I remember right before Mass Effect 2 launched for the PS3 (oh come on, I’m not that old), Bioware released a demo for it on the Playstation Network. I was drifting across the forums at the time and encountered a topic in which one unhappy soul was having second thoughts about purchasing the game. He stated things like framerate issues and control oddities as having a significant impact on his experience. Of course, many fans jumped to the game’s defense, boldly claiming that he hadn’t played the full game and that the demo wasn’t indicative of the final product. To be honest, they were right.
However, that’s exactly the problem. By all means, a demo should be indicative of the final product. It’s most likely the only chance the consumer has to try the game out before spending cold hard cash on it. Although trailers are always nice to gaze at in dumbstruck awe, a demo is the only way a player gets to test-drive the game, to truly get a feel for the story and gameplay and decide if they want to return. It’s disheartening to still see so many developers overlooking or outright ignoring this pivotal aspect of marketing, so we’re going to jump right in and examine what makes a good demo. This article will be written as if it’s addressed to developers themselves; that way they can learn from it easily and I’ll feel like an intellectual rather than a crazed man rambling on the internet.
How not to do it
The reason many demos fail is simply due to laziness. When it comes time to give the public a sample of your game, many developers choose to just pull a segment out at random and slap it onto the consumer’s tray to try out. Or worse, they’ll simply make the opening of the game the demo by default. Sure, these may ultimately be better than no demo at all, but it’s the absolute bare minimum one can do and quite frankly, the consumer needs something better if they’re guaranteed to buy your game. The problem with turning the opening into a demo is that, well, it’s just an opening. It usually only introduces the gameplay mechanics to the player without really giving them a chance to apply what they’ve learned. Sure, your opening introduces the ability to slow down time, but are there any significant battles or puzzles in that opening where the player gets to use it in a rewarding way? Now, about choosing the right section…
Picking the right dress
Of course, developers shouldn’t be forced to put what they deem the most intense part of the game in the demo just for the sake of keeping the player’s interest. Using a story-heavy section or one with lots of visual set pieces, for example, typically isn’t the way to go. Many of the game’s story elements will likely rely on character development and suspense that was built up from earlier levels in order to be effective, and visual set pieces just look pretty; you could easily show them off in a trailer. Instead, careful consideration has to be taken in order to find a segment that makes for a suitable backdrop for some of the central themes and/or gameplay mechanics on offer. Making sure the demo looks nice and is well presented is one thing, but giving the player a taste of the gameplay is what really matters. Since you have limited time and space in a demo, it’s best to focus on showing off the ‘hook’ your game has, the main mechanic it’s based on; that way you can intrigue the player and make them interested (more on that later). What’s your game’s hook? Time travel? Character interaction? Destructible environments? Whatever the case may be, find a section of the game that relies on that mechanic and allows the player to explore it. Red Faction: Guerilla’s demo, for example, put you into a mission that was based almost exclusively around destructible environments, the game’s hook. They also gave you weapons that were used specifically for demolish buildings. They could have gave you assault rifles or made the demo based on one of the escort missions or races, but they didn’t, and for good reason.
Simple = Effective
You may want to prepare the demo player for everything your game has to offer. STOP. Take your hands off the keyboard, minimize the window of code, and let’s talk. Overwhelming the player is not the way to go. All you really need to teach them is what they’ll need to get through the demo, specifically what they need to master the ‘hook’. Let’s say your game’s hook is possessing enemies; make the demo based on that, and include a few screens that teach the player how to do that. But what’s that you say? Your game also has jumping and crouching features? Don’t teach them to the player. You have a radar useful for spotting snipers? Unless there are snipers in the demo, you don’t need to tell the player about it. The player knows your game has more features beyond the ones you teach them here. After all, they’re just sampling and already expect the game to build upon the demo’s gameplay. Besides, by downplaying certain features and promising to feature them in the full game, you’ll make the player even more curious.
Mix and match
The F.E.A.R 2 demo is one of the only cases I’ve seen where the developer actually took various tidbits of similar-looking levels and merged them together to form a demo. It was a polarizing demo, with some deeming it incredible while others said it was weirdly paced. So maybe it wasn’t the best execution of the idea, but the concept is still intriguing. It allows a developer to ‘trim the fat’, so to speak, by specifically giving the player the kind of scenarios that allow them to use the skills they’ve learned. One could even include parts of the opening if necessary. The Mass Effect 2 and 3 demos did this by including the opening level as well as a scenario from later in the game in which the player was in full control and allowed to explore the RPG features they were taught in the opening. It would be interesting to see more developers capitalize on this concept.
Prologue: before the inevitable pre-order
One of my more radical ideas regarding demos is to actually develop it opposite the actual production and make it a prologue or side-story to the full game. This means that what players experience in the demo is completely unique and not something they’ll play in the full version. Risky? For sure. Some would say it’s not indicative of the final product, since it isn’t actually a part of it. At the same time, this would allow a piece of gameplay to be designed specifically as a demo. There would be no worries about how to condense the gameplay of a level into a demo, since it would be built from the ground up specifically for that purpose. Imagine if the demo for Uncharted 2 was a prologue in which Nathan Drake was running from some loan sharks in an urban city, or something like that. It would still feature the platforming and combat of the full game, just in a new scenario that works as a demo. Just something to think about.
“We’ve got him now!”
It’s important to remember the term ‘hook’, because that’s basically what it is, both in the demo and the full game. It’s a gameplay feature that’s supposed to hook the player and make them want to come back for more. In a sense, every gameplay scenario should feel rewarding but also feel like a cliffhanger, if that makes sense. At the end of a demo, the player should feel like they accomplished something, while at the same time feel like there’s a lot more to do when they buy the game. Introducing a new threat at the end of a demo right after one is defeated is a great way to hype players up: “Man, I just destroyed that entire platoon of robots! But wait, there’s a giant robot spider on the horizon! I can’t wait to fight that!” Including a trailer at the end of a demo is always a great idea, as it gives the players a glimpse of other scenarios in which they’ll use their skills, and it also gives you the opportunity to tease other gameplay mechanics.
As a developer, it’s absolutely vital that you showcase your game in the best way possible. At the end of the day, you can choose to simply show a picture of a hamburger to someone in the hopes that they’ll buy it. And maybe they will. But if you let them taste a sample of that hamburger, preferably the best sample that you can give them, they’ll be sure to come back for more. They’ll try to find that same taste that got them hooked in the first place. Then, whether or not you’ll recreate that taste again, you’ll still be able to proclaim that you gained the interest of someone. In today’s world of short attention spans, that’s a major compliment.
With game prices as high as they are, people are not easily impressed these days. It’s certainly difficult to completely hook a player in such a short amount of time. But with a little thought and some perseverance, it’s possible to create a focused and interesting piece of gameplay that will have players hungry for more. Such an opportunity can’t be ignored, and it’s definitely worth the time and effort that it takes to craft a compelling demo.