Much has been made of freemium as a strategy for making loads of money on iPhone and iPod touch, but Sega is the first to consider strategy gameplay as a way of drawing loads of gamers into the freemium fold.
An intriguing departure from the publisher's catalogue of Genesis emulations and ports, Kingdom Conquest offers the trappings of a fully featured strategy game without the full price.
It's an unusual combination, particularly for a company willing to charge an arm and a leg for games that are decades old. Yet this first look uncovers a spark of quality that should have you eager to learn more.
Building an empire
Kingdom Conquest takes place in the fantasy world of Magna Gul, where massive towers dot the landscape and factions vie for supremacy by seizing land. In this persistent massively multiplayer strategy game you're constantly fighting other players for domination of the towers situated across the planet's surface.
Gameplay is divided into seasons, during which you align with a faction and battle for victory. Succeed and you're granted a bonus that carries over to the next season. Winning will be tough, as it will require a combination of strategic cunning and sheer brute force. The majority of your time will be spent building your empire.
Amassing resources enables you to construct facilities for harvesting and processing resources like lumber mills, or more advanced buildings such as barracks, which can be used for military conscription.
Everything is laid out on a rigid grid with structures built on square spaces. Along with resources, time is needed for construction. A bit of cash can be spent to speed it up.Drafting a military
Raising an army is different. Rather than spending resources and drafting units from existing facilities, you leverage military structures to summon units based on cards. By meeting the conditions outlined on a card, you're free to summon the unit.
Faction battles play out automatically - the computer determines the victor based on the strength of armies and other factors - but any assault initiated on a tower triggers a romp through five action stages.
Played solo or cooperatively with up to three other players, these surprisingly detailed levels are an energetic break from the deliberate gameplay of the main game.
Variety will be key to keeping Kingdom Conquest interesting and the combination of strategy and action should accomplish that nicely. Cooperative multiplayer and social features such as messaging and item trading - two common features missing from the most popular iPhone and iPod touch freemium games - only boosts that variety.
Emptying your wallet
Of course, the greatest area of concern is pricing and it's unclear how Kingdom Conquest will tackle it. Sega insists that pricing for in-app purchases such as increases to attack power, faster construction, and heightened resource collection will be reasonably priced. The question is what Sega considers reasonable.
One suggestion is that the game be offered in subscription, with each season coming with a single price and in-app purchases for boosts eliminated entirely.
That would ensure an even playing field and guarantee payment for the game. Until the pricing structure is confirmed, some caution must be urged. While Kingdom Conquest looks promising, heavy-handed pricing could suffocate it.Kingdom Conquest will be available for iPhone and iPod touch later this autumn.