Free Trials

The good Cap’n John shared his experience about taking a free trial in WoW and it made me think about my own trials and tribulations in the “free” realm. I do them often. Welcome back weekends I boot up old characters, muck around for a few hours. Friends send me buddy keys to try something out and I do the massive download and play a bit. The truth of the matter is not one of these free trials have ever led me to invest. Which leads me to the bigger question – “What is the point?”

In business having someone trial your product is typically a way to introduce, and hook, the consumer. Some do it with free product, some do it with incentive, some to it with scantily clad opposite sex promotion-folk. In modern day MMO land it seems as though free trials are just yet another standard mechanic an MMO “must” have. Give a download and give ten days. Everyone else in the industry is doing it so it must work. Looking at the implementations of free trials in the current market I can’t help but feel I am being giving a lake, a fishing pole, and a hook – but no bait to fish with.

A savvy marketer could take the opportunity of a free trial and turn it into something fantastic and worthwhile. I am not a savvy marketer, but a customer who is going to share with the million dollar MMO’s how to win me as a customer.

1) Show me something exciting. Dropping me in as a level one character in typical MMO fashion just presents me with a boring “same-old” entry level experience. Most MMO’s aren’t designed with awesome up front (those are saved for the long time “investors” in the end game). Create a new area for trial customers, at mid to high level, with power options and sweet armor sets. Include a small tutorial section on how to play and how to use the granted items and abilities. Show the customer that with a little time (and cash) investment what the game will be like if they stick with it. Instead of using the first 10 levels as your MMO “training” ground – introducing mechanics and setting the scene – put me in a hero position right away. Let me taste the excitement and what the game has to offer. Create an experience like the Death Knight starting area in WoW (but usable by all classes). Give me a story, explain to me how to play my chosen character, and show me something special.

2) Engage current subscription players with reasons to help out trial customers. In most of the trials I do, I don’t speak to another living or breathing person. Give bonus XP for longtime players to go into the “trial” lands and help them on their journey. “Hey, noob_warrior_1003, welcome to QuestQuest! I am the Fresh Priest, from the guild ‘Yo-Mommas’. You have sweet powers, and armor, and a role to play in groups. Now that you have gone through the story tutorial phase (It’s sweet getting to kill that baby dragon, eh?) why don’t you join up with me and my guild and we will take you through a couple five mans so you can see how much fun and interactive this game is along the way. Before we start, any questions on your class? Don’t worry, we will carry you through and explain how to play that warrior to pure sweetawesomesauce!”. Right after the fun trial experience drop players into a city or area that existing players know trial characters will be. Let them interact, show them the ropes, and make the trial experience more social.

A lot of players and guilds couldn’t care less, and that’s fine. The ones who do, and who want to build a community on their server in their game, should get special treats for engaging trial customers whether they are retained as full time players or not. Guild wide 10% XP bonus. Titles. Achievements. Make it a very sweet spot so people will consider it worthwhile. Solo playing a complete boring level 1 character does not make me want to buy your game.

3) Discount and Deal me. Free trials come after a game has been out a while. I am shocked game companies expect me to trial a game for 10 days in a lacklustre experience, and then think I am going to shell out $50 and a subscription. Hey Publicly traded company – I did your awesome trial as a level 50 warrior, made some friends and even have a guild to join of some great people! Thanks for the sweet deal – $15.00 for a game key and the first month free? That seals the deal, and now starting all over at level 1 won’t be nearly as bad as I had thought. Wait, you are throwing in 25% xp gain up to level 50 too? Where is my credit card?

Three simple ideas that would most definitely create a lot of subscriptions from trial accounts.

My question is, have any of you trialed a MMO and then purchased it after the experience? What key things made you make that purchase? If you didn’t end up buying or subscribing – why not?

11 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I played Wizard101 in its beta phase, then again in its released extended “free trial” phase. I recently purchased some Access Passes to play more content. Their free trial offers full functionality, just limited content. I strongly lean to this model, as it allows players to get a sense of how the game works, and buying in just opens up more content. I’m strongly considering buying even more content from them (I’ve not purchased every Access Pass yet), largely because I love the game, but also because I really appreciate their business model.

    I played the WoW ten day trial, and ran into some of the same things that Capn’ mentioned. I also wanted to be able to use the mailbox to send stuff to my alt characters, but was stymied by the draconian limitations on trial accounts. It speaks very poorly of the game’s administration policies, but I did wind up liking the bulk of the gameplay and the worldcrafting. I didn’t buy into the game because it uses a subscription model. If they sold content rather than time, I’d buy in… but the limited trial experience was definitely an annoyance. I’d not buy in because I wanted to lift the limitations, but because the game is interesting.

    Interestingly, free to play microtransaction games are effectively living off of converting people from trial players to paying customers every day, with every transaction. Atlantica Online offers a great deal of functionality to every player, and their cash items offer convenience, not basic functions. (Though Syncaine makes the argument that the Health Check scroll is a basic function, I’ve never needed it… “basic functionality” can vary per person.)

