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Putting on a Show

photo credit: Diane S Murphy

Demos are an important part of marketing games. Players (rightly) want a chance to try games before they decide to make a purchase. Putting out a demo that showcases the strength of your game will make players want to buy it, and then everyone gets what they want. Clearly then, having a good demo is important, both for developers and gamers.

This is something of more immediate interest to all of us here at Chromed, since we’re hard at work getting a demo of March 32nd ready for PAX 2011. A decent amount of our time is being spent trying to decide how best to showcase March 32nd, and I made some rather impassioned arguments at our last meeting. Vince suggested that I write a post on the topic, so here we are.

Some developers release unique content for their demos. I envy their schedules. While some amount of new content will need to be created, given the different context, it’s quite another thing to invent a new scenario to present to players. This can be effective, since it allows you to create a playground in which players experience a distilled experience, with only the strongest aspects of your game on display.

The new content route isn’t always available, and may not be the best choice even if it is. Re-purposing game content for a demo isn’t a bad way of doing things, either. You can still pick content that showcases the strengths of your game, and your development resources will be going toward final game content. Of course, iteration may still occur on that content, but gamers won’t feel betrayed if the game changes between a demo and the final product. After all, the game was still in development when they played the demo.

There are pitfalls to be wary of. The first level of a game isn’t necessarily the best level to use as a showcase, for a number of reasons. Actually playing the game will feel redundant to players who played the demo. They have to play the first level twice to progress, which can feel like a chore even when the game is good. Additionally, early levels often contain tutorial content, both explicit and implicit. The appropriateness of such techniques in the context of the game itself is a separate topic* but in a demo, tutorial content is generally inappropriate. The goal of the demo is to get the player hooked on your game. The goal of a tutorial is to teach the player how to play your game. These goals are generally at odds with each other. Players will be most engaged with a game once they know how to play it, and begin utilizing the full set of mechanics to progress.

It may seem that I’m describing a Catch-22. Tutorials provide the player with the knowledge to get the most out of a game, but they’re not appropriate in demos, where the goal is to engage the player as much as possible as quickly as possible. Part of the reason my recommendation isn’t a Catch-22 is that key word: quickly.

In a full game, the amount of time the player spends in a tutorial is brief compared to the amount of time they spend playing the game. In a demo, tutorials can quickly consume a substantial portion of a player’s time. This means that their first and a large portion of their total experience with your game is devoted to one of its least engaging points.

I generally find it preferable to put players into a scenario in which the absence of detailed knowledge will not hinder their play or make it likely that they will lose. Give players a brief amount of time in which they are relatively safe to explore the controls, then let them loose. You may find it beneficial to give the players artificially advanced power, either by providing them with mid-to-late game abilities or by tuning the stats of the player and enemies to favor the player more.

This approach provides players with an experience in which they are able to quickly play your game as they will (hopefully) be playing it when it is released. It gives them a more representative sample of game play, still emphasizing only the strengths of your game, and increases the chances that they will walk away with a thrilling victory — along with the associated positive feelings toward your game.

*One I intend to explore in another article in the near future.

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