Time to bring back the shareware model?

So a lot of ink has been spilled recently (how long until kids have no idea what that means?) over declining revenues in the gaming industry. I’m not an insider so I don’t know if this is all alarmist press or a real problem, but I do see a lot of news items about layoffs and studio closings.

And I’m part of the problem. Y’know what I play every night before bed? Hill Cimb Racing. It’s an Android game, and it’s free. Their business model is getting you to buy coins. You may be familiar with Temple Run, which uses the same business model. I haven’t spent a dime on Hill Climb Racing. Why? Because the whole point of the game is earning coins to improve your car so you can do better and earn more coins to improve your car. Buying coins is deliberate reducing the ‘shelf life’ of the game for myself. Once I’ve maxed out my car I’ll lose interest.

But “free to play” seems to be where its at these days. The problem is that so few companies seem to get it right.

But free games aren’t a new thing. Back in days of yore we had shareware. You may have heard of some of the titles that started as shareware: Wolf 3D, Doom, Commander Keen… all shareware. You downloaded the game (or got it from a friend, hence the name…not everyone was online in those days) and played it for free. Generally these games were broken up into 3 episodes or segments and you’d get the first one free. If you wanted to play the rest of the game, you paid for it. By the time you finished the first part you knew if it was a game you were going to enjoy or not, and if you enjoyed it you’d be happy to pay for more.

I don’t see why more “free” game devs don’t follow this same practice. In Hill Climb Racing you spend coins both to improve your car and to unlock new locations to race in. I think the developer would’ve been better served to just sell the new locations for $1-$2 and kept the coins (remember, the point of the game) for improving your car.

Xbox Live has its mandatory Trial version of games and that can be essentially the same model as long as the trial is extensive enough, but on the PC and mobile marketplaces the system seems rare these days. Mobile devs will offer ‘free’ versions but they’re generally either full of ads or they constantly badger you to upgrade. With old-style shareware you didn’t feel badgered…during the first section of the game (which was generally several hours of quality gameplay) you weren’t constantly being prompted to purchase something or interrupted with ads; it was a pure gaming experience.

I wonder why it fell out of favor. It seemed like a win for everyone. You got to try and enjoy a game for free, the developers clearly did pretty well selling them (Id and Epic were shareware developers) and anyone who purchased the games knew they were buying something they were going to love.

7 thoughts on “Time to bring back the shareware model?

  1. I think that’s TellTale’s entire line of business…Episodic gaming was what it was supposed to become, with a larger game doled out over time, cliffhanger fashion.

    But I think DLC got in the way. Companies could spend a lot of time making the base game, which lasts hours (for desktop and console games), and while people are chewing through that they can work on the DLC. Some people already think the DLC model is “here’s the whole game, now let’s carve it up and sell it in pieces”, which is kind of what the shareware model was.

  2. BigFishGames uses this approach, wonder what success stories they would have to share. A new game every day (granted, dominated by hidden object adventures which have become too cliched IMO) and you can play that game for 1 full hour for free. Get as far or little as you want in that hour and decide if you want to purchase the whole game to continue or not. I’m a member, so I get 1 “free” each month (my $7 subscription basically pays for one non-collector edition game) and then discounted pricing thereafter. I definitely pick one a month, then maybe buy 1-2 more each month, depending on what clicks with me.

    That’s more spend on games than any other gaming channel for me these days, to include buying coins/gems/dollars/whatever in my iPhone or Social Media games. I really resent that approach to getting my money, it feels so pavlov dog/rat pellet in nature so I rebel against the notion. If they’d present it differently, like you described above is a good example, I’d be more apt to opt-in and spend.

  3. Those are both good examples of better ways than most mobile companies, at least, do it.

    I wonder if TellTale would see better results if they gave away the first chapter in a story — actually I think they often do, but as a special promotion rather than as a permanent offer.

    Gwyn do you feel pressured by that hour time limit? Is it an hour all at once, or can you play for 15 minutes 4 times before having to buy?

    Sony has 1 hour trials of games on PSN but they totally botch their handling off it because the clock starts when the download is finished, as far as I can tell. An hour later it expires whether you play it or not! And considering it can take a couple hours to download the games…

    Actually maybe they’ve tweaked that formula…I haven’t tried one in a long time.

    Going off topic, have you tried BigFishGames’ streaming service? I don’t like Hidden Object games so really BigFish isn’t in my wheelhouse.

  4. Several years ago I got a cellphone which came with a demo of Midnight Pool, where I got to play one full game of 8-ball against a computer opponent, and after playing the demo numerous times I eventually bought the full game. Now I was able to play 9-ball, as well as enter a tournament and play against all the AI opponents, one after the other.

    Eventually my cellphone contract expired, and I upgraded to a new phone and I was happy to see it also came with a demo of Midnight Pool. Except unlike my previous phone the demo did not allow me to play a full game against a computer opponent; it was a timed demo where I got to play for 1-minute, then the game dumped me out to a “Have fun? Buy me!” screen.

    The problem was if my AI opponent won the coin toss and the break, his first turn could last the entire minute. So I could “play” the demo for one minute without actually playing the game.

    Despite really enjoying the full game of Midnight Pool I never took the plunge a second time, and I eventually deleted the demo.

  5. 1 whole minute! Wow, they were really being generous with their demo! LOL

    That’s a classic case of doing it about as wrong as they could possibly do it!

  6. No, I haven’t tried the streaming games.

    The demos for the most part can be consumed however you wish. If you want to wait six months, then play in 5 minute increments, the demo will still be there and available for that kind of consumption.

    I very occasionally run into a situation where the demo ends at a set point in the game, i.e. you get to just play the first chapter. If it only takes you 10 minutes to do that, then you still have 50 minutes of play time available, but you’ll be replaying that Chapter 1 content. I only experience this in what they call the “big file” adventure games and generally it’s close to a full hour to get through that content anyway.

    But I bet 9 times out of 10, I know in the first 15 minutes if I have any interest in buying the game. Then I either quit then if it really stinks, play the free full hour and delete, or go on to buy the game.

    They have a nice downloader/game manager system, too. I can download and delete games from their interface rather than trying to hunt down via control panel to uninstall.

  7. I can’t stand time-limited demos. I’m quite happy with content-limited demos. Interestingly, Torchlight offered both, once upon a time. I almost didn’t buy it after playing the time-limited demo, because my machine was slow and I was in loading screens half the time. After trying the content-limited version, though, I got a better taste of the game and purchased it. It went on to be a favorite… but if I’d stopped at the time-limited single shot demo, I’d never have spent money on it.

    …this is entirely congruent with the fact that I hate paying for time in MMO games, but will happily accept content limits and/or pay for more content.

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