ARPGs, as I've argued before, are the ultimate in comfort gaming. That half-involved click-click-clicking occupies all the parts of your brain that are otherwise used for worrying, while also offering you the opportunity to gobble up a podcast, or natter away on IM at the same time. So what about something free-to-play? I've never tried one before, generally having enough of the full blown, free-from-gouging versions to occupy my time as it is. But this week I kept seeing the name KingsRoad appear, and thought I'd give it a click. Can a browser-based F2P Diablo clone occupy my time in the same way?
Well, three hours later, I guess I have to admit: slightly yes. Have I had a good time playing the free, instantly accessed KingsRoad? Hmmmm - no, I don't think so. Have I had to make a strong mental effort to stop just clicking on it until I'm a withered husk in my chair? Grudgingly, yes.
The formula - that core simplicity of being told to get from one side of a level to the other, killing everything along the way while hoovering up loot - it just works. It wouldn't even need to be killing, either. It could be madly wrapping wildlife in toilet paper, and I think the same effect would be achieved. (Note to indies: make that game.) So long as the XP keeps pouring in, the levels keep going up, and a sword 20 imaginary points better than the last sword falls out of a wolf's tummy, all really does seem to be well. Getting it wrong involves breaking the formula, and probably little else.
Of course, one way to break that formula would be to constantly ask me to pay to do it.
KingsRoad - a game so enigmatically named that I keep having to look back to the first paragraph to remember what it's called - certainly simplifies the genre. Available in a browser, with barely even a sign-up procedure (an email address and password, and it's running), there were seconds between my thinking about playing it, and playing it. That seems pretty much perfect for something that wants to hook you in before asking you to fork over your cash, and this nails it. The levels are entirely linear (or at least the first ten or so), each requiring you to make your way along a path, sword-wallop, arrow-pierce or magic-biff your way through a few dozen enemies, and then ending in a bigger baddie who needs more hitting at. Loot in strange square tiles sproings out of everyone, health and mana are gobbled down, and while you're having to use number keys for all skills instead of a right click, it's all familiar enough to work.
But then I started spotting those not-so-subtle ways it made me feel like I was falling short. There are two currencies in the game: gold coins, falling like British rain everywhere you go; and blue crystals, handed out like parsimonious pocket money. Guess which one gets you the good stuff! And indeed which is available to purchase via a single click at almost any moment. But that's to be expected. They gave this game to me for free, rather than for £30. Honestly, it doesn't seem unreasonable for me to budget what I might think the game is worth to spend in such a way, to hurry the game along, speed up my levelling, improve available services at the base camp, and open chests along the way... Wait, what was that last one?
That's where [looks to top paragraph] KingsRoad begins to push its luck for me. Chests within the levels themselves, and there can be two or three of them, cost 50 blue crystals to open. You get 5 or 10 blue crystals per completed level. Clearly the game isn't designed to give you balanced access to them, and they're where you find the better loot. Each guarantees some blue-level items, and rolls to give you the purples and yellows. So every time you gather enough of the blue drawings on the screen, it's hard to resist busting open a chest. But do so and now you've not got the crystals to unlock an extra "blessing" in a 24 hour period, or speed up the upgrading of the forge without having to wait until tomorrow.
But it's also more subtle than that. Your inventory is 16 slots big, but the further you play, the more deliberately the game starts dropping far too much loot to fit in there. So you can trash it, and lose its gold value. Or, you know, you could spend some blue crystals on expanding it. 250 crystals for another eight slots. There's a guy who'll store stuff for you back at the base. Eight things. 200 crystals for another eight. And those levels start slowing down quite quickly, but the loot you're gathering increasingly needs the next one. 99 crystals would let you speed up levelling. Or maybe you want to increase that skill that's now seeming too weak for the difficulty of the level's enemies (and indeed all the previous levels, as they scale to match you). The Skill Trainer will give you another for 250 crystals. Or 5 for 1,200!
But it's also more subtle than that! Whereas the standard in games like this is blue potions for mana, red potions for health, with various volume, here food does health, water does mana. And food comes in all manner of varieties, each with varying hitpoints - carrots, parsnips, eggs, meat... And you're going to need them to play, and gosh, if they don't all take up an inventory slot, making space for your dropped loot all the more scarce, and why, if I just click there I could buy eight more spaces...
In real terms, 150 crystals costs $2. Then they're available in ever growing volumes, generally sticking to around 1.3c per crystal. Somewhat more dubiously they're on "sale" the more you buy at once, with getting 385 scoring you an epic saving of 10c off the regular $5.10 price. Buy 10,000 gems at once, because you're clinically insane, and you'll pay 'just' $100, rather than $133.30. In such bulk, you're saving 0.3 of a cent per crystal.
So no, of course none of this is exceptional, nor new. It's how this model works, and it's why this model is so frequently frowned at. It feels icky, constantly being asked for your cash, windows popping up offering a new imaginary sword for so many imaginary crystals costing very unimaginary money. What's more peculiar is seeing it in a completely single-player environment. (Although you can play up to four player co-op.) There's no buying your way ahead of the crowds here - you're only competing with yourself, and your ability to resist opening your wallet to be able to continuing the click-click-clicking.
The issue in this particular case is that... Wild Wood... no, that's something else... KingsRoad (genuinely, every time I type it), isn't really very good. It's well enough made, slightly underwhelming creatures wandering around a distinctly static background (it feels like a few features came to life in a dull painting), with slick menus and bog-standard combat. It feels professional. But it offers absolutely nothing to the genre - it's a completely derivative work, lobbing in every cliched trope with what feels like cynicism. "Oh, they'd probably better rescue a princess at some point. She'll tell them that the mages are doing some magical bad thing to the castle." Player characters can only be male, while female characters exist to be rescued, and sell food. That no one told me about the overarching threat of an awakening ancient dragon can only be because I didn't play for long enough.
So yes, I was tempted. For a moment, I genuinely considered just spending a couple of bucks - just a couple! - to get the forge to bloody work. By collecting six of the same item, the blacksmith offers to make a better one from them. Having gathered swords, I noticed that upgrading the forge would cost 10,000 of my gold coins. I had 10,000 and change, so thought, why not? The reason why not is that it then takes 24 hours to upgrade, isn't usable at the previous level during those 24 hours, and oh, guess what, if I spend 1,637 crystals, I could have it right now! Of $21. TWENTY ONE DOLLARS. The amount of money a similarly designed indie game might cost to buy outright. Ha ha ha.
Yeah, so, no. Please understand this isn't a condemnation of F2P. The model actually offers a lot of good, and used correctly, I think continue to find its groove. And if this game had offered me a compelling story, some gripping content, and a reason beyond my obsessive-compulsion to persist, I think I'd have entered my Paypal details by now. But not for something generic, uninspiring, and asking for twenty bucks to get to use the in-game item I'd just spent all my in-game money on.