    Puzzle Pirates offers a lot to free players, but tucks some of the game privileges behind doubloon gates, like the ability to sail your own ship. (Doubloons are one of their dual currencies, purchasable with cash or from other players with in-game currency via a blind currency exchange.) Their “free trial” is perpetual, but even more open than W101. I gave them cash a while back for some fluff items for my wife and I, partially because it was fun, partially because I wanted to support the devs.

    It’s interesting. The more a company gives me in free trial content, the more likely I am to feel favorable to them when it comes time to pay for content beyond that. I don’t begrudge their need to make money. Conversely, the more restrictive the free trial, the less inclined I am to pay to see more. I guess I just feel railroaded, and don’t feel like paying for more of the same.

    Of course, that’s tinted by my extreme dislike for the subscription model. I see the WoW trial restrictions as byproducts of their fight against the boogeyman of RMT, and part of the diminishing returns that naturally come from the market rules they have established. Games like Puzzle Pirates and Atlantica Online play by completely different rules, and can afford to provide a much richer “free” or “trial” experience.

    It’s interesting to me that the much maligned “free” games offer a much friendlier newbie experience.

    Oh, and regarding your #1 suggestion, offering new players power… I like it. On the one hand, I’m all for designing around a level-free system, which would change that idea a bit, but on the other hand, we have the Metroid Prime games as a great example of this idea. Samus starts off as a powerful fighter at the start of each game, but soon loses her toys. Players get to see how a fully functional character functions, and want to get back to that. They know the potential of the game in the first five minutes, and when their power is so rudely stripped away, there’s an impetus to get it back. It may be cliche, but it’s smart design.

  2. Oh, and I like your #2 and #3, but I can’t offer much more than “yup, that sounds like a great idea, just tune the implementation for each game and you’re good to go”. Great article, Chris!

  3. I played Wizard101 for about a day. That one day’s play, combined with the very low 1-year subscription price, was all I needed to justify upgrading to a full account. Actually I bought two 12-month subs, one each for my son & I, which was still cheaper than a single 12-month sub (or two 6-month subs) to WoW.

    So the very cheap subscription price was one of the major selling points for me because it gave me the opportunity to spend more time (albeit virtually) with my son. Instead of me being slumped in front of my PC and neglecting my family every chance I could get, both my son and I were slumped in front of our own PCs, but playing together. Yes, I could have bought a second copy of WoW, but I’d have needed to buy a second copy of BC as well, then later two copies of Wrath, and finally…a second subscription. With W101 you downloaded the game, for free, and only paid for a subscription. And as Tesh later discovered, instead of buying a subscription (which eventually runs out) you can just purchase access to the higher level zones, and after “buying” them you can access them without needing a subscription. So it’s like adding on content to your “Trial”.

    Another reason I upgraded from Trial to Full was the very child-friendly aspect of W101, because I was wanting something my 8 y/old son could play unsupervised. In fact I “caught” him online when he stayed overnight at his grandparents. The cunning little bugger had downloaded and installed it on his grandpa’s laptop.

    Finally, W101 is very different from WoW. Now I’m not saying “WoW = bad, so different from WoW = good”, but the fact that it was so different was a very refreshing change, because I was coming off a 3-1/2 year WoW…addiction? So completely different from WoW meant it really couldn’t even be compared to WoW. This meant it’s impossible to say one is better than the other, because it would be like trying to compare Time Crisis to Addam’s Family Pinball. You just can’t do it. Yes, they’re both coin-operated arcade games, but one is a video game and one is a pinball machine. Both WoW and W101 are MMOs, but that’s about all they really have in common.

    So those are a few (probably the major) reasons I played the W101 Trial then upgraded to a full subscription.

  4. In regards to number 3:

    Discounts are great for consumers, but not necessarily the business.

    I think there’s a misconception that subscription numbers are king in MMO lands, but it’s the initial box sales that make the lion’s share for most games for awhile. Unless the game has been out a few years and is running on legacy servers and bandwidth, etc.– the cost-per-player-per-hour is higher than most people assume.

    In most cases the point ~is~ to try to get trial accounts paying full price for the game. Subscriptions don’t pay off as much unless the game hits critical mass.

    Tho playing devil’s advocate on my own argument: It’s also why Sony and NCSoft are taking the approach of clustering multiple games, so they can float and overlap those costs. Plus I think the industry is hitting a threshold on server hardware in particular, that it’s not as expensive as it was just a year or two ago.

    Still, there’s a much bigger profit margin in a $40-70 boxed game purchase than the monthly fees. Blizzard’s profits spiked hugely with TBC’s release and I think we’ll see the same financials for WotLK.

  5. I disagree. I find existing trials that restrict you to low levels etc very useful. They show you what reviews do not, which is “will I like the core gameplay?” Anyone can push a theme or lore that relates to a game, but if I don’t like how it plays, I won’t play it. All the reviews/blog posts I read about Atlantica Online told me it was a tactical, turn-based MMORPG. I thought it’d be awesome. However I really can’t stand the kind of “tactical” it brings to the table. Played it for about 2 fights and then uninstalled it. I thought you all meant “tactical” as in Shining Force, instead you meant “tactical” as in Final Fantasy. Something only the trial could show me.

    Not that it made me give them money, but then I never would have no matter what the trial contained.

