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Games marketing and free content: to demo or not to demo?

By on September 6, 2011
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This is a guest post by Tadhg Kelly of the blog What Games Are. Tadhg has been working in games for nearly twenty years, from table top and live action roleplaying games to lead designer on multi-million dollar console game projects, to executive producer and startup founder. He is currently writing the What Games Are book and consulting for game and entertainment publishers in the London area.

Free game demos: giving the game away?

Sharna Jackson tweeted me, asking:

what’s the verdict on playable demos? Just trying to decide if we need one on an app we’re developing for 8+

And it’s an excellent question. Studios often get caught on the subject of whether they should give away a demo of their game, or leave it alone. The prospect is that they will acquire customers through this marketing effort, but the fear is that they will effectively give the store away.

Here’s my view: If you’re going to give away a demo, make it substantial. Otherwise, don’t bother.

The demo conflict

A racing game might have a downloadable demo on Xbox Live that includes two cars and a track. It shows the game engine, the basic idea of the game and one or two extra fun parts, but the pay wall comes down pretty quickly.

The psychology of this kind of demo is that of lap dancing: Give a free taste, then charge a premium for the rest. It comes from developers thinking of themselves as content makers, and so therefore the content has an enumerated value. However, as I wrote in the Love Your Pirates article, this is a critical mistake that developers make. You may think you are in the content business, but you are not. You are in the fan-finding business.

The conflict at the heart of the demo is that only giving a small amount of your game away reminds players that you are in it for the money. While you do have a profit motive, there is a difference between dating and lap dancing. Dating involves a lot of effort on your part, but with the idea of building a relationship. Lap dancing, on the other hand, is a quick thrill before demanding to get paid.

Fans are not looking to be lap danced. They are looking for a relationship, but relationships never work when money is a constant part of the conversation. Telling a player that they have had their go of a racing track and now it’s time to pay up is only telling them that you do not care.

The best demo ever

When I worked as a producer for a small publishing outfit I did some research on the performance of their games. Some of them included one-level style demos and some them did not. To my surprise, I found that games with small demos frequently sold worse than those with no demos at all. Those with more significant demos (3 levels) seemed to encourage more sales however.

As a player, the best demo that I ever played was that for the original Doom. In a fit of genius, iD released a whole third of their game as a freeware version that passed around the world like wildfire, and they invited players to buy the remaining two thirds. That first third of Doom included lots of levels, different enemies and even a boss fight at the end. It took hours to play and also supported multiplayer gaming.

What both of these pieces of information tell me is that successful demos take their time to form bonds with players. The longer they wait before talking about the money, and the less intrusive that conversation is, the more likely that your game will embed in the player’s mind. Taken to the extreme, this is why freemium games work: What is a freemium experience if not an endless bond formation exercise that will one day turn into a sale?

Demo or no

You don’t have to make a demo. Demos are not suited to all game types equally and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that up front. Players will choose to purchase or not, but either way the money question is simple and clear and they will respond in a fair fashion. Plenty of big and small games have trucked along quite nicely without ever needing a demo, so you may not need one.

Some markets are more expectant of demos than others. The PC gamer tribeexpects demos, for example, because it is a technically literate audience that is tired of being cheated by publishers who use cheap tricks to squeeze a sale.Muggles also often like demos, especially substantial ones.

If you do decide to make a demo, give at least 25% of your game away. So if it’s a single player game, give away the first quarter of the levels. If it’s a multiplayer game, give away several maps, modes and things to play with. Figure out what a quarter of your game looks like and then give it away.

Secondly, make the paywall come in at a natural point. Don’t, for example, set a gameplay time limit of an hour and interrupt the player mid-session to demand money. That’s lap dancer thinking.

Find natural points in the game instead, such as the end of the first segment like Doom did it. If in doubt, give more rather than less. Always remember that fans want to be seduced, not scammed, and set your demo up accordingly. Even if they do not actually make a purchase they will be more likely to evangelise on your behalf, and so the demo’s true function (telling your marketing story) is fulfilled either way.

Good demos are all about dating, so don’t move in for the kiss before you’ve bought the dinner.

About Tadhg Kelly