A few years ago, a presentation at DICE 2013 suggested that for some titles, allowing gamers to try the game through a demo before its release had negatively impacted its sales. At the time, the best way to market a game was supposedly to produce perfectly shined trailers and screenshots, building up anticipation before release. Six years later, thinking has moved on. Now the most popular way to tempt a player into a purchase is to allow them to watch an influencer or streamer play the game, but isn't that somewhat similar to a demo where players can try it themselves?
There's still a section of players for whom streaming won't suffice, because they like to make up their own mind. They're not going to refuse to buy a game just because people say that it’s awful, neither are they going to automatically buy a game because the general consensus is that it’s the best game to ever be released. To be able to come to their own conclusions, they have to rely on the small number of demos that still exist because gaming seems to have very little room for the traditional demo. Yes there are alphas and betas that ultimately serve the same purpose, or even the Xbox Live Gold Free Play Days, but these only let players try out the game during a time period dictated by the developer/publisher. If you're not available during those play periods, you miss out. Meanwhile, demos let players download them and play them at their leisure.
There may not be many of these demos kicking about anymore, but as the recent 1-Shot demo for Resident Evil 2 has proven, many players still consider them a valued part of their decision making. By the time the game was released on January 25th, the demo had been tried by a massive 2,681,411 online players across the world (offline players weren't included in this number). Those players had spent a grand total of just over 211 years playing the demo. These stats go to show one thing — many people enjoyed the demo because it did several things successfully. Firstly, the demo was an accurate representation of the smooth state the game will be in when it's released (excepting HDR issues), something not seen in alphas/betas. I've played my share of rough demos, ones where ugly brown textures have risen out of the floor with each step, or textures have popped in and out, or they've crashed. These don't leave players with a lot of confidence in the finished product.
Secondly, the 1-Shot demo comes with a 30 minute time limit, but what players did within that 30 minutes was up to them. Players were able to experience the game on their own terms, playing as much or as little as they chose. If demos don't do this, they risk turning people away from their game, and that's exactly what you don't want. If players wanted to spend that time exploring as much as possible and perhaps not reaching the end of the demo section, they could do that, and this is seemingly what the majority of players chose to do — only 25% of players completed the demo. During that time, they travelled for a total of 5,621,282 km, which is equal to seven return trips to the moon. They also killed 14,471,069 enemies, the equivalent of 145 times the population of Raccoon City. They also found many different ways to die, the more unusual being blown up (0.02%), having their heads crushed (0.69%), and even being turned into human mincemeat (0.04%). They died more than 1.1 million times.
The final thing RE2 did right was to not let players sample too much of the game. As an alternative to taking their time, players could rush through the demo section of the game as quickly as possible. If they reached the end of the demo before the time limit was up, they could play through it again, but there wasn't much more on show unless players explored. Players began with a Handgun and a Combat Knife, but other weapons were strewn throughout. What players found was driven by their behaviour during the demo. To show how much impact the demo had, Capcom's site provided a breakdown of the characters players chose for their first playthrough of the full game. Between the two starting characters, Leon and Claire, 79% chose to start the game as Leon, the character available in the demo. Only 21% took the risk as Claire. They tried out the former character and liked him, so they stuck with that.
There's a fascinating range of statistics from the demo that provide an insight into the way players behaved. To see the weapons players used, enemy statistics, the success rate of puzzles, and other random statistics from the demo, check out Capcom's site here. Meanwhile, I've played demos that have behaved far differently and have had the opposite effect. I've tried a demo that let me play the entire game with the exception of the final action needed to complete it. Having already played the entire game, I had no reason to buy it. I've also played a demo for an adventure title that removed the ability to interact with objects, a vital gameplay mechanic. Stripped of the ability to actually play the game and left purely to wander around a room, I quit the demo quickly. These are both extreme examples, but the only effect they had was to put players off a title.
There are many games that I would never have considered without their demos: Darksiders is a perfect example. This hack and slash style RPG was the type of game that I’d usually avoid, but I got hold of a copy of the demo on a disc that was included with a magazine. I had nothing to lose so I gave it a go. Two hours later I was still thoroughly engrossed and I bought the game the next day. I would never have discovered one of my all-time favourite XBLA games without a demo either. A Kingdom for Keflings was on the Deal of the Week offer. Convinced that I wouldn’t like it, I tried the demo anyway. Not only did I buy the game that day, I later bought the DLC maps too. The sequel, A World of Keflings, became a day one purchase... all because of a decent demo.
Do you remember during the Xbox 360 generation where every Xbox Live Arcade game and Xbox Live Indie game had to come with a demo? Despite the fact that the bigger retail releases weren't required to have them, rarely would a week go by without a new demo for at least one of those titles too. They were seen as a valuable marketing tool back then, especially those based on new IPs. Sequels tend to get away without a demo as gamers already have an idea of what to expect, but we’re completely in the dark with a new IP. If there's no option to try out a game, I usually tend to leave them until they come down to a price low enough for me to feel like the risk can be justified. Some never reach that price. I’m sure that I’ve missed out on a few games this way, but this is something that I’m perfectly happy to live with.
Nowadays, I’m still trying to work out why few games release demos. Why does modern gaming seemingly shun this idea? In the current gaming climate, traditional demos may still seem like a costly risk, but it's a risk that will very likely pay off for Capcom, and has paid off for many others before them. While not all of those players will rush out to buy the game on day of release, the demo will inevitably have convinced some of those people to purchase the game at some point in the future. The resources spent on creating that demo will translate into sales that wouldn't have happened otherwise. I've been one of those people, one of those sales that wouldn't have happened without a demo, and I'm certainly not the only one.
Check out our X Horror Games That Deserve Sequels (And Y That Don't) article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.
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