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Made you look: How to directly impact game sales with a free demo


Hello! Today on the blog, we're chatting about game demos and trials. 

It's an interesting time for the medium in general - in some ways, like with demos on Steam and free trials on PlayStation Plus, playable slices of games have become more important. In other ways, like with the rise of free games and subscription services like Xbox Game Pass, they may seem set to become a thing of the past. 

So what's a company to do? Well, your situation is likely to be highly specific to your game and your marketing strategy, but we thought we'd jot down some thoughts about what makes a great demo, and about how to build a marketing beat around one. Let's begin. 

Demo vs Trial

Wait. Demo? Trial? What's the difference?

While many people use the terms interchangeably, there is often a semantic difference.

Demos are often purpose built, usually using parts of the full game, but editing them in some ways - mostly to gate players from getting too far and limit their access to specific levels and features. Some demos even end up being completely separate to the full release, perhaps taking place in an entirely bespoke location of the game world, but still seeking to demonstrate the experience of playing the game. 

Trials are typically the complete game experience, but limited by time. For example, you might have a five hour trial of a new game, and technically for those five hours you have the entire game at your fingertips. Longer trials are also common in some genres, such as among MMORPGs. 

Other terms you might see being used in this space are alpha and beta tests. While originally meant to signify a version of a game that is heavily in development (or early in development, in the case of alpha), many games have begun using the word beta for things like multiplayer demos, and stress testing of servers via said demos. 

Lastly, "early access" is similar to beta and alpha in that it's a term used to describe a game that isn't done yet. Essentially early access means "We're not finished making this yet, but... You can play it now if you want to." Some early access games are still paid-for products, while others are free and more akin to demos and trials. 

What makes a good demo?

The million dollar question: What is a good demo, anyway? There are lots of examples of successful demos, and lots of examples of bad ones. The success stories don't always have a lot in common (except for the one critical ingredient: the game is good), so it can be hard to know exactly what kind of demo to produce. 

The best demos communicate with players, quickly and succinctly, to explain what the game is. Essentially, a demo is a playable pitch for potential players and customers. We've previously talked on the blog about "Time To Fun", and a lot of that thinking applies here too. 

And the ultimate goal of a demo is to convert potential players. Doing so usually means getting them hooked on one of your game's design pillars or core features. This could be your world and your storytelling, or your mechanics, or your aesthetic, or some combination of many parts. Whatever it is that makes your game special, you need to showcase it clearly and put your best foot forwards. 

The most successful demos are also, typically, brief. Or at least, brief in relation to the expected total playtime of an invested player.

If a demo or trial is too comprehensive and permissive, many players may get all the enjoyment they need out of the demo alone and never feel the need to purchase or download a full copy of your title. The best demos cut off just at the precise moment that most players will be left wanting more.

For most games, this means that a good length of demo is less than an hour. There are of course, many exceptions to this rule. As mentioned, some games, like MMORPG's, often allow players to try-before-they-buy for days or even weeks before purchasing. 

Is a trial right for me?

So let's say you're making a fairly standard type of popular videogame. You've decided that you want players to have about 45 minutes to play around with it, and by then they should be hooked. Is it worth making a demo, or will a trial limited to 45 minutes suffice? 

Maybe. Ultimately, a more crafted demo that ends precisely when you want it to, based on player progress, will give you more control over ensuring this free slice is as powerful as possible in converting leads into sales. 

But hand crafting a demo takes time, and as you'll know, time is not something you usually have spare when developing a game and barreling towards your release date. The effort involved in creating a demo is perhaps often not worth the reward. 

By their very nature, a trial will showcase the beginning your game - placing a high amount of focus on it, and how quickly it draws players in. And actually, whether you end up releasing a trial or not, pretending you're going to is a really good way of ensuring that the start of your title is as brilliant as it could (and should) be. If you're wary of doing a trial because you think your game has a slow start, that is something you should address at the root: No game can afford to launch nowadays with a lazy, meandering beginning. There's too much competition for screen time, and players will simply bail if they are not thoroughly engaged from the outset. 

Is a demo right for me?

A demo, albeit more expensive to produce, is an opportunity to create something really special and bespoke, that really complements your game. If you have the resources, you can make demos which are completely unique, or a taster of what the whole game offers, pulling parts from various points in the game and combined in a new way. 

Some games particularly lend themselves to this approach. For example, sometimes games that have a lot of progression-based mechanics benefit from it, because it's effective to give people a little glimpse at how powerful you could become in-game, once you've invested many hours. 

It's really about trying to understand what makes your game exciting, and crucially, what makes it different. And creating a bespoke demo asks you an additional question: What's the best possible way we could showcase that? Maybe it's a prologue. Maybe it's adjacent to the story. Maybe it's from your story, but shown in a different kind of way to how it's presented in the full copy.

If you lack the resources to make a particularly bespoke demo, you might also choose the demo route simply because a trial starts at the beginning, and you know that a later level is a better showcase for the game's full capabilities. As an example, Adam here at Etch Play never shuts up about the demo for Halo: Combat Evolved, which wasn't particularly bespoke, but showcased the third level of the game rather than the first or second. Why? Because although the tutorial is action packed, and educational, and a good intro to the storyline - it doesn't showcase the scope of what Halo really is. To really sell the whole game, you had to storm a beach and get into a vehicle. 

Marketing a demo or trial

No matter what kind of demo or trial you have, the purpose of it is to get players playing it, and thus, sell the game to them. It's marketing. Like with any marketing, demos take time, skill and money - perhaps things in short supply. If you can't take the time or the money to do it properly, perhaps you shouldn't have a demo at all. Your efforts (and budget!) may be better spent elsewhere. 

And once a demo has been created, it's a tool that you will then have to actually use. It's free, and anyone who's considering the game and on-the-fence will likely opt to download it as a way of deciding whether to buy. But that doesn't mean most people will give you the time of day. You need to entice them and convince them that it's a good way to spend their time. 

It's a marketing shift which is increasingly relevant in the age of subscription services and free games - often as marketers, we're no longer trying to convince people to spend money on buying a game, we're trying to get people to click a button and actually spend time with it. That gets harder every year, as competition for our eyeballs increases, more games are released every month, and more of them are easier to access. 

In this new space, the easiest path for users is king. In your advertising, on social media and elsewhere, your goal is to convince people that playing the demo or trial is easy, and well worth their time. And people who are on that journey should be able to jump into the demo as quickly as possible - with direct links, and as few hoops to jump through as possible. 

Whatever you decide, and however you choose to share it, a demo or trial is just another tool in your marketing arsenal. Here at Etch Play, we're all about considering the entire marketing experience, and making every audience touchpoint as good as it can be. If you're interested in talking more about us and what we do, get in touch.