Monday, January 11, 2010

Why Your Demo Sucks: Design Errors and Cognitive Dissonance

Like the pre-order metagame and the trophy/achievement metagame, demos are part of the less-evolved fringes of game design. Which is odd considering how long we've had demos in one form or another. Shareware has been around since at least the eighties. But not every developer made use of it, and only now with the latest console generation has heightened internet access resulted in widespread freely-available demos for consoles. We are still figuring out how to design games, but we are even more in the dark about how to design demos.

In fact, it's not even entirely clear that we should design demos. Research on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games suggests developers are better off not making demos at all, and should just make trailers instead. It's not clear, however - there are many confounding variables here.

"If you have a crappy game and you release a crappy demo, it's going to hurt you. And if you have a game with a $100 million marketing budget, you probably don't need to release a demo. What our evidence showed us was, if you only have an average game and an average marketing budget, putting out a demo that's bad is going to hurt you even more than [if it] were a triple A title [where] marketing might make up for it."
—Gregory Short, as quoted in Researchers Who Said Games Shouldn't Have Demos Defend Their Findings

Nintendo's WiiWare game download service launched on May 12, 2008, with the stated goal of becoming a platform for small-budget, indie developers to sell games on the Wii. But because these games are put out by small developers, they tend to lack marketing. Nor can they lean on a trusted brand, established franchise, or installed fan base. Often, all the prospective buyer really has to go on is the name.

In November 2009, Nintendo finally began offering demos for some WiiWare games. The result? Increased sales for all games with demos.

In the absence of controlled experiments, the causality is ambiguous and there is room for debate. But clearly there are at least some cases where demos increase sales. It's not surprising that gamers would be reluctant to spend their money on something about which they know nothing at all - especially in the case of downloaded games, which cannot be returned, given away, sold or traded. Demos can shed light on these obscure games and provide an actual reason to buy. Consequently, it's very important that a reason to buy is what the demo actually gives. The problem is that it's much, much easier to give a reason not to buy.

The player is not invested in a demo the way they are in a game that they've bought. Once a player has committed to a game by putting down some money, they want to enjoy the game. Cognitive dissonance pushes the player to work fairly hard to find the fun, in order to justify the expense of acquiring the game in the first place.

With a demo, the player's approach is evaluative instead of cooperative. They are taking the game for a test drive. The mindset is not "Let me find the fun," but rather, "Is there any fun here?" If there are annoyances and obstacles in the way - even ones forgivable in a purchased game - the player may well decide it's not worth it and abandon the demo. This player certainly won't be buying the game. The demo had better bring the fun directly to the player, because they sure don't want to go looking for it.

In short, game design problems are magnified tremendously by simply being in a demo. Something that represents a minor stumbling block in a full game can kill a demo.

The favorably reviewed PSN title Fat Princess features capture-the-flag gameplay, combat, resource gathering, building, six character classes, and up to thirty-two online players. It's a complex game and there's a lot to understand in order to play effectively. So how does the game ensure the player knows what they need to know? When a new player starts a game, it stops them and prompts them to read the instructions. If they accept, they are presented with eighteen pages of lightly-illustrated text tutorial.

Someone who's bought Fat Princess will probably want to know how to contribute to their team and beat their online opponents. There's a good chance such a player will be willing to read all this text to reach that goal. But someone who's just downloaded the demo to see if the gameplay is any fun is much more likely to see the wall of text as an obstacle not worth surmounting. An integrated tutorial that teaches the game more interactively would be much more effective than a reading assignment.

Some demos take it to the opposite extreme, telling the player little or nothing. Bionic Commando inexplicably puts the player into an online deathmatch instead of a tutorial level.

"Here's a game with quite a complex control mechanism, but instead of using the demo to teach you that, they just drop you into a multiplayer match.

Which is leading many to install the demo, fire it up, and hate it. How are they meant to kill people when they don't even know how to swing between buildings?"
Luke Plunkett, Capcom Try To Fix Stupid Bionic Commando Demo

Puzzlegeddon, meanwhile, has the gall to tell the player that their goal is to defeat opponents, rather than provide a more useful objective like "match the colored blocks." Demos should teach the player how to play - interactively and clearly.

Other demos throw up obstacles before the player can even enter the game. Gravity Crash is one of many that forces the player to scroll through and accept terms of use before they get to access the demo. Somewhat more subtly, many demos put the player through option menus, requiring they pick a game mode and/or a level. The demo player doesn't need these options. They don't need to know about the different game modes. The demo should just drop them into the most accessible game mode and let them see how it works. Diner Dash is problematic here - even worse for the fact that most of the options are disabled in the demo, but the player has to scroll through them and find the options that are actually available.

