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Heya Space Cadets,

Big Picture Monday is hitting a snag. I’m having a hard time picking up a lot of industry buzz about topics aside from “This new thing is cool” or “This is what we’re planning on doing,” the recent D.I.C.E. talks have given people so many topics to focus on that its hard to get a real good handle on what the buzz is. For those who don’t know what D.I.C.E. is, you’re better off looking to an actual new aggregate and checking out some of the talks, I think you’ll find it a lot of fun. What really struck me on some of this was the business aspect of game design getting a lot more information on what works and what doesn’t. That’s not surprising, especially in the wake of THQ imploding earlier this year.

First off, some data came out that shows that the most game copies are sold by companies that release just a trailer, not a demo. That made some people sit up, but it made total sense to me. It also made me really sad to have people talking about it. I remember playing the WORMS 1 demo over and over again with my brothers. We really only needed that one stage, and basically every stage after that was less fun, so whoops. I also remember seeing or playing, I can’t even remember, the Diablo III demo and it really killed a lot of my interest in the game. It felt so flat and derivative, and yeah, it was like literally the first 15 minutes of gameplay so of course its easy, dull, and simple. But if that’s your demo, that’s terrible!

Trailers are, for us, a very well understood medium. It’s a short video thing with some text, some music, and the implicit (or explicit) inclusion of a “go get this thing” usually with both the price and the time, and the place, you can get it. We get trailers for food (advertisements work this way) we get trailers for movies, we get trailers for cars, we get trailers for gizmos, wonkers and bars! I can make a Seuss rhyme if I feel like it, don’t look at me that way. Demos are, however, like a bite of that food rather than the teaser trailer. While it MAY stoke my interest, I might also be able to content myself with just a bite, especially if the rest of it costs 60 bucks. Microtransact away when your game is 5, 10 or hell, even 30 bucks, but once I’ve paid for a full game please give me a full game. My two extra bucks better be buying the most awesome SOMETHING…

Now, let me tell you, I am entirely unqualified to make the following claims except that I make games and play games and have a functioning human brain, but I think that the demo is not AS BAD as it seems. Lemme grab the quote from over on the Penny Arcade report so I can link you to it. By the way, Ben Kuchera is a fun guy to follow on Twitter.

“Wait, you mean we spent all this money making a demo and getting it out there and it cut our sales in half?” Schell asked. “Yes, that’s exactly what happened to you because when you put the demo out, people had seen the trailer and they’re ‘like that’s cool,’ and they made a plan. They had to try that game. And then they played the demo. ‘Alright, I tried the game, that was okay, alright I’m done.’ But the games with no demo, you have to buy it if you want to try it. These plans make a big difference.”

He’s talking about the idea of planning in games. He also talks about planning in the form of MMO Armor Lusting, where you see some fancy bling and instead of just thinking “That’s some bling” you start going “Holy crap where do I have to go to get that” and because you have a plan in your head, you’re already moving along towards an end goal. His point is that by exploting player planning processes you not only make a better business model but you also give players a more enjoyable experience. To bash on D3 once again, the micro-transaction real money auction house puts a hole in the adventuring tension because your plan for “I must have that thing” ends up being “I guess I have to pay someone 5 bucks for it.” That’s crappy and people really don’t like that.

They’d like it more if it was in-game gold, but my guess what they really want is the experience of wrenching the sword from the still-warm hand of a defeated enemy. Exclusivity is a motivating principle for people, because having something hard to get confers status, and that status is greatly diminished in message when its just “I have money,” especially in a world of pre-teens using parental credit cards or McDonalds fry-cook money to buy Ragehammers of the Magma God. No slight to the pre-teens out there, power-purchasing is always a deal with the devil. The devil in this case is the Bottom Line, and that’s a very dangerous thing to mess around with, since most “Deals with the Devil” don’t actually include boards of directors, shareholders, and legions of suited demons from “CORPORATE” coming to say “You need to add this, you need to change that, and you need it this year by Christmas.”

Most games go over-budget and over-time because most things in life are over-budget and over-time unless they over-estimate before they start. Hint to indies, overestimate. If you look at the overestimated number and say “I can’t spend that long on this, there’s no way it’ll take that long,” you should just quit now. It’ll take that long, buddy. It’ll take that long and then you’ll realize you need to add network multiplayer and you can’t.

Back to my original point: nobody can really turn up their nose to someone who killed the Magma God to steal the Ragehammer, but I think people have a reasonable complaint when your method of defeating Lord Magmoose was throwing three dollars at him. Think about how ridiculous that sounds!