  6. In most starting zones, WoW’s level 1-20 content is amazing, and designed around being soloed, but the problem with their Trial is it’s very restrictive. Oddly enough, it’s also one of the most lax “trials” in that a dedicated player could hit level 60 before the “trial” period is up. But it also places a great deal of restrictions on the player, restrictions that take away a lot of the attraction of an MMO.

    A Trial cannot private message another Player, unless that second Player has added the Trial to their Friend’s List. The Trial’s “Add Friend” button is grayed out.

    A Trial cannot invite another Player to group with them. So if two Trial players run into each other in the lowbie zone they cannot group up to complete quests, they can’t even whisper each other. Trials are denied the very basic mechanics of MMOs. What kind of a trial can you have when you cannot experience the very essence of MMOs?

    I know this is because Gold Farmers used to use Trials to spam other players, or Ninja-group invite players, but what’s the reasoning behind not being able to buy & sell from the AH? Oh, perhaps they summised that Trial Gold Sellers were using the AH to transfer Gold to their Buyers. Guess that’s the reason Trials can’t use the Mailboxes, either.

    I guess Trials are now nothing more than collateral damage from Blizzard’s war on the Gold Sellers.

  7. Sorry guys, was on a 5 day business trip and had little access to the internet (le sigh)

    @Rog: If the box sales are king, then why does everyone charge $15? I think it has been demonstrated that $15 is a barrier to the average gamer playing multiple games. I just unsubbed to all my MMO’s – not for lack of money, but the feeling of lack of value (I can’t get $15 value out of any single one game right now with time constraints, let alone 2 or 3). If WAR, WOW, and LOTRO were $5 each I would probably be subbed to all 3. I already own the boxes, but won’t sub. So, if box sales are king, why not get an extra $5 a month off of me? Perhaps I just answered my own question! Maybe Blizzard would rather that I don’t pay them $5 a month, knowing that I am probably not paying other companies either (the strategy that they can stay king of the kill at $15?) I suppose I could also argue that the $15 a month is almost PURE profit – considering all development costs/profits are initially bundled in the box.

    @Katherine: The trial areas don’t even touch upon what the game is like at the end in most cases. I agree on AO, I played it for 3 hours but the mechanics didn’t suit me. In Lotro, the mechanics were okay but the game was just, well, boring to me. I didn’t see the exciting things and features that are reserved for the high level game. Perhaps if I would have tasted that sweet fruit I would have subscribed. I agree that trials are part mechanics test – but I need to see more! Pretty much every MMO is built on the same UI/Mechanic. Show me something special to earn my dollars. I think companies are just wasting bandwidth by giving such a narrow view, if they think a consumer can judge their entire game by the 1-10 experience. Smart marketers would make the most of the opportunity – instead of solely giving gold farmers and bots a free avenue to hawk their warez (which in turn, ruin the trial experience a la Capn John).

  8. @Chris F: Yeah I think you’ve answered it there, because there’s little doubt they could hold more subs with $10 than $15, so I think we’re looking at the threshold they need to bring in subscription profits.

    A few years back I’d heard $8-$10 was the average per-sub MMO cost, I think it was a quote from someone at IBM (who have papers online somewhere for their server setup for CCP), but regardless that sunk in as probably correct to me. I don’t pretend to have hard data and companies like Blizzard go through a bit of effort to hide this kind of info (valuable data for competing startups, etc.).

    For WoW in particular, I don’t think they’ve been upgrading their hardware that much and customer support gets streamlined over time, but they’re probably putting any extra savings into opening more markets, something which Blizzard has been aggressive with since WoW’s launch. And if WoW holds on as top dog long enough, then when they do get around to dropping the subscription price, that’ll make it much harder for new MMOs to compete and turn a profit to match.

    Honestly, I’m kinda not looking forward to that, it’d be cheaper to play, but fewer future choices. There are already large barriers to entry.

  9. And since I’d drifted the topic somewhat, back to the trials themselves:

    The biggest issue I see with the trials not showing the games off at their finest, comes from starting as a level 1 character. WoW, LOTRO, EQ1/2, CoH, EVE– most of these games start out very slowly with few abilities and the classes don’t come into their own until at least level 20 or so, probably higher for most.

    That’s a conundrum, because existing players don’t want to see trial players come in at level 30ish. And trial players don’t necessarily want a taste of mid-game then when they sub start all over from the beginning.

    I honestly don’t know what the solution is. On the surface, I’d say make the early levels more exciting, like Age of Conan where all of the classes felt outright overpowered uber right from level 1.

    Unfortunately, that turned out to be one of the downsides of AoC, because the only direction was down from there, they literally had combat nerfed for characters above level 70 so they could balance their *cough* (what little they had of it) *cough* Endgame content.

    I don’t think Trials actually grab very many subscriptions. I’ve always assumed the majority of new subs come from word-of-mouth or just overall notoriety of the game.

    People are still joining WoW because they’re coming to play with existing friends, or they were always curious, or Blizzard has opened up servers in their region / country and they were waiting to play.

    The moment someone installs a trial, their friends will be bugging them to buy the full game. That’s my experience at least. It just gets them there.

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