Even when the player gets right into the fun and knows what to do, the inclination to render demo experiences incomplete can lead to a few other major errors. My friend Izzie told me about her experience with the i Love Katamari demo on the iPhone. The demo presents a single level, asking the player to roll up as large a katamari as they can within two minutes. Despite herculean attempts, Izzie simply could not roll up a katamari large enough to satisfy the King.

Her katamaris were large enough to lag the iPhone, but the King remained stolidly unimpressed. Try as she might, Izzie just couldn't beat the demo. And if she couldn't pass muster on this sample level... why bother buying the full game?

The problem is that the demo is actually unbeatable. No matter how large the katamari, the king tells the player that they have failed. How many prospective buyers did this fact turn away?

"After a couple of games I was rolling around like nobody's business and even managed to get a katamari of over 25cm, which was brilliant - for me. I've no idea if that's actually any good or not, though. There's no goal set and the King wasn't impressed - but is he ever? It would be nice for some better feedback from the demo. I'm not buying the full game if I don't know if I'll be able to complete any levels."
Owen Allaway, i Love Katamari Lite (iPhone)

A demo should not make the player feel that they have no hope of mastering the game. It should provide a taste of success - let the player feel good, and want more. Let them complete one challenge, and want to try others.

Rock Band Unplugged is a PSP adaptation of the Rock Band franchise. Although the gameplay is different and doesn't mimic instruments with as much fidelity, the premise is similar - timed button-presses accompanied by popular songs, with more songs available for paid download.

The demo presents three songs to choose from, while the full game comes with forty-one. So the player can try out the sample songs, and if they enjoy the gameplay, pick up the game and some DLC to expand the experience to some of their other beloved tunes. Unfortunately, the demo has a time limit. A couple of minutes into the song, but significantly before the ending, it simply cuts out, and does not grant the player the satisfaction of finishing.

The full game still presents the opportunity to experience the Rock Band Unplugged gameplay on a much wider variety of songs, but by disallowing the player from completing any song, the demo changes the emphasis. The value proposition is no longer "buy the game to have this fun experience with all your favorite songs!" but instead "buy the game to be able to finish this song you may not even care about." This is much less attractive.

Some demos manage to avoid all these pitfalls, and a good demo can actually sell a bad game. Iron Man and Stranglehold were regrettable purchases I made on the strengths of their demos, which each deliver straight-up an early level of the game - but in both cases, it turned out to be the best level by a wide margin.

"What can one say about John Woo's Stranglehold? We could say that the demo was awesome. We could also say that Midway should have just released the demo at retail and charged two bucks for it, rather than stretch it out into a full game and failing."
Jim Sterling, John Woo wants to make another Stranglehold game

Virtua Tennis 3 and Bionic Commando: Rearmed managed to deliver in ways that the rest of their respective games could actually live up to - and prompted completely unregretted purchases on my part. Rearmed also went the provide-an-early-level route (with some extra humor injected), while Virtua Tennis lets the player set up exhibition matches with a subset of the selectable characters.

None of these demos deluge the player with options or required reading. They don't put up obstacles or make the player feel inadequate. They just deliver a fun and accessible bite-sized chunk of gameplay that leaves the player hungering for more.

When it comes down to it, game demos are much like movie trailers, comic book covers, and book jacket blurbs: you can't trust them one bit. But they still matter. They can still motivate sales if done right, and prevent them if done wrong. Even videogames rarely get a second chance to make a first impression.


  1. I've always thought the most compelling demos (especially for complex games) were the ones that started at the beginning of the game, and taught you everything the game normally would. If done well, this learning process should be fun in and of itself. A good demo then continues all the way until "payoff", which is what I'm calling the peak of fun within the game.

    Starting from the top also gets the player interested in the story, assuming there is one.

    This can mean the demo is long, it could be half the game even. Heck, theoretically it could even be 90% of the game and end on a cliff hanger. If the point is to make the player invested in the game, then the demo should provide as much content as it takes for them to want to make the purchase. I very rarely have ever seen a demo that gave me so much that I wouldn't want to buy the game just because I feel like I've done everything.

    And with that in mind, a good demo, when possible, also promises to save your progress and use it in the full game, when purchased. I see this more on PC than consoles, but it's a really nice touch.

    Dragon Age: Origins did something really smart when they provided the character creator as a demo. It gives you no concept of actual game play, which might turn off a lot of players. Instead you spend as much time as you want creating your own character, which you can use later in the purchased game. Simply because you have worked on something that you can use makes you want to get the game and use it, lest your creation be pointless. And they don't risk alienating any players with their game play, ingenious.

