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A Fortnight of Freedom...

Tim Dale

I sometimes get restless in my MMO gaming and even in amiable circumstances, where a currently played title still retains my interest and has done nothing wrong itself, I still like to explore, to play the field and keep tabs on how much greener the grass is elsewhere. The list of currently available and active MMOs is a surprisingly large one, so there are always alternatives I've yet to try.

So every now and then, I hit the free trial circuit, picking my way through a list of increasingly commonplace 14-day MMO Free Trials. These fortnight trial periods are generally intended as tasters, samples of what might be in store for the gamer if they decide to proceed with the commitment of a long-term service contract with the MMO publisher in question. But do these two week try-outs serve the purpose, or is it impossible to preview a multi-month gaming experience in just fourteen days?

MMOs didn't always offer free trials and in the days of EverQuest, Ultima Online and Asheron's Call, the idea of letting players have some of the product without paying was quite unthinkable. This left a difficult problem for the consumer and potential customer; how to know if the product on offer is something you'll like? The long-game nature of most MMO play, with early time-to-completions of 2000 hours or more, was something new and appealing in its way, but also led to difficulties of reviewing which persist even today. How can the typical computer game review convey more than early impressions of an MMO to the prospective player?

Early MMO pioneers largely went into their games blind, perhaps informed only by word of mouth recommendations if at all, until around 2002, when Funcom, reeling from the problematic and damaging launch of Anarchy Online, decided that the best way to change commonly held conceptions of the current state of the game, was to let prospective players in to see the fixes and updates for themselves, free of charge. Their initial trial period lasted only seven days and would then default over into a full subscription, but cancellation before the end of that week would end the jaunt with no further obligations. This single week was in time extended to two, which seems to have become the standard length of the majority of MMO trial periods.

"The opportunity for a player to 'window shop' can only be a good thing."

Almost all modern subscription MMOs now offer some period of obligation-free evaluation, and while the spans involved are short, even that little amount of time spent exploring the early aspects of gameplay is a vast improvement on buying into an MMO with no idea of how it will play or if the player will enjoy it. Of course the more advanced aspects of an MMO are unlikely to be attainable in two weeks of tutorial-based pottering and such trials do nothing to inform a player about end-game activities; raiding, territorial conquest PvP, high-tier crafting and the like. Even so, the opportunity for a player to 'window shop' in this manner can only be a good thing, and without having parted with money for a game they may turn out not to like, fewer grudges are formed. Those that do like what they see soon sign up and in all cases, a more informed choice is made than might otherwise be possible. It does make business sense to leave the potential customer wanting more, so as a compromise between informed customer choice and pragmatic commercial practices, fourteen days seems a fair span.

There are downsides to the concept. An acute awareness of the free trial in the minds of the development team and designers may distort an MMO, heightening the sense that out of the whole game, the bits that players will see in the first two weeks far eclipses any of the mid or endgame content in importance. It makes sound business sense to ensure that the sample is of a high quality, but there are usually only so many man-hours available and other development can suffer.

Free trials are often synonymous with disposable accounts and their throwaway, no consequences nature makes them ideal tools for mischief, either by third party professionals, keen to spread the word about their goods and services, or simply bored amateur hell-raisers, out to ruin as many days as possible. For this reason, many MMO free trials come with hefty restrictions, typically in the communications area; the inability to send in-game mail or private messages or in some cases, only being allowed to talk on group chat. EVE Online takes matters further and blocks access to a great many of the really important pilot skills for the free trial account, presumably to prevent the more extravagant acts of consequence-free excess.

"Many MMOs have decided to dispense with the subscription altogether."

The free trial only really makes sense if the thing it is showcasing is not free to begin with, and in recent years many MMOs have decided to dispense with the subscription altogether, and change the emphasis from a single up-front fee, to a large number of small extras that a player will not need until much more invested in the product, if ever. Free Realms treats their entire game as a kind of time-unlimited free trial, in the hope that visitors will become customers by signing up for a more traditional membership, offering extra features and options on top of the basic game. Present day Anarchy Online allows players the entire basic game for free, and makes its money on an expansion-enabling subscription package, in addition to micro-transaction extras on top, but again, the 'free trial' available there is an extensive and complete game in its own right, if an old one. Runes of Magic, Rappelz and other free-to-play titles give out the entire game from the outset, and instead hope to entice players to buy extras through their item shops, much smaller payments for single specifics. Guild Wars is a notable exception, as although requiring no subscription at all, their primary income comes from the up-front box sales, but even they offer a time-limited opportunity to give the place a once over.

It is possible that with the rise of the free-to-play and item shop style of MMO revenue, the 14-Day Free Trial may become little more than a charming but redundant relic from a bygone era, but as long as there are monthly subscriptions, there will remain the necessity for us to be able to try before we buy.

Having such availability of variety at our disposal is a boon for those MMO doldrums and even if I'm not actively seeking a new online home, being able to take a two week holiday in another world always goes down well. But do they actually work? Sometimes they do convert casual tourists into paying customers and I owe my current fascination with City of Heroes to the fourteen day trial I almost absently signed up for, last year. I'd probably not have gone near the box on the shelf.

The two week free trial has become an essential part of our MMO landscape, allowing us to broaden our horizons without risk, at the click of a download. So why not try something new today?

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