In today’s industry, gamers are swimming in an ocean of new releases. Smaller titles get buried under the larger ones, and even the larger ones can get lost when the big blockbusters take hundreds of hours to complete. Gamers are stretched thinner than ever before, and so companies need to do whatever they can to entice their audience to spend time – and, more importantly, money – on their latest project. One great way to accomplish this, and a way I’d like to see more developers take advantage of, is with a playable demo.
Demos for smaller games
For smaller titles, like indie games, demos may be the best option for promotion. It costs a lot to market a game, and smaller studios may not have the budget for such activities. In addition, for untested studios, consumers may be wary of their ability to deliver on a title.
This is where a playable demo comes in handy. By releasing a demo, consumers can dive into the experience without putting skin into the game. If you have a negative experience, the only thing you’re out is a little bit of time. But if you walk away feeling good about it, you may be more likely to take a chance on the full title.
Such was my experience with the Oninaki demo, released late last month. I had heard a tiny bit about it, and while it seemed like my type of game, I didn’t know enough about Tokyo RPG Factory to put my full faith in the developer. Thankfully, they released a demo. I walked away from that with more than just an incredible experience – I also gained the knowledge that I would definitely be picking this one up at launch! Without this demo, I may never have given Oninaki a second thought.
Demos for larger games
Larger games, compared to their smaller counterparts, aren’t as reliant on demos for marketing. These games typically have larger marketing budgets, often utilizing trailer after trailer to reach a wider audience. Though consumers can be wary about trailers due to controversies such as Aliens: Colonial Marines, many companies have enough of a following that their fans already know what quality of work they do.
Even so, more of these companies could use demos to reach an even larger audience, especially if they’re targeting a new market. The question will then center around the content of such a demo. After all, larger games often have many complex mechanics that you can’t easily fit into a smaller experience. So, how do you show off such a game?
Let’s look at Fire Emblem: Three Houses as an illustration of how this could work. First, you have to identify the core aspects of your title. For Fire Emblem, this would be the battles. A good demo would highlight these aspects. So a Three Houses demo might start with something like the opening tutorial battle. This would not only explain the game’s mechanics but also ease players into the experience gently.
Second, a good demo builds intrigue around your title. It’s not enough to prove that your game works – you need to draw your audience in. For Three Houses, the faction system serves this purpose well. You could get a small introduction to each house, then be forced to pick one. After siding with a house, the demo might drop you into a cutscene or small snippet that briefly introduces you to each character. Then it could whisk you off to fight a larger battle, after which the demo ends. This process creates a natural curiosity about the two houses you didn’t pick and would lead either to repeated demo playthroughs or an investment into purchasing the full game.
The cost of creating a demo
Certainly, making a demo isn’t cheap, and thus developers/publishers have to weigh the costs of making one against the benefits of what it could provide. One way to cut down on costs is to not actually create a new experience, but rather to take a portion of the actual game. This is attractive to gamers, since you’re getting a more polished experience than you would with, say, a beta version.
Tokyo RPG Factory did this with Oninaki. The demo isn’t bits and pieces which are thrown together; it’s literally the opening moments of the full game, which stops at a nice cliffhanger. This actually makes the demo even more appealing to consumers, since your progress can actually carry over into the full game!
What about beta tests or early access?
There are alternatives to this that many developers have focused on in recent years. However, they provide different benefits and, I would argue, don’t belong in a discussion of marketing tools.
Beta tests are similiar to demos in that they let players try out a game before launch. A lot of modern AAA games offer some sort of testing window. A beta test’s purpose, however, is not to give players information on whether they should buy the game. It is solely meant to test the game’s capabilities. Whether a beta test is designed to examine gameplay balance or server load, the true benefit lies with the developer; the ability for players to play the game early is just a consequence. To call a beta test a marketing tool is inaccurate, and thus, there is still plenty of room in the industry for demos.
Even more recently, the early access model has taken root. Often in exchange for a discount or some other benefit, early access titles allow you to play a game before it officially launches. That makes them similar to demos, but there is a key difference: early access requires you to pay money for the game. With a demo, on the other hand, you’re simply testing out the game to see if you like it; you’re under no obligation to purchase the game afterward. So again, it would be somewhat inaccurate to call early access a games marketing tool.
Demos provide companies a way to connect more directly with potential buyers and prove that their product is worth buying. They provide gamers with first-hand experiences that can help them decide whether or not to purchase the title. After all, personal experience is often a stronger motivator than outside reviews and pre-rendered trailers. Though not all games need demos, I think developers often overlook them as a viable marketing tool and thus should consider taking advantage of the benefits they provide.