The Business Of Demos


Over the course of the last console generation, the discussion has popped up a few times of whether developers should keep making demos for their games pre-release. While the demo is common sense for the consumer, some developers have started asserting that they’re bad for business. What I haven’t seen yet though is a sort of moral reasoning behind all this.

Most recently, a guy at a recent Gamelab conference in Barcelona, Spain said pre-release demos can actually cut a game’s sales in half. A while ago the people at Extra Credits did an episode basically saying demos very rarely convinced people to buy a game on their own. I also remember people at Crytek saying at least once free demos should go extinct because of the resources they siphon from development of the game proper.

Basically, these guys are saying a lot of people will play a pre-release demo and come to the conclusion that they’ve either already had their fill of the game, or it just didn’t interest them enough to buy the full game. They suggest these people would have been more likely to buy the full game had a demo not put a stale taste in their mouths. From the consumer’s standpoint though, isn’t that what should happen?

The purpose of a demo is to let consumers try out a game to see if they actually like it enough to buy it. Why assume that absolutely everyone will like the demo and thus buy the game? Do movie producers assume everyone who sees a trailer will like it enough to see the whole movie? The guy who made Gunpoint said something along these lines in his blog.

“You’ll lose sales this way!” Tom Francis said some people told him. “From people who don’t really like it? I think I want to lose those sales.” He definitively lays out his point: “I wasn’t going to quit my job for a career in tricking people into giving me money and regretting it.”

The Extra Credits video points out however the occasional case of a great game with a bad demo that hampers sales. In my personal experience that doesn’t happen often. I hear people describing Spec Ops: The Line as very different from the bland demo I played, and I can tell you the demo for Hitman Blood Money isn’t representative of the full game. Most demos I’ve played however probably are a good enough snapshot of the full game, however good or bad it might be.

To be honest, I don’t have a very good picture of what most people do when a game interests them but it has no demo (or way to play it without buying). Maybe I’m an exception, but these days I almost never buy a game at full price without having played it first, whether that be a demo or rental. The only exceptions are games from franchises or developers I trust completely (Nintendo, Valve, etc.), and interesting games that are on sale at really low prices.

I’ve held to this rule for pretty much every retail game I’ve bought on PS3 or Xbox 360 (and a few PC games). Maybe I can say that because I have a GameFly account and can rent most new games that come out. GameFly’s commercials even run the slogan “Never buy a bad game again.” Without that, I’d have either bought far fewer games this generation or waited and bought them at far lower prices.

At this, someone might ask me of all the demos and rentals I’ve played, how many of those games did I buy. I’d say definitely not all of them, but quite a few, and I would say there are a handful of demos that caught me by total surprise. The games I ended up not buying, I wouldn’t have bought them anyway.

Other methods of trying before buying are already emerging though.

I’ve seen a few developers actually release a demo of a game a while after launch, which I guess makes sense business-wise. You get all the people who were interested enough to buy a game right off the bat without anyone being deterred by a demo, and then release the demo later to catch anyone who still isn’t interested. Better late than never I say.

Trying first is also basically the whole point of free-to-play. F2P game makers already know most people who download their game won’t pay anything into it, but they hope enough people do. Maybe people should approach demos like this.

I guess you could also count free trials as another method — specifically PlayStation Plus free trials and how OnLive lets you play an hour of each game (or something) for free before buying. I imagine that simple cut-off timer is less expensive for the developer than making a separate demo.

The people decrying demos seem to have started thinking that demos do little more than deter people from buying games. Whether they do a demo, trial, or whatever, the purpose should be to attract. I don’t see why people think of demos as anything other than interactive advertising.


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