Pay-to-play subscription-based MMOs have been around for a very long time now. A fact illustrated by World of Warcraft celebrating its seventh anniversary November of last year. EverQuest turned twelve and Ultima Online is now fourteen. The blossoming of the free-to-play market has been relatively recent in comparison (although buy-to-play MMOs did flourish during this time they haven’t been extremely popular until recently.) As a result, how pay-to-play MMOs have approached attracting users has also changed with this tide.
While trial accounts have seen a worthwhile history, recent changes in the way that they’re portrayed may be doing the MMO industry a disservice. As trial accounts—no matter how open or unlimited in time—are still not even a shadow of what an actual free-to-play game represents.
The recent history and growth of trial accounts
Initially, Blizzard offered limited-time trial accounts for users interested in jumping into WoW. In 2007 trial accounts only lasted 10 days—very shortly after their release, trial accounts were weighted down with vicious restrictions. Of course, we all know why: gold spammers caught wind of the free accounts and flocked to them as spouts for advertising. So Blizzard brought the restriction sledgehammer down on them with a vengeance.
Trial accounts couldn’t invite people to join groups, join or create guilds, own more than 10 pieces of gold, access the global chat, or even private message people who had not added them to their friends list. These restrictions essentially made being a trial account into a somewhat lonely and forlorn experience; but they did make them virtually useless for gold spammers to hawk their wares.
As the years advanced, Blizzard began to realize that while a 10-day taste of the game may have attracted some new players, the bulk of the players who came and stayed didn’t flow through the trial accounts. In fact, after careful examination executives noticed that most players who quit the game did so before hitting the trial cap, but not within a distinct period of time. CEO Mike Morhaime said during an investor call in 2010 that 70% of all trial accounts flamed out before level 10.
So then rolled around the advent of the free-to-play revolution in gaming and in 2011 Blizzard took a new tack to their trial accounts by introducing the “Starter Edition” account instead—effectively replacing the 10-day trial account with an unlimited trial account.
This act provides not just a simple taste of the game but opens up the entire world to players while restricting them to only a small slice of the total content by locking them to never rising above level 20. These accounts retained the same anti-gold-spammer restrictions as the pervious trial accounts, but they never expire.
Now we’ve seen another subscription-based MMO jump on the trial account bandwagon this month with Rift: The Planes of Telara published by Trion World’s also opening up their world to players for free up to level 20 in a gambit called “Rift-Lite.” Similar to World of Warcraft, Rift-Lite appears to have restrictions preventing them from sending mail or private messages or using global chat. Rift-Lite accounts also limit the total amount of currency that can be obtained in game.
In this fashion, Blizzard set the bar for subscription-based MMOs to introduce themselves to new players by giving them the opportunity to have free rein without being tethered to a subscription. Any subscription game marketing is about getting players hooked.
Since its inception, World of Warcraft has been given the moniker “World of Warcrack” (a joke about addictiveness, Everquest also became known as Evercrack.) The approach would be to get new players in, let them discover they enjoy the experience, and then entice them to pay for more. Ideally, new trial accounts wouldn’t limit players to do all their playing in 10 days, then forever remain curious; but would give casual players a chance to enjoy the world at their own pace and then decide.
Where LEGO Universe tried and died
The biggest violator of this was LEGO Universe Online. Their publisher also played the limited free-to-play gambit; but instead of advertising the limitations they pushed that they offered a free-play version. The limitations on the free players in LEGO Universe were fun-crippling: the game restricted users to two zones and essentially gated them form the part of the game that everyone played in. Many players discovered that the “free” portions of the game ended abruptly and left little reason for them to stick around and continue playing the game.
Many players felt cheated by this false form of free-to-play and the game failed to attract enough new subscribers.
In the end LEGO Universe Online went extinct.
Why pay-to-play trial accounts shouldn’t be billed as free-to-play
The grim complication of games like World of Warcraft and Rift (and now the late LEGO Universe Online among others) advertising what amounts to trial content as free-to-play, however, raises a darker specter: that in that they are aping the success of free-to-play games without actually delivering. In the video game world we call this a demo, in the MMO world it’s basically a trial account. Certainly you get to play in the world up to level 20, but much like the demo version of a video game, which provides only possibly one mission, levels 1-20 for WoW barely lets a player out of the newbie content.
The vast majority of the game is walled off from trial players; unlike an actual free-to-play title which makes the entire core game available, like for example the popular League of Legends.
Via advertising their product trial accounts as “free-to-play” accounts, publishers layer onto a confusion that might turn potential players away from actual free-to-play gaming with the optional microtransactions. Anyone who joins WoW or Rift (just to name a few) expecting that they’ll be able to experience the entire gaming world will eventually be sharply turned away at that level 20 barrier.
We love this games but as subscription games they’re offering a teaser, a demo, a trial—but it’s certain that they’re not offering anything like the free-to-play model experience that has been successfully built-up by the industry.
The MMO industry doesn’t need big names like Blizzard or Trion Worlds corrupting the market by co-opting terms like “free to play” even if they then go on to say “from levels 1 to 20.” All of us are better off if they would just up front let people know that they’re offering a short-on-content, trial account to interested players and leave the “free to play” at home.
By Kyt Dotson