Welcome back to the In-App Purchase Inspector - our regular look at free-to-play games from the consumer's perspective.
In each installment, we'll be looking at 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 will be 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'll be taking a look at Rumble Entertainment's action role-playing game KingsRoad.
Road to victory
The action RPG genre feels like a perfect match for a free-to-play model. With all its focus on loot drops, levelling up, and buying shiny new gear, there's plenty of room for monetisation here without compromising the underlying systems.
This is something which Rumble Entertainment has been proving with KingsRoad, a fully-fledged Diablo-style experience which launched as a browser game in 2013.
However, at the tail-end of 2014 it made the jump to iPad. The tablet version is completely cross-platform with its browser-based older brother, and the primarily mouse-based controls translate very neatly to touchscreen.
Yet there's nothing groundbreaking about KingsRoad.
It has you choosing a class from a familiar line-up - Knight, Archer, and Wizard - before setting you loose in a medieval fantasy realm with horrible beasts to slay, shiny loot to grab, and incidental narrative piffle to largely ignore.
However, the very fact that it is a functional action RPG on iPad, in lieu of genre stalwarts like Diablo and Torchlight, is remarkable in itself.
There's no content hidden behind a paywall, nor is there any kind of restrictive energy system.
Factor in a free-to-play model which doesn't throttle the experience, and this is an enticing prospect. It may not have as wide an appeal as more casual mobile RPGs - including World of Warrriors, the subject of our last entry - but KingsRoad knows its niche.
It caters to it admirably, too.
A princely sum
KingsRoad is split into what's essentially a procession of linear levels, each with a boss fight to mark its dramatic conclusion.
Crucially, there's nothing in place to prevent a non-playing player from simply ploughing through these quests - there's no content hidden behind a paywall, nor is there any kind of restrictive energy system.
KingsRoad keeps things simple monetisation-wise, then. There are two currencies: the plentiful gold and the rarer, more valuable gems.
As you might expect, gold can be picked up pretty easily in standard play by simply destroying nearby barrels and other humble-looking depositories. It's used for low-value tasks such as forging items.
Gems, meanwhile are used for more significant transactions, such as buying items or upgrades, and are much harder to come by. However, for a hard currency, they're actually given away with refreshing readiness as rewards for completing quests and fulfilling achievements.
How much real money will a stash of KingsRoad's gems cost, then? Well, the bundles range from 500 gems for $4.99 right up to 13,000 for $99.99. Thankfully, a few gems can go a long way in KingsRoad, if you're shrewd enough.
In turn, should you need to top up on gold - an extremely unlikely scenario in my experience - then prices range from 40 gems for 3,000 gold up to 2,000 gems for 250,000 gold.
However, these prices are by no means concrete, with limited-time sales and price-drops cropping up to really incentivise the player to part with their cash - even at a massively reduced rate.
Indeed, my only purchase to-date in KingsRoad was of 1,000 gems, discounted from $9.99 to $0.99 at a 90 percent reduction. These offers appear seemingly at random, offering the ultimatum to either 'buy now' or 'miss out forever', and are often far too good to refuse.
The systems at play dictating the deployment of these offers at particular times and to particular players are uncertain, though.
Perhaps the fact that I had upgraded my Archer to level eight without spending a penny was somehow picked up on, thus accounting for the targeting of such a dramatic discount?
Or perhaps it is truly random, after all?
Discounting does make you think twice before buying anything at full price.
Regardless, there's plenty to do with a stash of 1,000 gems. In fact, there's an entire storefront dedicated to in-game odds and ends which can be bought with KingsRoad's hard currency.
Weapons, armour, and other items are each categorised into one of four tiers: Fine, Superior, Epic, and Legendary.
Most purchases, then, are made on a semi-blind, lucky-dip basis. For instance, a Superior chest offers one random Superior-quality item among five lesser items for 100 gems. It's always a gamble, with no absolute guarantee that you'll get anything worthwhile.
Paved with gold
The point where things get really contentious, however, is the fact that skill points and experience can be exchanged for gems. This means that, in theory, it's possible to cut across all the core RPG mechanics and pay your way to a powerful character.
However, despite the potential issues this raises, this system is not as bad as it sounds. For starters, skill points in particular are exorbitantly pricey, at 2,250 gems for 10 skill points and a whopping 10,000 for 50.
Clearly, they are targeted at those players with very deep pockets.
Buying experience, on the other hand, is an altogether cheaper affair, with an Experience Lockbox costing a mere 225 gems. However, the content of these lockboxes - just like the aforementioned chests - is randomised.
This means that you could land an impressive 7,000 XP for your contribution, but it's just as likely - or, if I were to be cynical for a moment, more likely - that you'll end up claiming 140 XP instead.
I can see these kinds of aspects being pointed to as prime examples of how the free-to-play model has corrupted the genre, but honestly I have no objection to these shortcuts.
Grating repetition is not some sacred thing that must be preserved.
These boosts aren't the sort of thing I can see myself ever using, but the action RPG is a notoriously grind-heavy genre.
I don't think it's worth holding up that grating repetition as some sacred thing that must be preserved - if someone wants to breeze through it with cash, then so be it.
Similarly, the realisation that you can buy a few extra inventory slots was a joyous one. Ceaseless inventory management is the kind of tedious busywork I play games to avoid, so the prospect of reducing that struggle is appealing to me.
However, adding eight slots costs 300 gems, which is actually quite pricey. You'll fill them up in no time, too, given the amount of items strewn about KingsRoad's various levels.
End of the road
It's important to remember that not everybody who plays KingsRoad will be offered the same 90 percent discount that I was fortunate enough to catch.
Those 1,000 coins may have felt like great value at $0.99, but would I have paid $9.99 for them a full price?
It's a difficult question, but the truthful answer is probably no. For many players, $9.99 is a lot of money, at least in IAP terms, and it wouldn't last long with the parade of enticing new trinkets and 'one-time offers' that KingsRoad waves in front of you.
Furthermore, while it's great that Rumble discounts in-app purchases so readily, it does make you think twice before buying anything at full price. Once you know that a 90 percent discount could potentially be just around the corner, a full-price investment becomes less appealing.
However, this is to Rumble's credit. The team has created a great mobile approximation of the Diablo and Torchlight formula which just happens to be free-to-play. No energy system, and an economy which tempts you rather than pressures you.
The KingsRoad level mastery system rewards the player with gems for replaying the same map multiple times, and this speaks volumes of the approach here.
Rather than keeping the hard currency as some elusive, precious resource that you can only get your hands on by spending real money, KingsRoad proves itself as an RPG first and a free-to-play game second by establishing that grinding and determination are a valid alternative.