There you are, browsing an MMO site. It's a typical day, and you're looking for something new, or perhaps remembering something from your past. There's the usual news, patch notes, and events plastered along the main page. Then, in big bold letters across the site, those three dirty words appear: "Endless Free Trial."
Don't lie to me: those words tease you. They tantalize you and linger like a sultry whisper in your ear even after you take your browsing to another site. They're like a low-rate business card, stuck in your mental wallet and awaiting the moment when you'll pull it out accidentally to wonder what it is, and ponder giving it a ring on the sly.
Free trials are great, and I'm of the mind every MMO should offer a trial of their product from day one. Of course, you'll want to put a ton of restrictions on any trial account to decrease gold-spamming and its ilk, but, with the amount of investment subscription MMOs require just to see if the game is worth playing - a box copy on top of a subscription fee, commonly - it's just more than most players care to spend. Set up properly, there's absolutely no harm in offering a free trial; it's a small loss in revenue for a potential large gain.
It's not free trials I have issue with, however, nor is it the "free-to-play" model. It's the endless free trial, the free trial with just a few strings attached. These freebies go well beyond offering a few days or weeks of play; in fact, they open up a whole new world of MMO gaming that fits snugly between the F2P and P2P models. Here are two of the most vivid, immediate examples.
Warhammer Online began its endless free trial program on November 6, 2009. Many of you have been singing doom and gloom for Warhammer for a while, so I'm sure it came as little surprise that Mythic would expand the trial program of its youngest MMO, particularly after staff cuts. The deal behind the Warhammer trial is that you can play Tier 1, Empire versus Chaos, for as long as you like. You can't experience other racial pairings, and only select servers offer the free trial. There's no capital city, mail, or auction access. However, you can spend all the time you want in Tier 1, with as many characters as you want, without any real restriction.
It sounds like a smart idea, at first. Tier 1 combat was what initially hooked me into Warhammer Online a while ago, and I'm sure many would say the same. It's a great experience for someone to find themselves hooked and willing to pay into. But while Tier 2, generally continues the hook, players tire out by Tier 3 and exhaust by Tier 4. What new players may see as a new opportunity to try out the game, veterans see as something else: a way to experience the good part of the game without paying for it. Any time you get the urge for that Warhammer PvP, just hop right in, enjoy Tier 1, and leave when you get sick of it. Problem solved; it's the best part of Warhammer for free.
Warhammer Online's endless free trial is only a taste, though. Alganon's endless free trial, when it began (ironically offered less than a month after the game's official launch), was quite literally "the whole shebang." Alganon's endless free trial places players on a separate server, with the ability to get to max level, rank three of any study, and 199 of any trade skill. The caveats? You can only chat, party, and trade with people who are mutual friends, which is quite easy to work around, and a character that exists after 30 days may suffer the fate of "periodic deletion."
In case that wasn't immediately clear, let me reiterate: you could play Alganon's entire content for free. Unless you have a friend on a live server, don't want your character deleted, or for some reason feel compelled to support Quest Online by paying for their product, there was no real reason to buy Alganon at all. Take the free ride and be done with it. Thankfully, the Alganon community quickly rallied their complaints, convincing QOL to reduce the trial to seven days.
So why am I so against these dirty words, these endless free trials? They benefit the player after all, right? Of course they do. A free ride into a paid game is a good thing, at least if you're the one riding with the free pass. Marketing ploys, however, sometimes backfire on themselves. For one thing, these endless free trials don't make a game look good - they make it look desperate. Why should a game that has been out less than a month offer a full free trial? Or a game that claims it's fixing all its problems offer a solution for players who want to play without the endgame grind? It's one thing when Age of Conan offers an endless free trial to players who qualify within a small time frame. It's another when a game says, "Here, take as much as you want, whenever you want, and by the way, could you pay us for it, maybe?"
It also throws up a flag for a game that may be considering a free-to-play model, but isn't quite sure yet if that is the business model or direction they want to take the game. Endless free trial players become guinea pigs. They exist as a way to read the statistics of those who want to play the game but not to pay for it, even after weeks of testing. It's also a way to freely gauge why players don't want to purchase a game after trying it out. If players are really content reliving the same beginning content over again, what stops them along the way? It's like beta testing a game that has paying customers already; toss new players into the mix and see what they don't like, instead of simply relying on the complaints of veteran, paying players.
There are, of course, free-to-play games that are so far in the subscription model that their "free to play" mode might as well be called an endless trial. Free Realms, for instance, has recently shifted so that only the first five levels of any job are available for free, making the free portion of the game more constricting in the long run. Dungeons and Dragons Online's model really does allow the playing of anything for free, so long as you're willing to spend hundreds of hours grinding the DDO Store points you'll need to buy them from the shop. Many players argue that these games aren't really free to play at all, and should adjust their description accordingly. Perhaps they're right; perhaps we need a new classification of games that are only "sort of" free to play.
Overall, the endless free trial ploy shows a lack of confidence. It's like an escort offering you his or her full services for free. If you hate it, you move on. If you like it, though, there's the hope that perhaps you'll be the good-hearted person to pay for the fun they've provided. If you're like most, though, you'll enjoy the cheap thrill for all its worth without opening the wallet.