I’ve always had a fascination with the “shared world” experience the Internet enables, starting way back in 1991 when I went to my freshman year of college and discovered that the computer lab was networked, not only from machine to machine, but to other machines all around the Earth. And that linking wasn’t limited to electronic bulletin boards or email, you could actually “talk” to other online users (typing back and forth) in real-time. Anytime. For free.
It’s all taken for granted now, but at the time it was fairly mind-blowing, as were the first attempts at taking the social gaming experience and translating it into an online medium. Basically I’ve been doing that online multi-player gaming in one form or another for 20 years, experiencing the evolution from text-only offerings coded and staffed by volunteers, to the pay-to-play, multimedia, mega-corporate sponsored MMORPGs of today. If you wonder where I’m going with this, let’s just say I remember when this stuff was free. Admittedly that was before the pretty pictures, but I still approach any of these games with the attitude of “Why should I give you my money?”
Should I give you my money for the social experience? No, I could (and can) get that for free. Should I give you it for being able to kill monsters and other players and gear up? No, that’s been around a long time as well.
Should I give it to you for the immersive experience of a fantastic world full of sound and color? A professionally designed game system that enhances and guides my interactions with that world without getting in the way (which sounds suspiciously like my criteria for a good RPG in general)? Now we’re getting somewhere, but at this point there’s a lot of different MMORPG’s to choose from. How do I make that choice?
So far, the free trial has been the answer to that question. This is an offer MMORPGs extend as a “try before you buy”, where you download some or all of their client and then can experience a limited amount of content and gameplay for a limited time period. A test drive, essentially.
And here’s where I’m getting to the crux of this post, because I’ve gone through a lot of these trials, and while I understand companies don’t want to give away everything for free, some of these test drives feel like not only are you not getting the satellite radio, but the air conditioning isn’t working. Or the windows. Or the power steering. Also, you can’t get out of first gear. As you can imagine, this annoys the fuck out of me and I now don’t want to buy the car no matter how pretty it seems. So here’s two of my MMORPG test drives of note. In one case, they fixed it later on. In the other, I’m not sure they ever did.
The test drive that got fixed was for Champions Online, although as far as I can tell it took them an entire goddamn year to do it. Just this past Labor Day weekend they invited previous people and new people to come back and have a handful of days of free play. I was one of those previous people, but I never had actually bought the game, since the trial they had offered before was bullshit.
How much bullshit? You weren’t allowed out of the very, very limited tutorial area. You started with two powers, and were awarded a new power slot by the end of the tutorial… except your trainer to get that power was only accessible in the zone after the tutorial. That included access to your travel power (and by “travel power” I mean cool superhero stuff like flight, super jump, etc.), since up until this point you were running around on foot, a phenomenon explained in-game by aliens having set up “power dampeners”.
I won’t go into the aspect that Champions, that great pen-and-paper system that was one of the first to innovate a non level-based system, now had the same levels and challenge ratings system of advancement that were already old when WoW debuted. Does every MMORPG have to operate like this? Also, the tutorial started, and here was a level-based Superhero game that featured an alien invasion with aliens having set up force-fields to isolate parts of the city. It’s like they weren’t even trying to set themselves apart from City of Heroes/City of Villains, except maybe graphically… and there also I had problems with the exaggerated cartoonishness of the characters, especially considering it was a style of art I’d never seen in Champions materials.
So they let you go through six levels of advancement, meet members of the Champions supergroup, and single-handedly “save the city” (which hey, at least they instanced that part so you didn’t have to wait in line for your turn to be hailed as city savior)… and then that was it. To be fair, CoX (my preferred abbreviation for City of Heroes/City of Villains, because… CoX) didn’t give you your travel power until level 14, but guess what the level cap for their free trial was? Level 14. You also got a handful of other powers to try out by level 14, and got to safely explore at least a few zones. You didn’t get to be the savior of the city (maybe certain parts of it), but the “chosen one” shtick has always been disingenuous on MMOs, anyhow. I’ll trade that for being able to see how teleporting looks and works.
