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Are Free Trials Good for Games?

When ID Software released Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, we were introduced to the possibility of free games. Seriously, they made like 1/3 of their entire game free of charge (don’t go counting the Nocturnal Missions for Wolfenstein 3D), and it was enough to keep a person occupied for years if they had the attention span. Shareware became demos, and demos eventually became trials. Trials, of course, were quickly associated with MMOs more so than single-player games, but I do seem to remember a literal trial version of SOCOM that lasted for about two hours from the time you started it up. Now isn’t that amusing. As we move into the future, we’re seeing less and less of these trials and even fewer demos, so the question we need to ask is whether or not games need trials anymore. Are trials good for games? Well there are a few perspectives I’d like to offer on this topic.


WoW - Free Trial Restrictions


You Don’t Need to Play to Have the Experience Anymore

The rise of Twitch and other streaming services have almost eliminated the need for trials, as the original intent was to allow users to experience the game firsthand. World of Warcraft and Everquest were released in a time when internet video was probably considered a fad and quite frankly, it didn’t work very well. It took so much time to stream a video over the internet that you’d practically have time to cook a snack and maybe get dressed up, like you were going out to a movie or something. Today, with all of the streaming options, we can see exactly what a game is going to be like before we hop in. Promotional copies are often sent to streamers, and they’ll be happy to walk us through the first thousand hours of the game while they rake in ad revenue. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m just saying that’s the way it is. We watch streaming games the way sports fanatics have watched football for decades. In this regard, we don’t necessarily need trials anymore.

But Wait! There’s More!

Sure, we can watch the game anytime we want, there’s no question about that, but we’re kind of in a transition period as far as hardware is concerned. The biggest thing you’re going to have to worry about, when it comes to a new game, is whether or not it’ll run on your computer. There are some people who don’t have to worry about that, namely those people Yahtzee once referred to as the PC Gaming Master Race. I am a proud member of that clan, but I will admit there have been times when I’ve wondered whether or not a game was even going to make it past the loading screen, and there’s a problem with that! The problem is that games are expensive. Seriously, if you want to play World of Warcraft, you’re going to pay somewhere around $60 to get started on top of the subscription fee. Now as we all know, World of Warcraft will run on your average potato, but there are other games like Guild Wars 2 and Black Desert Online that are going to require a little more muscle to get off the ground.

Black Desert Online Calpheon Streets Free Trial

Your answer to this argument is probably going to be something along the lines of “But wait! There are minimum requirements on the box and all over the internet!” You’re absolutely right, there are, but are those requirements correct? I might be presenting a bit of an opinion here, but I really don’t think they are half of the time. It might be a ploy to sell better hardware, or it might just be that the person they hired to determine the minimums is underpaid and just wants to get home. I mean, when I look at the requirements for Doom it practically says I need IBM’s quantum computer, but so far I’ve been doing great on the budget machine I bought from Costco in 2007. I kid of course, it’s nowhere near that much of a variable, but you get the point. That being said, figuring out whether or not a game is going to run definitely gives us reason to use a trial.

Finding the Fun Factor

Trials could potentially be profitable on the game company’s end, but on the user’s end they show whether or not the game is actually fun. Anything can look fun. Driving a motorcycle off of a ramp over the Grand Canyon can look fun, but is it really? Once you’ve hit the peak, looked down, and vomited your brains out while screaming like a little girl, you might come to realize that you’ve not only made a terrible mistake, you’ve wasted thousands of dollars on a motorcycle that you’re never going to use again because you’ve wet all over the seat. The same goes for games. The only way to find out is to play, and if there’s no trial, well, you’re just going to have to run that motorcycle right off that cliff and hope you don’t smash into the canyon wall. Remember, someone has to clean that up, and it’s not unlike the pile of dead characters left on a server by kids who jumped into a trial and decided they’d rather be playing Minecraft.

The Future of Free Trials

We’ve seen a serious decline in trials for MMORPG’s in the last five years, but they’ve been replaced with something more interesting. Instead of playing the entirety of the game for seven days, we are now generally handed the entire game world for free with severe limitations. Warhammer: Age of Reckoning was one of the first to do this by giving players the ability to stay on the trial island for as long as they wanted. Dungeons and Dragons Online is another great example of an endless trial, though to be perfectly honest it just behaves like a standard D&D game with addon modules that you can buy from the store. Still, you can play it for as long as you want and even use all of the features. Heck if you have enough time on your hands you can actually unlock the entire thing for free. So, as trials disappear, free MMO’s are popping up left and right that give gamers plenty of chances to test them out.

Free Trials have been around since the days of Doom

Trials have been around since the days of Doom

Are Trials Good for Games?

This is a tricky question. The general attitude of the gaming community seems to be “We want everything for free!” If you put a free game out there, people are going to play it, they’re never going to pay a cent, and then they’re going to complain endlessly when you introduce a premium feature. Look what happened to Allods Online when they finally introduced a paid server. When I say ‘look what happened to it,’ I really mean to say: ‘look how few people are actually playing it now!’ That’s really sad, actually, because it’s one of the few MMO’s out there that lets you play a bard.

In my opinion, the reason trials seem to be disappearing is this fear that players will jump in, play for a few hours, and then jump out when they realize they don’t actually have any money to spend on the game. On the other side of the coin. However, for all of the reasons that we mentioned above, trials can be great for games as they allow new players to jump in and there is a good chance that a percentage of them will start playing. WoW seems to be doing quite well on the trial/subscription model, and it’s even introduced a very limited free-to-play option for those who need a little more time to decide. Obviously, this isn’t going to work for every company, but some have found it to be pretty beneficial.

Exploring the Negatives

We’ve mentioned quite a few positive effects, but what about the negatives? The biggest problem we’re going to run into with trials, of course, is the gold farming aspect. We all know about gold farmers, we all hate them (unless you’re actually buying gold), and trials make it far easier for them to start a free account, farm for 14 to 20 days, and then sell the gold. Not only does this create a lot of ridiculous character names on the server, it has negative effects on the game economy. We’ve all seen what it did to EverQuest 2, it costs like 500 plat for a damn shirt these days. Many games have found a way to curb this, including EverQuest 2 (though that ship has already sailed if you ask me), and they do so by limiting the amount of gold that a trial account can actually carry. So long as that aspect is addressed, trial accounts are fine, but some games forget to do it altogether.

The Final Verdict

There’s a lot going on in this article, I’ll admit. I’m going to say that I personally find the decline of trials and demos to be particularly disturbing. In fact I cried womanly tears when 3D Gamers was finally shut down. In short, I believe that trials are good for games, but they’re slowly being replaced with free-to-play options, a few holdouts being the exception to the rule. Black Desert Online, for example, does have a trial which can be used assuming a person is able to obtain one from a friend. All in all, trials are great so long as developers take caution and create restrictions that prohibit account abuse.

I’ve also noticed a trend where trials seem to be getting shorter and shorter. Does anyone remember when a trial used to last for thirty days? It was slowly whittled down to 20, then 15, and now 7. Pretty soon, assuming trials aren’t replaced with entirely F2P models, you’re going to log on and be presented with a thirty second timer within which you’ll need to create a character, enter the world, and queue for your first dungeon. There’s nothing quite like a look at the game before you buy, and I really hope that in the future developers will remember that.

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About Rissa Trent

Rissa grew up on a farm, playing shareware games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Operation Comat, Solar Winds, and Kingdom of Kroz. Later she would dabble in Real Time Strategy games, and eventually left home to go on a cross country adventure of self discovery where she found out absolutely nothing. Today she works as a copywriter and games journalist.