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 Rules of Survival, the Playerunknown's Battlegrounds-esque battle royale game from NetEase.
Last one standing
When it came to competing with viral PC battle royale hit Playerunknown's Battlegrounds, NetEase wasted no time.
The Chinese firm launched three distinct titles, beating Tencent's official mobile PUBG games to market, opting to build an audience before worrying about monetisation.
But now monetisation has been introduced, the clear pick of the three – at least from a Western perspective – is Rules of Survival.
Out-grossing Knives Out (which has been most successful in Asia) and Survivor Royale (currently struggling for traction worldwide), the game has firmly established itself as the frontrunner in the nascent battle royale space on mobile.
Up for the fight
Playing Rules of Survival is an odd experience. Parachuting into a huge map populated by 120 real players trying to kill one another using whatever they can lay their hands on, it's clearly a technical feat.
But on mobile, particularly on smaller phones, it's a remarkably awkward and fiddly way to play a game with such expansive scope.
The act of opening a door or picking up a health pack is tricky enough, let alone lining up perfect headshots on players with varying connection speeds.
That so many have been willing to battle these issues speaks to the strength of the concept. But what's convincing these players to spend?
November 28th 2017 saw the addition of a Gold system to Rules of Survival. The currency is earned at the end of battles, depending on how well you performed, with a ceiling of 5,000 per day.
Furthermore, the Gold Mode allows players to earn Gold at the expense of other players by killing them and taking their stash. The soft currency is also often the reward in Free Boxes, which unlock every four hours.
But generally, the currencies and monetisation mechanics in Rules of Survival are confusing and poorly explained. It's a game to which monetisation has been added after the fact, and it feels like it.
The main use for Gold is to buy tickets, which in turn can be used to buy supply crates containing random clothing items.
Three regular tickets or 1,000 Gold get you a regular crate, while 10 elite tickets or 6,000 Gold yield an elite crate.
But it's not this simple. There's also a hard currency, Diamonds, the price of which ranges from $0.99 for 60 to $99.99 for 6,000.
Diamonds can be used not only to buy premium outfits, but also a number of packs containing elite weapons. This is where the benefits of spending cross over from being purely aesthetic to actually making the player more competitive.
Further to this, 300 Diamonds can also be used to buy advanced supply crates that guarantee rare or epic clothing items.
Diamonds themselves are very hard to earn through standard play, so are almost entirely the preserve of paying players.
For longer-term benefits, weekly and monthly passes offer Gold and Diamond rewards every day for a fixed period – $0.99 for seven days, $4.99 for greater rewards over 30 days.
In the end, NetEase is making money with Rules of Survival not thanks to its thoughtful and balanced monetisation, but because of the sheer appetite for the experience it offers.
The issue, then, will be maintaining its audience when competitors – perhaps with more considered and compelling metagame loops – enter the fray.
As it stands, there's nothing especially egregious about Rules of Survival's monetiation. Indeed, for a non-paying player, it's easy to ignore.
But this also reveals NetEase's approach to monetisation as a belated bolt-on, and while players have been happy to pay for fancy outfits and weapons so far, one senses they will need more to remain happy in the long-term.