Ironically, this time around when they invited me back, I got to see all the things which might have actually gotten me to shell out for the game. That’s the craziest thing about it all. Moving past the tutorial just puts you into a “crisis area” that again has restricted borders and which you can’t leave until you complete the quest chain, but at least here you get to have some new powers and see what your super-move options are like, and damn if some of those aren’t cool. Like moving around by using a swingline, a la Spider Man or Daredevil. CoX doesn’t have that. That feature alone could likely have sold people on the game, but the previous free trial didn’t even let you know it existed, much less let you try it out.
And if that wasn’t enough, I did solve the crisis, which enabled me to actually travel back to the real Millenium City, instead of the teensy closed off version the Tutorial presented. It’s breathtaking, both in scope and design. I’ll just come right out and say it, Renaissance Plaza blows away anything I ever saw on CoX. Maybe the design of Grandville, but Grandville was always half hidden in red fog… it wasn’t easy to get a sense of the same scale. I was able to try out the bank system, the upgrade and crafting stores, even the auction house.
Based on all that, did I buy it? No. But this time, I at least didn’t feel frustrated, except a frustration that they didn’t just show this to us a year ago. Everything that could have set the game apart from its competition came after that tutorial zone.
Still, this wasn’t as bad as my experience with Aion. Oh, Aion. Now, technically, this was offered up supposedly as a “closed Beta weekend” rather than a free trial, but Beta testing doesn’t last for one weekend, even if you have six separate weekends of it… each needing separate codes, thus getting completely new crops of people. Also, the game had already been in retail release in South Korea for almost a year, so at this point any “Beta testing” to be done should probably be limited to minimizing any Engrish in the quest text.
Thus, Aion gets no break from me on being “still in development”. This was a try and buy. No more, no less. And maybe Koreans have different standards with their MMOs, but what I tried not only made me not want to buy but feel actually angry.
Why? Well, Aion was about angels and devils locked in an eternal war. Let’s not quibble about them not being called that; that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, and part of the hoopla that was advertised to the public was <drumroll> everyone has wings! And unlike in other games (read: WoW), you can fight while flying! In fact, it’s what makes our game so cool! The demo at Comic-Con International 2009 was set up to display this awesomeness. Neato keen.
So thanks to that same Comic-Con, I have a beta code. I download the client, fire up the game, and create an oh-so-pretty Final Fantasy style demonspawn (because apparently in Asia, every MMO has to look like Final Fantasy). Immediately I’m informed that I’ve awakened from some sort of trauma, with little to no memory of my former demonic glory and power, which is why I have to run around on the ground in the start area in a very limited, linear path. Okay, fine, lots of games do this. Even though flight was touted so heavily, gotta learn to walk before we fly.
There actually is a neat interlude early on where you’re guided into an interactive “flashback” of what you were and get to fly around and fight and look awesome for a minute or two… this is smart because it’s also an advertisement for what you could be again, if you buy the game and level up. Presumably.
Then you’re back to being a groundling. Once you hit level 10 you’re promised of being able to visit your great capital city and get your wings back, and thankfully, unlike the first Champions trial it doesn’t cut you off before that. But in this case, maybe it should have.
Now I also started an angel character, just to make sure this experience held true for both sides. You end up in your capital, you’re congratulated on getting your wings back, and then…
You can’t use them.
See, the capital cities are no fly zones. You know why no fly zones exist? It’s not because of lag problems or anything so innocent… it’s because the devs cut corners on the environment and letting people fly around unfettered would kill the illusion. WoW’s devs freely admitted this is why they don’t let people use their flying mounts in the original areas, since flying mounts weren’t even a thought back when WoW was first released. But they made their debut in the Burning Crusade expansion almost two years prior to Aion’s release. And if that’s not enough lead time for you, consider that City of Heroes, which is a game run by the same company that runs Aion, released in 2004 with people flying every which way in every zone.
