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The Importance of Demos

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Level 14 Extraplanar Programmer
Alignment: Chaotic good
Location: Toronto
Posted on November 9, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about a new game called Borderlands. I can’t actually say much about this game because I haven’t played it yet. Now, I can already hear you asking, “why did you bring it up if you haven’t played it?” Well, dearest voice in my head, it’s very simple: I brought it up because I haven’t played it. You see, the reason I haven’t played it is because there’s no demo.

If you take a look around our site, you’ll notice that we offer demos for all of our games. Obviously, we think demos are pretty important, so this week I thought I’d talk about why we think demos are so important, and why some publishers and developers decide to eschew the demo.

Let’s begin by discussing the various reasons why developers and publishers choose not to release demos, and then I’ll explain why I think most of those reasons are invalid.

Reason 1: We’re Just Selling a Box
A lot of game publishers don’t really care about games. As far as they’re concerned, they’re selling a product, and it doesn’t really matter what the product is, because marketing can sell anything. I’ve actually talked with a publisher who explained – unapologetically – that you can take any game, put a picture of two soldiers on the box, put that box on the shelves of Walmart, and you’ll get sales. The most disheartening part of this story is that it’s probably true.

Of course, you won’t get the same volume of sales that you would get by convincing your customers that the game is actually good, so this approach is usually used when the publishers don’t have much confidence in the game. This leads many players to be distrustful of games without demos, and rightly so!

Reason 2: Fans Will Buy Anything
This is a special case of the we’re just selling a box scenario that exists when a new game already has a fanbase. In this scenario, fans have enough confidence in the new game that they’ll buy it even if there isn’t a demo. In that case, the only thing a demo can accomplish – at least with regard to fans – is to change their mind.

This scenario is different from the we’re just selling a box scenario, because the publishers will usually postpone a demo and release it several months later, to try to appeal to the non-fans that are willing to wait.

Reason 3: Looming Release Dates
Another reason that a demo might be postponed is because the developers simply don’t have the time to release a demo! For some games, it’s very easy to release a demo – you just pull a couple levels from the game, put an ad at the end, and upload it to a website – but for other games that doesn’t give an accurate portrayal of the full experience.

Back when Sierra still made graphic adventures, sometimes they would go as far as to create a unique puzzle just for the demo, so there were no spoilers when you bought the full game! This kind of demo takes respectable effort, so it’s understandable that the demo might not be finished by the time a game meets its release date. After all, it’s more important that the developers work on the full game, right?

Reason 4: I’m Satisfied with the Demo
As a developer, there’s often a fine line between how long a player needs to play before they’re convinced that the game is worth buying, and how long they can play before they’re completely satisfied with their experience. This is particularly problematic in games that are designed to be very replayable.

We’ve run into this very problem with many of our games. For instance, the demo for DX-Ball 2 comes with 25 free levels, and we’ve talked to some people that have played our demo for years without buying the full version! We’re not particularly worried about it – after all, most of our players feel that the extra boards they get in the full version is well worth the price we charge – but some developers get very worried about this.

Reason 5: The Game Is Cheap Enough As It Is!
In my mind, this is the most acceptable reason not to release a demo. Most games are $40-$60, and that’s a big price to pay when you’re not sure if you’ll actually enjoy what you’re paying for. But when a game dips below the $20 line, or even below the $10, I don’t mind taking the risk. After all, I’ve spent more than $10 on a burrito! In my defence, it was a very good burrito. But the point remains: if I’m willing to spend that kind of money on a meal which will disappear in a matter of minutes, why not spend that same amount of money on a game, even if I risk buying something that isn’t great?

Breaking It Down
So let’s break down the different reasons developers and publishers don’t release demos. The first two reasons I gave are clearly deceptive attempts to convince a customer to buy something they may not actually enjoy. If a demo isn’t released because it’s not done yet, that’s a valid reason, but it’s fairly rare, and a demo is sure to be released in a matter of weeks. Lastly, if the player is so satisfied with the demo that they don’t think it’s worth buying the full version, then there’s probably not much depth to the game, and it’s probably not worth spending money on – unless it’s cheap. And if it’s cheap, I’ll always forgive a developer for not releasing a demo.

This has lead me to adopt a policy: I rarely buy any games unless they:
a) have a demo I can try; or
b) are under $20.

It’s a sound policy, but there’s no reason for developers to stop there. A quick look around our site will prove that we don’t believe these two options need to be mutually exclusive!

Finally, there’s another very important reason to release a demo – so the customer can see if the game works! I was recently bitten by this when I purchased Lucidity. Lucidity doesn’t have a demo, but it passed my price test, so I took a chance on it. Much to my dismay, I installed it, started it, and it promptly crashed. Turns out it doesn’t like the sound card on my work computer. In this case everything turned out alright, because it ran perfectly fine on my home computer – and don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good game, and well worth $10 – but the experience was a reminder of how dangerous it can be to buy a game without testing it on your computer first.

So go ahead and try our demos; we hope you like what you see!

Level 14 Extraplanar Programmer
Alignment: Chaotic good
Location: Toronto
Posted on November 9, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Addendum: If It’s That Important To You, Why Don’t You Pirate the Game?
I’m adding this as a separate post, because it’s slightly off-topic, but sometimes it comes up when I’m telling people how I feel about demos. Occasionally people suggest that I simply pirate a game that I want to try out, and if I like it, I can buy it after that. There’s two reasons I don’t like doing that.

First, although we trust our customers enough to release our games without DRM and without download limits, I still don’t like piracy, and this argument actually supports piracy.

And second, I believe in voting with my wallet, and it’s my hope that if enough other people feel the same way as I do, publishers will notice that games with demos sell better than games without demos, and then customers – at least the legitimate ones – won’t feel forced to pirate games.

But then again, maybe I’m an idealist.

Level 14 Human Shadow
Alignment: Chaotic good
Location: Earth Orbit, Preparing to Attack
Posted on November 9, 2009 at 9:12 pm

As my own addendum, there are a few publishers I generally only play demos from, and never buy the game. This is not because it isn't a good game, but rather because I find the publisher's practices (DRM, monopolistic tendencies, etc.) to be negative enough that I do not want to support them, and thus I vote with my wallet and only play their demos. This is counter to the "demo" argument, but without demos, they wouldn't even get that much from me.