The Ups and Downs of the Unlimited Trial
It wasn't long ago that players were chomping at the bit to get into the beta for Mythic's upcoming Warhammer Online. Keys were being sold illegally for hundreds of dollars, any and all leaks of info were being gobbled up like so many marbles by ravenous hippos, and the media and fans alike were preparing themselves for the game that could potentially dethrone (or at least threaten) the reign of World of Warcraft as the big kid in class.
September 18th came and went, the game sold over a million copies, and yet at an investor conference in March 2009 Electronic Arts confirmed the game to have in the ballpark of just 300,000 subscribers. Mega-smash hit to rival Blizzard's behemoth, it was not. From over 50 servers around the launch window, the game now operates with just four. Once the heralded as the coming of an MMO god, Warhammer Online seems little more than a bit player in the grander theological scheme of the industry.
There were plenty of other dramatics since the launch of Mythic's second MMORPG, not the least of which was the tumultuous upheaval of company management and the departure of its founder and chief visionary, Mark Jacobs. And yet in the wake of a seeming failure of massive proportions, the remainder of Mythic's staff carries on with their nose to the grindstone. Warhammer Online's battle with itself is not concluded, and with a fresh take on the new player experience and an unlimited trial of the game's early levels, it could be that this bit of software is on the verge of a comeback. Or are these developments simply the last hopes for a dying virtual world?
It all makes perfect sense from a marketing standpoint and plenty of games use the "free trial" as a way to hook new players. Having trouble convincing people that there's reason to play your game? Offer a free trial. Want old players to try your game again? Offer a free trial. Not content to just offer a ten-day shot of WAR to the curious, Mythic rewrote the entirety of their early game, and enabled it for unlimited play in the hope that more than a few trial members would find the changes engaging enough to offer up their monthly subscription dollars.
One clear bonus of this new initiative is that Tier One is a busy and lively place, reminiscent the launch days of WAR. However this is only true in the new focused starter zones of the Empire and Chaos races. In an effort to bring all players together early on, Mythic made it so that despite race all players start in one area. You can opt out using a teleportation item that is handily placed in your inventory and head back to your race's homeland, but chances are you'll find the place a lonely and desolate existence.
It is quite heartening to see Norsca and Nordland alive and kicking again. I'm willing to bet they'll always feel this way with the Unlimited Trial in place too. Many folks always coming in, milling about, pumping through the Public Quests and populating the RvR Lakes. Or so I should hope. In my time within the confines of the trial, there was a disturbing if not expected trend however... twinked out players at the Tier 1 cap dominating the Scenarios and RvR Lakes. Now, that's not to say this wasn't a problem before the trial, but I think it may be even more the case now. It's almost as if the Unlimited Trial has created a Mini-WAR version of the client, segmented off from the other three tiers.
Tier One is easily the most polished and best playing of the game's four parts, and this trial certainly highlights that aspect. But I have to wonder if it's enough to convince early adopters who have since left to come back. Will they wonder as I do if the later sections of the game are anywhere near as active and fun? Or is Rank 1-10 the best it ever will be for WAR? A promise of things that should come later, but never quite will?
Performance with the client is definitely better than it was when I last played, however. I even hear reports from old guild members that the large scale battles in Tier Four are quite steady and with nary a crash even with hundreds of players clashing against one another.
In the end, it seems as though the new Unlimited Trial for WAR is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand it shines a bright light on some of the game's strongest selling points: namely the first ten levels of play. On the other hand it reminds me of the reasons I stopped playing my Ironbreaker in Tier Four, and I wonder if the last levels of the game have improved as much as the new player experience seems to suggest. Still Mythic's plan seems to be working... they have me considering subscribing all over again to find out.
If it turns out to be that the first ten levels are as good as WAR will ever be, then that's just fine. At least I'll know. And of course I can always relive the glory days of the early game with a newly minted Slayer hunting down as many Gobbos as I can in Nordland. I mean it's free, right?