I might be especially bitter because the angelic city is floating in the clouds and you can fall off of it. And die. From falling. Because you can’t use the wings you just got back.
About this time I was grinding my teeth into nubs, but I pressed on to the first adventuring area, where I was assured that at last I would be able to put those wings to use. After all, there were quests that could only be completed by flying! And fighting while flying!
Like… having to destroy some floating rocks. Okay, well, hell, at least I’m flying. Hey why’s there a status bar depleting rapidly? Where’d my wings go? I’m falling! They won’t come back! Oh, hello grou–SPLAT.
Glitch? Oh no. No no no, little britches, I’m afraid not. You see, your wings are apparently still “weak” to start out with, so you get (if I remember right) a whopping sixty seconds of flight time before you wear out. But don’t worry! Aion assures; this later “can be increased with various armor, titles, and other items in-game”. So eventually it seems like you might be able to scrounge together a few minutes. Eventually.
No. Nope, negatory, and furthermore, fuck you. Let me tell you exactly how majestic having sixty seconds of flight time is, including the time you need to get back close enough to the ground you don’t die when it expires: it’s the exact opposite of majestic. It’s fly up, desperately hit a floating rock a few times with your sword, fly down, wait, repeat. For fuck’s sake they just made this huge deal about your ascension to being a “Daeva”, and this is your reward? Furthermore, this is the way they chose to showcase their awesome uniqueness of flying combat?
Oh but that wasn’t the end. Every MMORPG makes some use of “invisible walls” that you can’t go beyond, but this area was particularly egregious, particularly since you’d think one of the points of flight was the freedom of being able to explore strange new vistas. There was a tiny strip around the village. Tiny. Then a lake. When I tried to walk into the lake I nearly drowned, because it turns out angels can’t swim. Then I timed it carefully and tried to fly out over the lake, because I wanted a closer look at some cool dinosaur creatures they had out there. Maybe they’d try to eat me, but if I could just swoop past their heads or between their gigantic legs, it would be a small moment of awesome.
I hit an invisible wall. Long before I got to the dinosaurs. Apparently, the dinosaurs are just meant as scenery. Maybe you can see the gears and superstructure if you flew to the other side? There was not even a cursory attempt to explain in-game why this unseen force field existed, but regardless of that, this is the point in the game where the world should have opened up. Instead, even though there was now a (time-limited) “up”, there was very little “away”.
So, dejected, I abandoned my quest to check out the dinosaurs and decided to follow the very linear path I was apparently still expected to tolerate. But I couldn’t fly in that direction either! And to my utter fucking amazement, I realized that to progress on to the golden fields and forests of the next area, I had to land. I’m not just talking about landing every sixty seconds, either, I’m talking that outside of that small space around the village, there was once again a “no fly” zone, this time encompassing what seemed to be a very large place. Again, with no explanation. It’s fucking farmland.
So to sum up: Aion gives you your wings, won’t let you use them even in the face of death, then lets you use them in short, uninspiring hops, and then very shortly won’t let you use them again. Ascension, my ass.
That was about all I had time for that weekend before my key expired. Thank God/Beelzebub I didn’t spend any money on that game. Maybe it gets better later, but my impression to this day is of a half-assed shitpile that never gave me a single moment of feeling like the superior being all the NPCs and lore (and ads) kept insisting you were. And since to my knowledge Aion has yet to offer an actual free trial or even a free play weekend, that’s how my views will stay.
So there we are. Nowadays new business models for MMORPGs are starting to be experimented with that might eventually make the free trial method obsolete, but if you’re going to offer a free trial, then please, please either:
– Don’t stop it before players get to see what makes your offering cool and unique compared to its competition.
– Do stop it before players get to see that your cool and unique feature is actually a hot load of crap.
Actually I don’t encourage the latter, but you know, if you’re going to turn out a substandard product, conventional wisdom says you should at least get someone’s money first before they realize they’ve been ripped off.