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The Free Trial

By Garrett Fuller on March 02, 2010 | Editorials | Comments

The Free Trial

At a certain point in every MMO life there is the addition of a free trial for players. Whether it comes three months after launch or one year later, eventually every MMO out there lets players in for free, hoping to convert them to subscribers. In an industry that has its true revenue stream in paying subscribers it is amazing recently that we have not heard any numbers from any companies. No one comes out and says, we have "this" amount of players (with very few exceptions). Instead, we have seen a shift to Free 2 Play and alternate subscription plans in order to get players to spend money on a game. The hook to all of this is the Free Trail, and our question here today is, does it work?

Many MMOs offer a ten day free trial. Someone in marketing or management thought this was an adequate time frame to hook players into an MMO. Here is the flaw in the ten day free trial: Most MMOs start small, like Dungeons & Dragons at level one. You fight kobolds, or maybe if you are lucky a hobgoblin chief. The opening zones to most MMOs are not very dynamic and sometimes frustrating. Lord of the Rings Online is an example in how to hook the player in early zones through story. You start out meeting main characters from the books and completing tasks for them. Some scenes in the books are even played out for you as you look on. This example is rare as most MMOs start small with you doing kill quests or collection quests to get your first few levels.

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If an MMO is being designed around some form of free trial, then the game needs to have a dynamic beginning. A player needs to be able to say, I want to get through this, I want to see more. One area that a free trial should help players is with equipment. Starting equipment is important to most players. You do not need the insane magic sword on day one. However, giving a player some starting materials more than just a Rusty Sword, helps them feel more developed when they enter the world. The other mistake we see here is Free Trials or games telling the players what items they will get. Sometimes it is nice to find a surprise in your backpack. In playing Dungeons & Dragons Online, which has gone free to play, after completing one of the initial quests, the character gets a weapon choice. This weapon has some glowing effects on it. So right away you get the sense that you accomplished something. Loot drives players to achieve, it is easy to give useful loot in a free trial, perhaps you will get them to convert.

Warhammer Online recently announced an Unlimited Free Trial for the game. Players can play Tier One without paying for it. Tier One in Warhammer was a good start to the game. Mostly because you could enter RvR right away and battle other players, even at level one. The unlimited free trial for the opening of the game seems to work well, especially since they consolidated the three opening zones into one for each faction. This brings any players interested in trying the game out into one place. There are people running around, no one is split up. While other games go based on a time trial to convert players, Warhammer has taken the other approach with a level limit to their trial. You do run the risk of having players stay in that area forever, but you may convert people over after ten levels of attachment to their characters.

Another big question with Free Trials is do you add in a tutorial? There are loads of gamers out there who never touch MMOs. Do they really need to be told how to play? Gamers figure things out pretty quickly, heck we are built that way. A tutorial can work well, but it needs to be short and to the point. Showing the player how to get around and how to fight are the two most important beginning points in a game. The map system can help them get around more easily without having a tutorial to use it. Just make your map intuitive. Also, if you have crafting in the game, start the tutorial for that if and when a player decides to pick up crafting. With so many MMOs out there right now, most players are hardened veterans. Tutorials only get in the way. If a free trial or a newly launched game starts out with the question: "Do you want a tutorial?" It might work out better for the developers. This way players can decide if they need help or not. Instead of forcing them to get pop ups.

So we have logged into several free trials. We took a look at how games start and what players can get as loot. We talked about helping a new player along. The ten days is up, what happens now? The conversion from Free Trial to full on subscriber is a critical part to even launching a free trial to a game. How many games simply turn off after the trial and send you an email asking you to convert? Are there different methods to conversion? Are you forced into it by giving your credit card number before you undertake the free trial? Giving your credit card for anything labeled Free really is a questionable practice in games. This gives the right for the publisher to charge you at any time. Some games make it easy to convert over; others do not even give it thought. Has anyone thought of giving the player some options rather than just a full subscription or an item mall?

Wizard 101 does a great job in offering players a smooth transition from free trial to game. They also offer family accounts which have multiple templates for characters so parents can play with their kids. The game does not bash you over the head with a subscription or item mall. They simply give the players options to move into full subscriber mode. The more options players have, the better. We have yet to see a game say, if you liked the free trial and want to continue, your first month is half price. Imagine if you wanted to keep going but did not have the means to do so. When games institute a free trial or even go free to play, payment options should be critical. Item malls and game cards are not the full answer. There are other things out there. Look at the mistake Allods Online made recently as an example. Their item mall was very expensive. Players revolted and now they have to do damage control and try to win back the trust of their players. It creates a rough atmosphere for everyone.

In closing we have found that some free trials do work in converting players over. Some fail miserably, but overall the choice is in the player's hands whether or not they want to take the time in your game. As players, we should be happy about the options that are out there. MMO companies will continue to try and figure out the free trial systems and some games will get it right, some will not. Overall though, companies need to think of better ways to hook players into their games without asking for their credit cards before they play for free.