Do free game trials work?

One of the interesting new features that online distribution (and activation) of games bring to players is the ability to fully test a retail game before buying it. By having access to the full game, the player can not only test its complete feature set, but also have contact with the same online community he’d meet when purchasing it.

The catch, however, is that the player is only allowed to play the game for a certain number of days – the test version ceases to work after the trial date has passed. From what I know, Steam was the first major distribution channel that tried something like this, and now, making certain games available for free during a few days is becoming increasingly usual on that system. What impact does the free trial period have on the online presence of certain games? Valve’s World War 2 game Day of Defeat:Source has already been through two such trials, and here’s how it has worked for them.

Day of Defeat:Source - Average number of online players, in thousands - From Nov 2005 to December 2006

Day of Defeat:Source was the new version of Day of Defeat, a popular Half-life 1 mod. The difference was that DoD:S was a retail version that must be bought, and even though it’s still technically a Half-life 2 mod, it’s considered a full game on practice.

The initial release was pretty good and the game managed to gather good attention, even though the player base did suffer some major (and uncommon) drop over the following month.

On February 2006, the game saw its first free weekend. Still something a bit new, the initial reaction was good, and the game managed to achieve online popularity for a while, going back to the amount of online players it had reached on release.

It’s hard to determine how much of that actually turned out to be from new sales – it could be that many players that had already bought the game decided to go back playing it because of the sudden increase in the number of online players – but the game managed to get an actual increase of 40% in its online presence, so apparently this small free weekend did work pretty fine for them.

On July 2006 they did another free weekend, and while the residual increase in online presence wasn’t as good as the previous one – around 15% at best, I’d say – they did manage to top their previous records of average number of players online.

Judging by the graphs, having free weekends seem to have worked for them as small steps toward increasing the number of online players; apart from the free trials, the game’s online popularity has been slowly increasing, and maybe that’s also a sign of the success of free trials, as players who haven’t purchased the game right after the free weekend can always come back and do it since they know how the full game already feels like. Because of that, I think free trials can be considered a success, at least on online penetration; the only ones who know how much commercial success that turned out to be are the developers themselves.

Free trials aren’t as doable as having demo releases, though. You can’t have too many of them (and specially not at the same time) or else they become trivial, and since they depend on the developer’s will to do so, the player can’t just expect to have them any time he wants to try a new game; specially for that reason, they will never replace demos. They do, however, serve as a much better sample of what a player can expect from multiplayer games, since he’s able to test the game on its original environment: using the original (and patched) executable, without being restricted to just a few maps, weapons, or gametypes, and without having to deal with players that are as new to the game as them.

And finally, other games have been through free trials over Steam as well; Tripwire Interactive’s World War 2 title Red Orchestra is one of such games, and it will have another shot at it in just a couple of weeks. So wait for a follow up soon.

Edit: There’s a nice follow-up discussion on the Day of Defeat forums.

6 Responses to “Do free game trials work?”

  1. Tom Edwards Says:

    The immediate falloff will have been related to people who bought the HL2 Silver or Gold packages but found that they didn’t really like DODS when it eventually came out. A significant slice of whom would have been the hardcore players turned off by the fact that the game wasn’t a clone of the original DOD, sadly enough.

  2. The Steam Review Says:

    Do Free Weekends work?…

    Zeh Fernando’s Online Gaming Zeitgeist has posted a partial analysis of Valve’s Free Week/Weekend promotions, using DOD: Source’s player-count statistics as a sample.


  3. Wes Shull Says:

    Agree, but the emphasis was on bringing new players into the game. My guess is the weekends cost/benefit has to take into consideration the cost of the bandwidth used to execute all those downloads (must be VERY expensive) against actual sales. It’s understood a whole bunch of people have DoDS already on their hard drives but it’s nice to see the numbers climbing.

  4. Tom Edwards Says:

    I believe that Valve pay for the bandwidth they reserve rather than use, so the distribution costs for the Weekends themselves would be near-nil.

    (If you’re wondering why they reserve so much more bandwidth than they ever use, bear in mind that there are content servers around the globe. The servers most active during low-traffic times are probably a completely different set to those active during peak hours.)

  5. Skydiver Says:

    I know a lot of people that wants to buy some games just after the free weekend, but have problems with credit card (don’t having a international one, for example) or wants the box.

    I think that the 4k players that was playing DoDS and disappear in 2 months are (like me) the ones disappointed with the huge difference of DoDS, and the increasing after that refers to new players. If DoDS had some CVars controlling key characteristics of game play, the figure would jump 3 to 4k in a couple of months, making these two kinds of players happy with their games.

    DoDS is so different of DoD that I think it can’t even be called DoD. It’s a whole new game.

  6. Aaron Says:

    Interesting results however, as you say it is (as of yet) unclear how these results equate to actual sales.

    I am sceptical however of the true effectiveness this type of offer really provides. Several factors are involved, most of them you have already covered.

    The most important factor for me personally though is the download of a trial period game. It takes time, depending on the users connection speed and often by the time the game has finished downloading and ready to play it may not be convenient for the person to actually play the game within the allotted time.

    It is however nice to see Steam broadening the scope with which developers can present their products to new potential customers. I am all for this continued experimentation, however for me it doesn’t sell it.

    Demos are the proffered choice for reasons you have covered. They are more convenient and they do not restrict the time within which I may experience the product.

    As a wonderful new lease of life for the PC Gaming market and independent developers it would be nice to see more analysis of Steam and it’s success and failures.

This website gathers data for various First Person Shooter games for PCs, and then build graphics with those numbers. This brings no answers, just questions. Where do we go from here?