  2. @uhzHiro:
    I tend to agree. If the early levels/areas/whatever aren't a fun enough learning experience to stand alone as a demo, then the game hasn't done them properly. For some reason, the demos I've played of JRPGs don't do this. The demos for both Final Fantasy XII and Eternal Sonata had segments from somewhere in the middle of the game - leaving the player uncertain about the game mechanics and completely unattached to the characters or story. A well designed opening is all about hooking the player - why wouldn't it be used as the demo?

    I also think you're right about demo length. This is another place where the inclination to make demos incomplete bites developers if they aren't careful. You're spot on that the demo should provide exactly as much content as it takes to encourage the purchase - the Portal demo was fully eleven levels.

    Though I think it should be noted that there are some kinds of games don't lend themselves well to this. For example, the demo for Bejeweled left me not really feeling like I needed to buy the full game. For shallow games that don't become more interesting over time, maybe a fairly-brief time limit is the way to go.

    As for games saving your progress - the Patapon demo on PSP did something interesting here. The demo was the first couple levels of the game, and it saved your progress and carried it into the full game - but it also awarded you a unique item upon completion that you could then use in the full game, but could not obtain any other way. A clever hook.

    Though not as clever as releasing the character creator. What a great way to invest people in the game.

  3. Ditto on Bejeweled, see also: Peggle. You're right about puzzle games / mini games like that. I played the Plants vs. Zombies demo and they gave me way too much time. I kept expecting it to cut me off but the game just kept going. By the time I couldn't play anymore, I had more than my fill. I was at that point playing it out of curiosity to see just how long the demo was.

    I think like you said, the best demo they could do is a shorter time limit, just enough to let you know its fun(ish). Then at the end of the demo, force a video trailer which shows future facets of the game. Cue epic music. That could peak your interest without letting you experience it for free.

    Many demos for AAA games end with a video trailer, but in these puzzle games we usually see one screen with some pictures, and a link to buy the game. Not as enticing.

  4. I'm uncertain if you believe there should always be a demo or not.

    For me there should always be one.

    If a big name game doesn't have a demo, that's a huge warning sign in my book. A big name game must have a demo, not to pull in their choir but other gamers who know of the game but don't really know enough to buy it off the shelf.

    A small game also always needs one. Games like Peggle can work off of word of mouth, but it is heavily in the minority.

  5. @Shane:
    From a gamer perspective, I absolutely want there to always be a demo. Hearing a game has no demo is a bit like hearing a film has decided not to screen for critics.

    But in the light of the studies I reference, it's a lot harder for me to say with any authority that it's good for the developers to always release demos. Without more conclusive data, I can't make such a sweeping statement. All I can really say is that they need to give people a reason to buy the game, which a demo can do very well - provided they don't screw it up. So don't screw it up, guys! :)

  6. @Shane

    It's hard to say whether there "should" be a demo. There are two different interest groups at work here, and they may have conflicting desires. Developers/Publishers want to move as many units as possible, so they "should always" want a demo if and only if they can be reasonably assured it will help their sales. Or at least not hurt them. Players may or may not care about demos, at their option. You clearly do, but I don't see a universal maxim here. I've played plenty of demos that were very entertaining and been left cold by the retail product.

  7. As you mention in the article, one of the major problems is the perspective that a demo is a restricted, cut down version of the game rather than an introduction or an appetizer for the full game.

    Demos should:
    - Introduce
    - Engage
    - Not Overwhelm
    - Be Re-Playable

    But it seems to me that a lot of games out there just don't suit the demo format ergo their starts are simply poor

    For example, FPS games generally either have a non-combat on rails beginning (ala Half-Life, where Valve had to make a unique level for the demo) or throw the player into a chaotic battle, or at least one that seems to be.

    Neither of these form a good structure for a demo, one isn't engaging and the other is overwhelming both of which would turn players away from a game if used for a demo.

    The start of Deus Ex in comparison lends itself perfectly for a demo, you're straight into the mix but it's not chaotic or overwhelming since you're told what's up and what your orders are.

  8. EA's Army of Two: The 40th Day demo deserves special mention I believe. I could not even play the demo without first registering with an email address (undoubtedly for marketing spam later) with EA. Result - demo deleted and vow made to never purchase the game. Typical EA though!

    For more complex games such as FPSs and fighting games, beta periods I think ought to be included in this analysis, as for me they perform a very similar function to a demo for me and presumably for some others.

  9. @Andrew:
    I like your bullet points.

