Try Before You Buy! How Should MMOs Handle Free Trials?

By Jeff Francis
How should mmo free trials work?

A popular strategy used by salesmen and retailers is to offer the customer the chance to try something for free before deciding on whether to purchase it or not. What's the harm in trying out a new mattress or sofa set for a month when it costs you nothing? Then a few months later, you'll likely find yourself making payments even if you were not planning on buying in the first place. Allowing customers a free taste of something has found its way into the world of online rpg games. A host of online games now offer a free trial in an effort to lure in paying players. It's time to head out for a test drive and ponder the following: how should mmo free trials be handled?

Giving players a sample of a game has been around for quite some time. The original Doom started the shareware concept for computer games, which served as the precursor to the mmorpg free trials we have today. Freeware gave players the first part of a game, free and clear. If the gamer enjoyed what he had played, he could then order the full game. This was a revolutionary concept at the time, and the idea of offering an mmo free trial has expanded as technology has improved. In the past, a player needed a CD (or floppy) to enjoy a free trial, but now this can be accomplished with just the click of a mouse button and quick download.

The first batch of online games were not into offering a free sample, but the mmo free trial is making a big comeback. This is especially interesting as the free mmo revenue model was the undisputed king for the last five or six years. However, the tide is turning yet again as developers are now releasing games as buy-to-play, and a few notable subscription-based games are still going strong. Yet the implementation of the mmorpg free trial varies quite a bit from game to game. What is the best way for a game company to offer their mmo free trial and have success by convincing players to sign on and spend money?

The most recent mmo free trial I came across was Shroud of the Avatar. The restrictions for their free trial are pretty extensive. A player trying out the game cannot purchase or sell items to vendors, ask for technical help in the forums, are unable to access cash shop items once the mmorpg free trial has ended, cannot trade with other players, and will have their characters deleted after the trial is over unless they purchase access to the game. It seems that players will be pretty limited in what they can do.

Yet it is common for restrictions to be placed upon players during an mmo free trial. Final Fantasy 14 had a free trial period where players could not trade with other players, had some limitations placed upon chat, capped characters to level 35, and character data would be wiped ninety days after the trial period had ended and the player did not purchase the full game. The venerable World of Warcraft also has an mmorpg free trial version that caps players to level 20 and puts restrictions on chat, auction house availability, expansion content, and party formation.

So what is the best way for companies to handle mmo free trials? One aspect depends upon the revenue model for the game. If a game is the traditional subscription-based, I think having a trial version always available is a good thing. The goal is to entice new players to make the decision to begin paying that monthly fee. The costs associated with this endeavor is a lot less than buying a full game outright, plus it does kind of fit into the nature of mmo games. Another method of offering an mmo free trial is to do it for just a short time period. This is becoming increasingly the norm for games that are buy-to-play, such as Elder Scrolls Online and Overwatch. The reason why offering a limited time window for a free trial for b2p games is that it makes such an offering an event and guarantees that a flood of new players will surge into the game. Plus, the cost of continuing to play the game is a good deal higher if it's buy-to-play instead of free-to-play. Giving a little less sugar actually makes the appetite spike all that much more. This approach works best for games that don't have the typical mmo character progression, such as shooters. Why buy a game if you can endlessly play matches for free? This is why b2p shooters and mobas don't offer an ongoing free trial as it'll just defeat the intended purpose.

As for normal in-game restrictions for an mmorpg free trial, they have to walk a fine line. The game wants the player to get enough of the gameplay experience being offered so that they'll have fun and open their wallets. But the game doesn't want to be too open as this could lead to abuse. I agree that an mmo free trial should have restrictions upon chat as well as the ability to join/form a guild. First, there's no reason to allow players, who may only be there temporarily, to access guild functions. As for chat, it behooves the developers to ensure that the gameplay experience of their paying customers is not negatively impacted by free players, who may decide to troll if given the chance. I would allow local chat and whispering to anybody so that trial players can interact to some degree. As for expansion content, I also agree that this can be restricted in that there's no need for a player trying the game out for a week or two to be able to access such content. The big stickler is trading and selling. The main reason why developers put a currency cap on characters during an mmorpg free trial is to ensure that gold sellers don't abuse the system. If there was no gold cap, then the entire in-game economy could take a hit as hordes of gold sellers would begin grinding away. This is why I also agree with being unable to sell to vendors or access the auction house. However, I would allow players to buy items from vendors, such as healing potions.

Overall, I believe that an mmo free trial should be handled in the following ways. Putting a cap on character level and in-game gold is perfectly fine and reasonable. I would allow trial players to use local, party, and whisper chat to communicate with other players. Those gamers trying a game out should be able to buy items from in-game vendors in order to facilitate the gameplay experience, and they should have some access to the lower tiers of crafting. Personally, I would allow trial players to be able to form parties as it would facilitate them getting a deeper taste of the game. Another okay restriction would be to limit players in an mmorpg free trial to only be able to adventure in low-level zones. There's no need for them to access higher level content as the first twenty levels or so of any online rpg should be enough for them to make a decision on whether they like a game or not. Trading with other players should be nixed as well as it will just lead to abuse by gold sellers. The point of an mmo free trial is to give the player a solid taste of the game to see if they like it and nothing more. It's akin to getting a small sample at the grocery store. An online game should give the virtual equivalent of a small cup of ice cream and not the whole half-gallon container.


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