Welcome to Objection! This is where we take the time to go on-depth on current gaming issues, and let you guys continue the discussion in the comments section. This week we’re discussing game demos - do we still need them? Are they still relevant?
Joining us today is Michael Pincott - Pixel Hunt's E-Zine Editor, and a regular contributor to Hyper. Pixel Hunt's latest E-zine, issue 13, is now available - and free! Head here to check it out.
MARK: So Michael, game demos - do they influence what you buy and don't buy? And are they still relevant in today's market?
MICHAEL: I believe that there is still a role for demos to play, but I think that role has greatly diminished. Demos are simply less prevalent than they once were. There are plenty of developers who choose to get rid of them entirely. This might be because the type of game is unsuitable – you’ll never see demos for open-world titles like Fallout or Grand Theft Auto, for example. Or it might be because the publisher deems them unnecessary. We didn’t see a demo for Call of Duty: Black Ops or Halo: Reach because, let’s face it, they were always going to sell in the squillions whether there was a demo or not.
There is also the simple question of resources – I’m no game developer, but I’m pretty sure that creating a demo isn't as simple as cutting and pasting a section out of the final game. A demo has its own rules and restrictions and these need to be implemented, giving the player access to weapons or abilities they wouldn’t have in that part of the final game in order to give them a broader experience. Would you prefer that a developer invest time and energy into a demo or into polishing the actual game?
To answer the first part of your question Mark, I would have to say no, at least in the case of retail titles. I don’t often play demos anymore, even if it’s a game I’m looking forward to. I bought Dead Space 2 the day it came out and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I didn’t touch the demo.
One reason is that demos seem to be released so close to the full game’s release that it isn’t really worthwhile. But mainly, I find the idea of playing a detached segment of a game, removed from its context, to be a rather unappealing way to experience the game first-hand. Perhaps I’m being silly but I like a certain purity to my video game experiences. I want my first time to be special.
MARK: You used the example of Dead Space 2 - here is a game that is somehow managing to outsell its predecessor two to one. When I first read those figures it struck me that a huge number of gamers were happily purchasing a sequel when they hadn’t even touched the original. That usually never happens – sequels are generally bought by those that played the first game.
I asked the Marketing Director of one of the major Australian Games Retailers why he thought the sequel was completely outselling the original - he told me he attributed Dead Space 2’s success at retail squarely to the fact the sequel had a successful demo.
You didn’t play the demo – and neither did I. Like you, I didn’t want my experience spoiled, but the fact is that a solid, entertaining demo can make or break a new IP or, in this case, a sequel that struggled to meet expectations. Another example is Bioshock – that game was a difficult sell for mainstream audiences and I’m convinced that much of that game’s commercial success was the direct result of an incredible demo.
MICHAEL: You make a fair point, Mark. I, like yourself and many others, played the BioShock demo and was blown away. As I said, I do think demos still have a role to play, and acclimatising an audience to a new IP is certainly a part of that role – the Bulletstorm demo being a recent example.
But since you mentioned BioShock, what do we make of the fact that there was no demo for BioShock 2? I guess you could place it in the same category as Halo Reach and Black Ops mentioned earlier - the first game was so well received and became so well known that BioShock 2 didn’t need a demo to convince gamers that it would be worth playing – most people had a sufficient idea of what to expect from playing the first BioShock. It almost emerges as a sign of the publisher’s confidence in a property, or lack thereof.
I do think there are still a lot of positives for demos. I would never suggest, for example, that XBLA should do away with demos for Arcade titles. Going back to the idea of the demo for the purposes of pushing a new IP, I think it’s crucial that the likes of Limbo and Super Meat Boy have that opportunity to spruik their wares to the player. I think the fact that providing a demo is compulsory for every game has been helpful to the success of XBLA.
Perhaps the decline of the demo is reflective of the success of the industry – it’s no longer as frequent a fixture in the cycle of announcement, hype and release because it doesn’t need to be. I feel as though there’s a level of understanding between consumers and publishers as to what we expect from their titles. They generally have an understanding of what we know we like, what we dislike and what we’re not sure about. They tailor their marketing strategy, and whether or not a demo is a part of their strategy, to that understanding.
MARK: Agreed. Ultimately the demo is simply a marketing tool like any other marketing tool, and it suits some games more than others. It makes sense for Helen Mirren to spruik Wii Fit+, but I can’t imagine Microsoft would have her wielding a chainsaw lancer in a Gears of War 3 ad campaign.
In that respect I would say that developers just have a more refined idea of what concepts work best with demos and which don’t.
hjMICHAEL: I think that the sight of Helen Mirren chainsawing her way through the Locust horde would definitely shift units, but you’re right, I’m not sure Microsoft would agree. Cliff Bleszinski on the other hand...
You’re certainly on the money about developers knowing best about whether or not a demo is suitable for their game. I only just now read a quote from Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of Dark Souls, saying that the game would not have a demo because it would be impossible to convey the game’s appeal in the short window of gameplay a demo offers.
What stood out to me recently as an innovative way to present a demo was what Capcom did with Dead Rising 2 and Case Zero. For those unaware, Case Zero was essentially a DLC prologue to Dead Rising 2. It did everything a good demo should do – it was a reasonable length and gave the player a strong feel for the gameplay and style of the game. But it was also its own discrete game, with a location and a story you wouldn’t get with Dead Rising 2 itself. Instead, it gave you a head start. You could start levelling up and give your Gamerscore a small boost along the way.
No, it wasn’t free, but it was pretty cheap, and it turned out to be the fastest selling game on XBLA. I’d really like to see this format used more often. I’d much rather shell out a few bucks for a ‘demo’ with substance and incentive like Case Zero than play a short sequence pulled from the first third of a game for free.
Nobody else has done it yet, but I’d hope that somewhere out there publishers and developers looked at how well Case Zero worked and stroked their chins thoughtfully. I think demos will always be a part of the gaming landscape, but I’d like to see the way in which we sample games before release evolve. The games industry is constantly marching forward. I guess we’ll see if the demo gets left behind.
What's your view? Do you still use demos as part of your purchase decisions? Are they still relevant? Let us know in the comments below.