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 The Trail, 22Cans' quietly-launched second new IP following the contentious Godus.
Perhaps Peter Molyneux's team at 22Cans sees mobile F2P as an opportunity to quietly get on with business, without the constant negative attention that has plagued it since the Kickstarter campaign for its previous game, Godus.
Perceived as having underdelivered on promises made during that campaign, which eventually generated more than £526,000, Molyneux was widely pilloried.
The PC version of Godus still languishes in Steam Early Access with incredibly negative reviews. The DeNA-published mobile version, however, has found itself a far more sympathetic and appreciative audience.
It's hard to imagine The Trail on any other platform.
With its latest Kongregate-published title The Trail, 22Cans has taken a different approach than it did with marketing for Godus by launching quietly on mobile platforms, with seemingly no plans for a PC or console release.
On the road
And indeed, it would be hard to imagine how such a game could work on another platform.
Played out in portrait, the idea of the game is collect, craft and trade your way through a picturesque and unspoiled land on the road to the mythical Eden Falls.
Think of it like an incredibly sedate endless runner, with a few bits of tactile environmental interaction such as swiping to chop wood or dragging items from the world into your bag, where they jiggle around and overflow realistically.
Its laid-back, breezy style doesn't demand the player's undivided attention.
Its laid-back, breezy style doesn't demand the player's constant and undivided attention, which is a good thing on mobile. What it is in danger of, however, is being a little sluggish for the world of autoplay and instant results.
Premium look, F2P brain
And more broadly, just because Peter Molyneux and co. are now embracing mobile-first development and the free-to-play model, The Trail does not conform to many of the common practises that come with that.
Indeed, everything is pared back. There are currently no daily login rewards or daily quests to complete for extra rewards, for instance - typically a big boost for retention.
The UI is surprisingly clean, too, with currencies hidden away and only shown when they're needed.
Chits are the soft currency, earned through trading and used exclusively to buy items from other players. For more exclusive items and to generally hurry things along, there's the hard currency Favours.
The Trail's friendly shopkeeper beats a dry menu screen.
The pricing of Favours ranges from 50 for $4.99 to 1,400 for $99.99.
Is it a Favour if you pay for it?
One thing The Trail has in abundance is personality. Taking the same decision I praised in Another Place Productions' BattleHand, there's a friendly shopkeeper established in the game world with whom you can spend hard currency.
Better than a dry menu screen, I'm sure most would agree. And it's something that's done elsewhere in the game too, with a human billboard along the trail offering incentivised video ads for a free item.
However, while this shopkeeper appears a jolly fellow, he's not massively generous.
He gives you 10 Favours to get started - worth approximately $1, so fairly standard as a freebie - but with no other avenues to earn Favours other than spending, it quickly runs dry.
His wares, however, have long-term effects. A larger bag allows you to store many more items and thus make more Chits from trading, for instance.
Favours quickly run dry.
And while standard clothing items are worn out along The Trail, Favours also allow the player to purchase some that are invincible.
The Ranger's Boots, invincibility and adding 40% running speed, are a particular early must-have for the dedicated and impatient.
Nickel and dime
Most of your Favours, however, will go on smaller purchases.
For instance, your character collapses if they run out of stamina (caused by not eating), leaving your items vulnerable to opportunistic theft from other players.
When this happens, you're given the offer to restore all stamina for two Favours or simply 'Wait & Hope' - a smart move from 22Cans, but infuriating for the non-paying player.
It also costs two Favours to complete a crafting recipe - i.e. to get all the missing items required to craft an item.
But if even two Favours is too much, there are video ads aplenty. Alongside the aforementioned chap offering free items for ad consumption, there's also the option to double the spoils from every trading session by watching a short video ad.
With a man of Molyneux's undoubted pedigree at the helm, and the unusual presentation, it's easy to flatter The Trail by thinking it's doing something different in the free-to-play space.
The Trail is at its core a fairly regular free-to-play game.
But frankly, bar a few interesting, characterful touches that I appreciated, The Trail is at its core a fairly regular free-to-play game - its only differences being omissions, rather than any positive new additions.
Taking this idea further, there's an argument to suggest that The Trail actually revels in the darker side of F2P more than most, with its stinginess in regard to gifting currency and the implementation of what is effectively an ultimatum to either pay up or have your stuff robbed.
I personally would not take such a harsh view, and would attribute these to F2P naivety more than any malice on 22Cans' part - though the extent to which publisher Kongregate was involved with monetisation design would be interesting to see.
I spent at the lowest rate with the $4.99 bundle - annoyingly before the much better-value New Explorer Offer became available - and found that 50 Favours doesn't last very long.
However, seeing as I got a permanent 40% speed boost, many missing resources and rare items, a larger pack and avoided being robbed for my troubles, purchases seem to at least offer good value.