    I think it's interesting when a game's opening doesn't lead itself well to a demo. Iron Man, for example, had its third level as the demo rather than either of the first two levels, which were basically an extended tutorial. I loved the demo and bought the game because of it. This prompts the question - did the game really need the first two levels? The third may have been a better lead-in. Are the criteria the same for a demo and the start of a full game? If something would fail as a demo, does that mean it's not a good way to start the game either?

  10. @Remy:
    An email address? An email address? Dammit, EA.

    MMORPGs often use betas as demos too. The dynamics are different enough to warrant a separate analysis, I'd say. But it's definitely related.

  11. I would say that 99 times out of a 100 those rules apply. Half-Life is that 1/100 game where the start is good, but not suitable for a demo.

    The distinction between introduction and tutorial is key here.

    An Introduction aims to:
    - Ground the player within the world
    - Begin the story and plot
    - Engage the player
    - Allow a degree of exploration and experimentation

    A Tutorial aims to:
    - Teach the game mechanics

    If we look at the three most important FPS games to date; Half-Life, System Shock 2 and Deus Ex all three make the distinction and as such separate the tutorial from the game itself.

    Most games treat the start as GameX 101 and as a result are just laborious, tedious tutorials that fail to introduce the game properly.

    A side point on this route, is that you can reduce the need for tutorials through clever interface, control and mechanic design. Thus making it more likely for a demo to quickly engage etc.

    Take Halo, nothing special when compared to its PC contemporaries but its interface, controls and mechanics broke new ground on the consoles and made FPS games viable there:
    - Sticks & Triggers controls
    - Auto-Aim/Smoothing
    - Two weapon limited arsenal
    - Mele/Grenade attack buttons (not separate weapons)
    - Armour -> Health regeneration system

    Tutorial needed? Not really, just have the options and corresponding button press appear on screen when needed.

    Doom 3 introduced a really intuitive feature that when you approach a control panel or button etc. you automatically bring up you hand and you interact using the same button as you do to fire.

    That's instantly reduced the need for another key bind and also a tutorial explaining how to use stuff since your hand gets raised, your weapon lowered etc.


  12. More awful demos (really there's so many bad ones it's ridiculous when you think about it. It's like they don't want to sell games ;) )

    Battlefield Bad Company 2 (or whatever it's called). EA demands your email address to play =anything= online it seems, even demos. Deleted.

    'Splosion Man - a good demo, but didn't show me the game's greatest appeal which is co-op play! I got this in the XBL offer this week, and I feel like I've ripped off the devs now by getting at that super cheap price, as it's way WAY more fun than the demo showed me.

    Super Street Fighter 2 HD Remix - only allowed 2 player local play. Ouch. (arguably didn't really need or want a demo though, since it was selling to an audience that already knew the game in the vast majority).

    Aliens Vs Predator - same problem as 'Splosion Man. Only lets me play free-for-all deathmatch which would quite likely be my least favourite mode in the final game - which I'm now not sure I want to get. It's as bad as Bionic Commando really - very complex controls, yet the player is forced to play the mode that affords them the least chance to learn those controls.

    Great demo - Left 4 Dead 2... for anyone that DIDN'T play the original Left 4 Dead, this is fantastic intro to the game. The problem is for L4D players (like myself) the demo didn't show much that differentiated it from L4D1. So I've stuck with L4D1 for now until I've eventually exhausted it (or my friends have) and L4D2 is cheap and/or 2nd-hand (although I did also get L4D2 in a Steam sale anyway, but I play way more on 360).

  13. I think the best approach to a game demo is the one taken by Apogee, Epic and ID back in the early 1990s. Divide the game up into three or more episodes of equal length (nine or ten levels seems to work best) and release the first one for free. Anyone who likes that and wants to play more can buy the full version and get the remaining episodes. Those who can't afford to register can still enjoy what's provided for free.

    Take Doom as an example of doing things right. The shareware version comes with nine levels, all of which can be used for either single-player, co-op or deathmatch and most of the game's weapons. Buy the registered version, and you get everything in the shareware version plus 18 more levels, a bunch of new enemies, and two new weapons. Just taken on its own, the shareware version is satisfying, but the registered version gives you everything the game has to offer.

  14. I completely agree with you here. I played the Dead Space demo and in it I went up against multiple tough enemies and had 0 ammunition! I thought "this is what the demos like? imagine the game!" I immediately went to the dashboard and deleted the demo, not even waiting for the player to die. Disappointing too because I've heard such good things about the game.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum is NASCAR Thunder 2003 demo which I played on the original Xbox. Not only did I play the demo constantly and buy the game. But I actually became a NASCAR fan, bought merchandise and attended races!