The free-trial dilemma

While I mainly focus on music with this blog, I do like to deviate from the trail a little and talk about some of my other interests.  Today, that interest is video games… Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMO’s) in particular.

I’d say my interest in MMO’s truly blossomed with World of Warcraft (WoW).  I had played a few others (Everquest, Guild Wars) but never really got into them until WoW came along.  At the time, WoW offered a free trial of the game enabling you to create whatever type of character you wanted and allowing you to explore the world at large.  The main limitation imposed on the gamer was time (7 or 10 days, I can’t remember).  So, this was enough time to level up a character or two in order to sample their various skills, the quests the game offered, the social network and interaction of the game, and its general thematic tone.  After seeing all these aspects I was hooked and became an active subscriber for over a year.

Lately, more and more online games are offering free trials, with varied and ranging boundaries imposed upon the player.  In my opinion, if a game is to offer a trial, it should give the gamer an accurate and pleasant idea for what the game offers.  For MMO’s, its imperative that you get to experience character creation and progression, questing rulesets, PvP rulesets (if the game offers PvP), social interaction with other players, and a sense of the game’s tone (serious, light-hearted, etc).  MMO’s are deep games that offer months, if not years, worth of gaming for a gamer, so the fears that a publisher or developer is giving away the game in a trial is unfounded to me.  If you like what you are presented perhaps you will subscribe for several more months or so.

Most publishers and/or developers will hold off on offering free trials until the game has been out for at least a month or two.  General excitement and interest in the game’s launch is usually enough to guarantee several thousand subscriptions for the initial month or two, plus interest from original beta-testers.  Many people argue that when a free trial is offered, it is often the pronouncement of the dead…that the game is dying and the development team is begging for additional interest.  In some cases this is true, in others it is not.  What remains important above those concerns though, is that if a free trial is offered, it needs to meet the requirements I set forth above (for me anyway).

A few great free trials have come and gone recently, as well as one that simply sucked.

Months ago Fallen Earth offered a 15 day free trial around Halloween.  This was a generous amount of time allotted and truly allowed the player to explore the VAST wasteland of Arizona they had created.  It provided ample time to create a character or two, delve a bit into the skill and crafting systems (which are great), interact with other players, and generally get a feeling for what the game is about.  In fact, I would have subscribed had I not been looking for a job at the time…couldn’t justify the cost when I still have some unfinished games laying about.  Anyway, this is an example of a good trial.  It met all the requirements and enticed many people to join the game.  This was done only a month or two after the game’s release.  Way to be proactive Icarus (Icarus Studios, the developer).  I encourage people to check this game out too.  They are currently offering a ten day trial.  https://www.fallenearth.com/trial

I knew what it felt like to swing this axe, and wanted to learn more.

A year and a half ago, Warhammer Online (WAR) was released.  After avidly reading about it on Syp’s blog “Waaagh!” I opted to subscribe.  (His Warhammer blog has since been retired in terms of updates, but you can read all his musings at BioBreak, a more broad-spectrum MMO blog.)  I played this game for months, but eventually lost interest due to the end-game PvP inconsistencies (RvR in WAR-speak).  Subscriptions have since dwindled, so WAR has just offered their version of the free trial to rouse some new interest.  The brilliant caveat with this offer, however, is that there is NO time limit.  That’s right, the free trial is unlimited.  Instead, the limitations are placed on the areas you can travel to and how high you can level your character (level 10 being said limit).  I love this offer because it allows people to create any character they want, experience a significant chunk of the newbie experience, run group quests & instances, fight in legitimate pvp battles, and generally see what the game is all about.  Some may bemoan the fact that this increases the amount of newbies in one particular zone, but truthfully, how many high-level characters hang out there anyway?  They’ve got better content to keep them busy.  It has introduced “twinking” in WAR, which before was rarely an issue, but at max level 10 this isn’t too big a deal since pvp relies on coordinated groups to get the job done.  Nonetheless, this is another great example of a free trial.  I would love to see how many subscriptions they’ve received because of this.  http://www.warhammeronline.com/trial/

Lastly, the biggest disappointment to me, and an example of a blown opportunity is Champions Online.  I was legitimately interested in the title upon its release, but heard numerous reports of problems so I opted to put this title on hold and wait a few months to see how it matured.  I never read anything that encouraged me to pay for the game, but just recently they offered a free trial in the same vein as WAR, offering unlimited time and imposing a level cap of 15 and a location cap at the starter zone.  The experience starts out a tad confusing, as the character creator is simply enormous and offers TONS of options.  Once you spend a few minutes with it though, it quickly becomes the game’s brightest light, as you can pretty much make any character your mighty brain could think up.  Sadly, this is the only thing good about the trial.  The remainder of the experience pits you in a starter zone where you have a small bunch of standard MMO quests to do.  While the level cap may be 15, by doing all the quests (including the final “instance”) you’d hit maybe level 7 or 8 max.  After that, you simply can run around the same area and kill low-level mobs using the same two skills for another 8 levels.  Yes, you only get your two starter skills to use throughout the entire experience.  Pressing the same two buttons is pretty boring.  So you could do that to level 15, but I’m certain ancient torture methods are more enjoyable.  Feels kinda “bait ‘n switch” to me.  Also, if you do the final instance, you are taken to a new part of the city post-invasion…and there is NOTHING for you to do there.  So if you want to level more, don’t do the instance.

One of my characters...too bad she can only press button 1, then button 2.

The “multiplayer” aspect feels absent too, as the live-player population is low in this zone, and no quest requires grouping.  There is a public quest available where you can work with other players, but because of NPC involvement, the quest more or less completes itself on its own.  The biggest problem, though, is that you never get a feel for what its like to play a superhero.  You have no idea how your character could advance, or what any of those options might do.  You’re taunted with some readable hints, but you can’t use anything.  So, after playing I found combat repetitive and unsure what the game could offer.  Also, I found group interactions to be non-existent and pvp to be unavailable.  So, as near as I can tell from this experience, the combat is blah, I don’t have a whole lot of people to play with or against, and most importantly I have very little idea what it actually feels like to play a superhero in this game…and there is no enticement to find that out.  Granted I’ll probably create a few more characters, but you have to delete them as you go since you can only make two characters max.  Champions could have offered a little more, especially in the character progression aspect, and my interest might have been piqued…but frankly this feels like an unrealized opportunity and stands as my prime example of a poorly conceived trial.  http://champions-online.com/node/594806

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~ by curbmerchant on January 7, 2010.

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