I was going to write a post about downloadable demos a while back, but I got sidetracked. This article on GameIndustry.Biz reminded me of it. The aforelinked article is a manager at Xbox Live and he complains that too many companies leave demos for too late and, well, basically half-ass them. I’m sure my company is included here. I 100% agree with the article, although it is a little vague.

What is the purpose of a demo? I posit that it is to entice customers who wouldn’t have otherwise considered buying your game into buying it. I emphasize the clause regarding potential customers because I think it is where publishers and developers err. This is a point that I will come back to, but it makes sense. The alternative is to make a demo for people you expect to be your customers to give them a taste and remind them about the game. That’s a valid motivation as well, but I doubt it is as lucrative. If folks are going to buy your game anyway, what profit is to be made on a demo?

So what we see on the market usually is a slice of a game that is cut to shreds. In Madden, for instance, you get one minute quarters with two teams. In Solitro Solitaire, you get one predetermined solitaire game that is the same no matter how many times you play it. My inclination is that developers and publishers do this because they are afraid of giving away the farm. If your demo is satisfactory, why would someone buy the game? Let’s give them as little as we can and make them pay for the rest. At least, I imagine this is their reasoning.

And the reasoning is totally wrong. Free demos are not truly free for the user. They have invested their time to download and play this game in the hopes that they will be rewarded. If you do not change their expectations about what the game is, then the demo is worthless; you haven’t given them anything in exchange for their time. The user will have the same opinion of the game as before they played. If they were going to buy it before, they will likely still buy it. If they were only curious before, they will still likely not take the sixty dollar plunge. So in order to create a demo that has worth (from a business standpoint), the developers and publishers have to give the players something that is unexpected.

I downloaded the demo for Skate after hearing a load of hubbub percolating around the net. I had seen some info about it internally, but I was never a fan of the Tony Hawk games (too complicated), so I doubted Skate would hold my interest. Now, if EA Black Box had put out a demo that was two events on a time limit, then my expectations wouldn’t have changed and I probably wouldn’t have ended up purchasing the game. But the demo had the entire tutorial, a handful of extra events and a free skate where the player could tool around and really experience why the game was different than Tony Hawk. For some users, they might have had their fill with this 30-minute demo and walked away. I’m sure it happened. To most developers and publishers, that is a failure. But if that user had dropped sixty bucks on the game and then got tired with it after thirty minutes, then that game is getting put up used and someone who really wants the game will buy it on the secondary market leaving the developer right where they started with only one sale.

But Skate convinced me in its demo. In fact, I played the demo multiple times. This is the hallmark of the successful demo. If I am playing a limited version again and again, I’ll likely pay full price for the unlimited version. With Madden, I don’t even get to play a full game. How am I to tell if I am going to like the full game? I get to see a little bit of new features and UI (maybe), but my expectations remain unchanged. The people who were going to buy Madden anyway will still buy it and the skeptics will still remain skeptical.

Lost Planet took a bold move as well. To most, they could dismiss it as just another shooter. But they released a multiplayer demo that was essentially fully-featured in that you could experience what the game was like and come back multiple times. No doubt this hooked people and got people to purchase the game based on the replayability of the demo.

If you don’t have a full game to give me when I pay actual money for it, then you can’t be giving away parts whole cloth in your demo. This I understand. So if you give me whole parts of the game, then I know there is more to offer and I’m not weary about plunking down some cash to experience it if I enjoyed myself in the demo. If you give me something worth playing on its own merits, essentially giving me value for my time, then I know the developer has confidence that their full game is worth what they are charging. If a game hides behind the slimmest of demos, I assume that the developer or publisher is afraid that people will see that there isn’t much content to their game.

Demos take resources to make. They require dedicated engineers, producers to get the demo through the approval process, QA to ensure standards compliance, etc. One would think that companies are smart enough to figure out that to get a return on that investment, they have to dangle a carrot in front of users noses, not just the scent of a carrot.