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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?