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Nov 16

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I’ve been looking for work for a little while now (if you need a good designer, freelance or otherwise, please contact me) and I’ve started seriously looking at creating a start-up in games development. I love to come up with new game ideas for the fun of it — like I do on my other site — but I’d really like to take one and make it a reality. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a game a commercial success.

That’s why I started thinking about game demos. A lot of demos these days seem slapped together quickly; an afterthought released months after the game hit store shelves, if at all. It’s a shame, because I feel demos can be a powerful marketing tool if done well. So I decided to write a few guidelines to making an efficient demo.

1. Make One

Would you release a movie without making a trailer? Yet plenty of games are released without demos. Most games have trailers released before the game, but trailers can’t make players feel the actual gameplay. They’re like movie screenshots: they show what the movie looks like, but they don’t convey the emotions created by the movie.

Showing what the game looks like works for visceral experiences like Gears of War, but it doesn’t work for more reflective gameplay. Casual games are popular because of their demos, but nobody would purchase Bejeweled after seeing a trailer. You need to play a game to evaluate its gameplay, and that’s what demos allow.

2. Release the Demo On or Before the Game’s Release Date

Demos are a marketing tool, their role is to make people excited about the game. Releasing a demo months after the game wastes all the buzz the demo can generate. On the other hand, releasing it in advance can create a lot lot word of mouth around the game.

The partial OEM version of the original Half-Life is what first caught everybody’s attention. Everybody was amazed and couldn’t stop talking about that hot new game and how impatient they were to get the full version. A more recent example is Lost Planet on Xbox 360. The buzz around that game was minimal until the demo they released at E3 — then suddenly everybody got excited about it.

A demo is one the most powerful marketing tools to promote a good game. Releasing it after the game is wasting that powerful effect.

3. Give Enough Content to Hook Players

When Doom was released, it offered a full third of the game for free. It went on to become the best-selling PC game of all time. In fact, this model made iD Software, 3D Realms and Epic Games successful.

These days, you’re lucky if you get 2 levels in a demo. I’ve seen some that only contain the tutorial, the most boring part of the game. Demos should be long enough to hook the player and make him feel like he needs to see more. How long that is varies from game to game, but it should be long enough that the player is enjoying himself, not still trying to learn the controls.

I can’t think of a single game that I decided not to purchase because the demo gave me too much to play, but I can think of a few where the demo was so short I couldn’t get a good feel for the game. When trying to find the balance, err on the side of giving too much rather than too little.

4. Make Players Want to Return to It

Casual games lock you out of the demo after 60 minutes. That’s a mistake. If you’re not ready to purchase the game after those 60 minutes (you don’t have your credit card on you, you were about to stop playing, or whatever), then you don’t have any reason to return and play the demo some more. If you never restart it, what will make you want to purchase the full version?

Geometry Wars has a much better model. Each individual game is limited to 3 minutes, but you can play those 3 minutes over and over. It’s brilliant: you keep playing because the game is fun and you can improve your score in that time limit, but each time you’re reminded that for a small price you could enjoy the full thing.

You should make sure players are able and have a good reason to return to your demo, even if they don’t buy the full version. The more they play the demo, the more likely they are to buy the full version. If they run it once and never return to it, it doesn’t remind them that they should buy it.

5. End with a Cliff-Hanger

Imagine: you’ve reached the lair of the monster. He lays sleeping, but suddenly wakes up and notices you — this is going to be the most awesome boss battle ever! …And the demo ends: “Get it in December 2007!”. Are you annoyed? Kinda, but now you just have to get the full game to play that boss battle.

You don’t want to give a complete and comfortable experience in a demo. When it ends, the player shouldn’t say “Well, that was nice”. He should say “It can’t end like this! I’ve got to know what happens next!” Think of how good TV shows always end on an unresolved issue to make you want to come back next episode — it’s the same principle, applied to games.

6. Give Players Something to Talk About

The TV show Heroes is filled with mystery. People all over the country are gathering around water coolers, talking about it. Is Claire’s dad a bad guy? What happened to Hiro and that waitress? Will Mohinder return to New York?

A good game demo can create that kind of buzz, but it needs to give something worth talking about. Make sure you show something intriguing that people can’t stop talking about, whether it’s kick-ass graphics, a mysterious story or original gameplay. Upon finishing the demo, player’s first reaction should be to jump to their blog and tell the world just how awesome that demo was.

If everything in the demo is as expected, there’s nothing to talk about. Surprise players.

Show, Don’t Tell

In the end, a demo is the old principle of “Show, don’t tell”. With a demo, you show players why they should want the game — it’s a lot better than trying to explain it to them, even with nice videos.

Would you go see a movie without a trailer? Buy a car without a test drive? Then why would you expect millions of players to purchase your game without trying it? A great demo can transform a great game into a phenomenon. It worked for Half-Life, Doom and Geometry Wars, why not your game?

Nov 11

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So, I had a chance to try out the Wii at the local Arcadia Festival yesterday. I wasn’t blown away with the festival itself (the only new thing there was the Wii and entering ended up costing 17.50$ rather than the 10$ the website claims), but it’s always nice to try out new games before their official release. I was taking a “wait and see” approach to the Wii, so that was a nice opportunity to see if the hype was warranted.

I played Wii Tennis and Excite Truck and watch others play Zelda, Raving Rabbids and Warioware. As I expected, the graphics were nothing exceptional — they were about the level of good looking Xbox (the original) games. But hey, it’s all the revolutionary controls, right?

The two games I played were quite simple: Wii tennis could be played with a single button instead of the wiimote (you don’t even control the movement of your character) and Excite Truck is an arcade racer with an accelerator and a boost button. Warioware looked just as simple. Raving Rabbids is a gun shooting game (with a cursor on screen) with some mini-games. The people I watched play Zelda didn’t seem to use motion sensing for much, but I didn’t watch them for too long.

I didn’t see anything really revolutionary — nothing that couldn’t be done easily on previous consoles. Sure the games are accessible to non-gamers (the target market for the Wii), but it’s because of the simplicity of the games and not the new controller. Would Excite Truck be much harder to play if you pressed left and right instead of holding the controller like a steering wheel?

Talking about Excite Truck, it had a control problem that’s unique to the Wii: lack of feedback. On a regular controller, you know if you’re turning as hard as is possible because you’re pressing the joystick fully. On the Wii, you turn the controller like a virtual steering wheel, but it’s not clear how much you need to turn it: is a quarter-turn enough? Is it 180°? 45°? Hard to say because there’s nothing to stop your movement.

Likewise, it isn’t obvious in Tennis that flicking your wrist results in much more powerful hits than full arm movements. I’m sure I’d get used to those two quirks, but it goes to show that there’s a different type of learning curve with the Wii: learning to do the motions correctly.

Nintendo’s motto is “Playing is Believing”. I played, I still don’t believe. I’m sure games taking full advantage of the Wii’s capabilities will come out eventually, but none of the games I saw really impressed me. Aside from Zelda, they mostly felt like mini-games. Zelda is also coming to the Gamecube, and (I’m probably the only one to think so) I think the Zelda formula is getting stale after 10 gajillion games. So I guess it’s still wait and see for me.