Opinion: What’s the perfect demo?

Opinion: What's the perfect demo?

Gamers have many ways to help inform their potential purchasing decisions. Reviews, word of mouth, advertising via TV, web and magazines all have influence, but a demo is the only way in which they can experience the game itself.

Proving that a demo has the most influence in the purchasing decision is difficult. Some reports have found that demos and word of mouth are the most influential, while others have found the reviews have more sway. However, most of these research reports do agree that demos are one of the highest ranking factors affecting the decision of whether or not to buy.

Demo scene

Game demos are not an act of great benevolence on behalf of publishers. Instead, they are part of a game’s strategic marketing campaign. Their primary aims are to convert those who are familiar with the game but sitting on the fence about whether or not to buy, and to bring in new players by offering them the opportunity to play the game that they would otherwise ignore.

This seems like a win-win for both players and developers: players get to try out a game for free and publishers get to potentially increase sales and widen their audience.

To get to the point at which players are about to start playing a demo, they have to overcome many hurdles. They must have decided that the game is of sufficient interest to check out; they will have found out from where it can be obtained; they'll likely have waited a considerable time for the game to download.

As such, the player will have already invested considerable energy to get this far; the demo must harness this initial emotional investment and offer an experience that is likely to lead to a sale. However, it all hinges on whether the demo is actually well-crafted and enjoyable.

Many demos seem to be just the initial minutes of the full game cut out and packaged as a standalone download. The main problem with this is that the opening section of most games contains the tutorial and these are rarely well designed. Stepping through a series of instructions is not the best way to engage anyone. It's likely that some game mechanics may need to be explained of course, however hopefully these can be restricted to only what's necessary for the demo to allow the player to get to the action faster.

The start of a game is also when the character has the fewest abilities, so many of the game’s unique features may not even be available. So of all the potential moments that a gamer would want to play through to get a taste of the game in full, the start probably isn’t one of them.

The perfect demo

It’s perhaps better, then, to think of the ideal demo as a separate game with its own experience arc, but is there such a thing as a perfect demo? Before getting into the details, it’s worth considering what players will remember about the demo. If the research reports are saying that demos and word of mouth are the top factors influencing purchase decisions, then using the demo to drive word of mouth might be a useful design approach.

So assuming that the demo should be built around one or two standout moments to encourage memorability and word of mouth, let’s consider the player’s journey as they play through the ideal demo.

  • Usable and intuitive Players should easily understand the objectives of the game, menus should operate as players expect, controls should be intuitive and they should feel no frustration between the demo downloading the game starting. This may seem obvious, but earlier this week I downloaded an Xbox Live Indie Game demo that I couldn’t figure out how to start playing.
  • Captivate As soon as possible the demo should have a way of capturing the players’ interest. This doesn’t have to be from the game itself, it could be in the pre-game menus. What we’re looking for is the player to experience an ‘ah ha’ moment.
  • Engage The secrets of keeping long-term player engagement come in many forms, but they also depend on the player’s motivations. Generally speaking, however, offering a game mechanic in which players can improve their skill through practice, and know how to improve via appropriate feedback, should keep the player engaged through a brief demo.
  • Strong finish The demo should finish on a high note, possibly showing off the unique features of the game while also suggesting that there’s much more to come. During playtests we’ve seen players not react positively to most of a level, but as the end is strong, they rate their enjoyment highly. Players are more likely to remember the start and end of the demo, design for these experiences carefully.

Running through The Run

This week I’ve been playing the demo of Need For Speed: The Run and think it’s a good example of a well-structured demo. The game starts and offers me a choice of two licensed cars, a Porsche and a Lamborghini. They've captured my interest, because I’m already wondering what other manufacturers will be available in the full game. The game gets straight into the action, and seeing the environment speeding past my car gets my heart pumping. The level ends with my car heading straight towards an avalanche of snow and the screen fades to white. I’m reminded of the plane coming down the runway in Split/Second. A strong ending.

I take away from the demo that the game is a race across the US in licensed cars, and I can’t wait to see what else they do with the dynamic environment. I also remember that I enjoyed it, and am strongly considering purchasing on release. And since I'm not a Need For Speed fan, in this case the finely honed demo did a good job of making me want to part with cash.

Having said that, the full game isn’t available until later this month, by which time I may have other games on my mind. If I could have paid right then and there to unlock the full game, I think EA would be more likely to get my cash. After all, the experience is still fresh in my mind and I want more. However, they’ve made me wait, and that’s a dangerous conversion strategy. But conversion's a whole other story – let’s talk about it another time.

sssss