So when you break that planning routine in a different way, by offering a demo, people will reach the end and be all like “Well, that was good,” because that was their expectation. Ask yourself this, what’s harder: feeling satisfied with just one bite of a good burger, or feeling satisfied after having one complete mini-burger. Or stopping mid-way through a big book versus reading to the end of a short story in a collection of short stories. When the experience you’re given has boundaries, you’re way more likely to finish and go “Ahh, okay. Well, that was alright… not great. I’m done.”

I think superior demo design could help, and I would be curious to see how a well-made demo experience would do compared to a crappy demo. D3 had a really crappy demo, as it gave me a segment of the least interesting portion of gameplay, no doubt. Trailers give you pieces of all the best stuff, splicing dialogue together in dramatic way, being a bit deceptive at times, and it seems like the big over-the-top scene moments are shot just to put them in the trailer. Why don’t people do that with a demo? Because its hard? Trailers would fail too if they were just the first 10 minutes of gameplay footage. How dull would it be to see someone fiddle through the graphical options for a bit, reading all the quest text, etc.

Make a demo the way you would make a trailer, and maybe it won’t cut your eventual sales in half. Instead of giving a complete experience, or even an honest one, throw it all at the wall. If your trailer would feature giant monsters, exploding walls, hordes of zombies, and epic spells, then make the demo include all of those. Shove me along in it on a breakneck pace, don’t let me get too situated in the world. Don’t make the world accessible at all, really. Let it just wash over me as I play a little bit, feeling that epic power that I wanted to have, and then cut it off mid-bite. Don’t let me finish an entire experience. Don’t even tease a boss and then end it there, or let me beat that first boss and say “YOU MUST UPGRADE TO PLAY ON,” even if that’s a little more effective. Just bring it to a massive crescendo, and SLAM the gate on me. That’ll leave me with this feeling of “But, but, two more seconds!”

That’s the goal of a demo!

Spacelab Signing Out

Anyway, just my feeling. I get a bit frustrated when fun, good-hearted features like demos get canned and games increasingly look for ways to drain every dollar out of you despite uniformly costing a premium price at the outset. Delve Deeper 2 is absolutely going to include microtransactions as well, but for fun and optional stuff, not the way we’ve been seeing Dead Space and Diablo do it. It isn’t that they’re asking me to pay a dollar, but that they’re ruining the experience for that dollar, and there’s no way for me to opt out of the bad designs that encourage it. I can promise we’re not going to do that with our games. Everyone knows that game design is a business, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it costs money to make a game because people need money to survive. I need money to pay my rent and by groceries. But as an indie, it feels unclean to me. I can afford to be more risk-taking or eschew common wisdom because I only need a niche market appeal. Once you get as big as THQ or Blizzard, you need everyone’s money, all of it. That leads to very different design choices, I guess.

It also sucks a lot of the purpose out of it. Making it all about the money isn’t evil because money is evil, its evil because it consigns you to the shackles of financial wisdom and market pressures. Again, there’s nothing WRONG with that, but its a very different environment, and is not always a fun one to work in. This is the curse of businesses though. If you just keep getting bigger and bigger you eventually get so big you have to make so much money that you cannot afford NOT to adhere to a very narrow path. You also end up killing off or merging with smaller, more creative enterprises, hopefully not entirely draining them of interesting thoughts the way it often seems like.

Here’s something I would like, though. I’d like everyone to save, like, a quarter a day. Or a dime, or something. Save it for a really exciting game. Play a demo, get a good feel for it, don’t let the game distract you by that feeling of “Well, I played the demo, I’m done.” Save up some quarters and get a really fun game that just has a clever twist on something, or isn’t part of a big genre, or represents something harder to box up. Journey is not a game a big studio could make well, it was worth the quarters people spent on it. Minecraft was too, though now its been cloned to hell and back. Making big companies sit up and go “Why are these little goofball games making money?” is less about the game developers there being woken up (though a lot of them need to be too) but it makes the corporate guys wake up. We’re knocking on the gates of hell there, not the poor schlubs stuck working for a company that refuses to innovate. But give it a thought. We all buy more games than we play, let’s just make one of those games a high-concept piece. And if you’ve already been that guy or gal for a while now, kudos fellow person, you’re helping a ton and it isn’t going unnoticed.

Neil Wickman feels like he’s walking into Mordor when he talks like this.

He has been working for Lunar Giant studios since its inception as one of the lead designers and the Creative Director. Listen to him @LunarNeil on Twitter.