2 Jul 2011

The Infinite Trial

I find it funny how the word “trial” can be taken in two ways.

There’s the positive side – being able to sample something or try it out before you commit to it. After all, we all want something for free and being able to try a bit of it for free sounds almost as good. Like being able to have a taste of the chocolate cake before buying it.

The other side of trial isn’t so great – two groups come together to settle a dispute in a formal manner. Being “put on trial” conjures up feelings of discomfort and ordeal. Even being part of a trial, such as a juror or witness, is no great joy.

With that said you can probably understand why the concept of an infinite free trial doesn’t exactly fill me with bountiful leaps of joy. After all, I don’t want to be standing in front of the Jury of Cake explaining why I devoured all of the prime chocolate gateau.

A sneaky little blue post crept out explaining that Blizzard’s free trial of Warcraft would no longer be limited to ten days. Instead you’d be able to play the game as much as you like for as long as you like, but you’ll never be able to progress beyond level 20 until you shell out for an account. You’ll be able to gorge yourself on as much cake as you like, but it’ll only be the spongy bit at the bottom. The delicious frosting with all the chocolate shavings and the glacé cherries will remain out of reach until you reach for your wallet.

I’ll be honest with you. Sponge gets old and stale fast.

So why have an unlimited trial anyway?

To anyone that’s worked in the services sector – cable TV, telecoms and so on – what Warcraft is going through is going to be pretty familiar. It all boils down to the churn rate and how churn affects your approach to business over time.

Let me offer you an example. Say I start a business called Gazimoff’s Gateaux. I charge you a monthly fee and in return you get in the mail the most amazing cakes you’ve ever tasted. Sounds great, right? I get a load of signups and people get some great pudding.

Fast forward six months and some people grow weary of cake. They’ve eaten all they can stomach and they’ve grown bored of the experience. They cancel their subscription and no longer receive cake. But I’m not too worried – there are still plenty more people out there who haven’t tried my cake and would probably give them a go.

Two years later and I’m in trouble. I can’t find anyone new to sell my sweet subscriptions to and the number of people on my books is dropping every month. I haven’t branched out into candy, pastries or dried fruits. My customers have grown tired of cake and tired of me. I need to do something and fast. But what?

Knowing the churn rate of any subscription service – the number of people leaving as a percentage of the total number of subscribers – is incredibly important. Yet no-one knows what the figure is. Blizzard doesn’t publish it and analysts don’t push for it. Given that the biggest indicator that you’re dissatisfied with a service is when you cancel it, I’m surprised we don’t see this figure.

The change to an unlimited free trial is unlikely to have an impact on subscriber numbers or churn rate, just as offering unlimited sponge won’t sell more cake subscriptions. What it will do is pave the way for free-to-play Warcraft in the future, as well as giving them a huge database of freebie-hunting gamers to market Titan to when the time comes.

After all, there’s no such thing as a free cake.

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