Visit any of the top casual game portals like Big Fish Games, GameHouse, Alawar Games, or Screen Seven, and it’s taken for granted that you’ll be able to sample any game in the catalog for free for 60 minutes. The old “try before you buy” model is a staple of the casual games niche, but it’s one that may have outlived its usefulness. In fact, these days it might actually be hurting game development.
The timed free trial is a vestige of PC casual games’ origins as shareware. The shareware business model, which applied not only to games but to all kinds of software downloads, was simple: customers could try out a product for free for a limited time to get a feel for it, and if they liked what they saw after the trial period, they paid to “unlock” the full-featured version of the software or game.
But the casual games of 10 and 15 years ago were very different than they are today. Hidden object games and casual adventures hadn’t yet come on the scene. The landscape was dominated by match-3 puzzle games, action games, and time management games. These genres had several things in common: Lots and lots of levels, arcade-style gameplay, and goals that revolved around achieving high scores and/or clearing levels.
The 60-minute trial was perfect for these games because such titles featured the kind of gameplay that was designed to hook players in with its “just one more level” addictiveness, so that when the trial ended players wanted to keep playing so badly that they didn’t think twice about clicking on “Buy It Now!” It certainly worked for Bejeweled and Diner Dash.
But then Mystery Case Files arrived and ushered in the new area of the hidden object game. Suddenly, the dominant casual game genre was not designed with “just one more level” addictive gameplay in mind. Hidden object games (or HOGs) were, by nature, relaxing. By requiring players to search cluttered scenes for lists of items, HOGs tested players’ powers of observation rather than reflexes. Graphics became essential in separating excellent HOGs from mediocre ones. Hidden object game developers began creating stories and interesting characters to give players an explanation for why they were searching for items.
For games like these, the 60-minute trial can actually get in the way of good game development. Too many players use those 60 minutes to try to rush through as much of the game as possible to see as much of it as they can before their free time runs out. The irony is that by rushing, players are potentially missing out on so much of what the game has to offer: the subtle details of the graphics, the carefully-crafted dialog, the painstakingly recorded voice-acting… All of the extra care and detail that committed game developers spend injecting into their projects are actually being met with impatience and resentment because they “get in the way” of the race to the finish.
Developers have even resorted to putting “Skip” buttons on everything. But if players skip the dialog, skip the cutscenes, skip the mini-games, use hints to find all of the hidden objects, then what, exactly, is the point? Have they really even played the game? Have they really grasped what the developer was trying to say?
I don’t really blame players for this. If I had 60 minutes of time to decide whether to spend money on a game, I wouldn’t want to spend 55 of those minutes stuck trying to figure out how to solve a pipe-rotating mini-game right off the bat. I don’t think that game trials should go away altogether.
What about this? Instead of making giving the free trial a time limit, why not offer the first level or two for free, after which there’s a cut-off point that is the same for everyone who downloads the trial. That way, players can take as long as they want to finish, and everyone has the same experience. Companies already use this method when they release beta builds for testing, and we see it in other areas of gaming too, such as the downloadable demos on the Xbox LIVE Arcade and PlayStation Network, and in the “Lite” versions of iOS games in iTunes. So why not embrace it in the PC casual downloads niche as well?
Let’s give the developers some respect and let them show off their work to us in the way it was meant to be experienced – with players savoring all the little details. I’m not talking about Peggle here, I’m talking about hidden object games, so let’s take a deep breath, stop and smell the roses. (And then we’ll find all 10 of them in the scene so we can cross them off our list…)