't be opened until a waiting period has elapsed.
Here there are four slots for boxes, and only one can be unlocked at a time. Regular Boxes take two hours to unlock, serving up four vehicle components and some soft currency Coins.
Meanwhile, Super Boxes take six hours to unlock, offering eight parts - including at least one super part.
Like in Clash Royale, the appeal of skipping through these wait timers using hard currency is twofold: the player gets their hands on the rewards, and gets to clear a slot to fill with another box.
You can watch video ads to chip away at wait timers 30 minutes at a time.
But here, there's another path for those who don't wish to spend with the offer of video ads that chip away at the wait timer 30 minutes at a time.
A whisker ahead
While this is probably enough for most, hard currency Gems are available in bundles ranging from 90 for $1.99 to 12,000 for $99.99.
In turn, these can be spent on special boxes. 150 Gems gets you a Giant Box containing 24 parts (at least two of them super) 300 Gems can get you either a Super Bodies Box (six super bodies and at least one legendary body) or a super parts box (six super parts and at least one legendary part).
Elsewhere, other than skipping wait timers for rewards, the main function of Gems is to fund the fusion and upgrade of parts and bodies when you've run out of Coins.
Largely, though, free Gems flow fairly readily as you rise through the ranks and rewards from fighting other players should be more than enough to construct a worthy challenger.
The result is a welcoming game that feels very distinct from its free-to-play competitors - a rarity in today's mobile market - boasting smart monetisation design that shows the benefit of spending, but doesn't feel too punishing for those who choose not to.
ZeptoLab won't be abandoning long-time mascot Om Nom any time soon, but C.A.T.S. is on track to become the studio's new flagship.