Recently, at DICE, industry analyst Jesse Schell made a bold statement that shook the gaming community. He stated that releasing a game demo can cut the sales of the game by half. That got me thinking about game demos. Then I got to thinking about the demo for Etrian Odyssey IV, which I’ve recently played (and wrote about), and how he does have a point there… kinda.
Now, before you go on and cast your judgement on me, let me be clear. I don’t agree with him. I think he’s looking at things from a marketer’s standpoint which is not good for us consumers. I can just see another point in his argument. Some demos may hurt game sales not simply because a demo exists but because the game can’t easily be shown in a demo. RPGs fall into this category quite often.
The question is, how do you demo a game like an RPG? In my experiences, I find that RPG demos fall into one of three categories. You can either throw the gamers into either a compact or full version of the intro (Fire Emblem, Etrian Odyssey IV), into a random dungeon at a pre-set level with pre-set stats and characters (Tales of Vesperia, Final Fantasy XIII-2), or just don’t demo the game at all (Persona series, Bethesda games).
Being that the Persona, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls series are among the most popular and beloved RPG games out today, I can almost agree with Schell’s statement. I mean, the best RPGs we’ve seen in years didn’t bother to release a demo. They did what Schell said to do which was to just release videos and to raise expectations. Then, they made all the money.
How would you even demo these games, anyway? When it comes to the Bethesda games, if you just drop into the World, it’ll defeat the purpose of what it means to play a game like that. The character wont be yours and the exploration factor would be extremely crippled. If they try having you go through the tutorial stage, then not only would you be experiencing the most boring part of the game, it won’t be able to show you any of the progression that makes these games worth it.
They can’t do either of these with the Persona games either. I mean, what can they do? They can’t just drop you into a dungeon. If you know how the series works, then you know you can’t do that. You can’t drop players into a random week, either. Just like real life, a week in Persona differs from player to player. And the tutorial is out of the question for it takes hours before any action begins.
One example of available RPG demos come from the Tales and Final Fantasy series. You usually find yourself in the first dungeon following the tutorial. Here, you have enough knowledge of how to play and a basic objective. The tutorial will usually end in a boss fight. These work for a couple of reasons. They show off the new look of the game, any new mechanics, and any additions to the battle systems. These games are pretty linear so you can block out sections and the gamer wont feel left out. But the main reason these demos work is because there is already a built in audience who will buy these games no matter what. These just help any stragglers find their way home.
The other way to demo an RPG is to throw the player into the intro and have them go until the first town or the second dungeon. This could be dangerous. In Fire Emblem you are shown the beautiful cutscenes and the first few missions are fast paced, fun, and (most importantly) easy to pick up. The demo tells you right off the bat that it is tough but you could choose an easier difficulty. You are almost immediately thrown into the fun. This is an example of a great demo. It gets to the point, it is upfront on what kind of game this could be, and it makes you want more. It’s mission structure also help. A lot.
Etrian Odyssey IV, on the other hand, is a tricky game to demo. The demo, now on the e-shop, starts you on the tutorial. Here, you go through a lot of text explaining what the game is. Then you need to create your entire team with no real knowledge of what each character type does or even how many characters you need to make. Then you are taken through the town to see what goes on in each specific area. After all of this, you finally get to enter a dungeon and see what the game is really about. And it is amazing! You really need to go through a lot to see the real game, and that’s kind of the problem. You’re asking for a gamer’s attention. You need to grab their attention.
Since I’m really into a variety of RPGs, and I know what to expect from a game such as Etrian Odyssey, I can handle the slow start. Getting other people to try this game out, however, is a whole other problem. This demo went from a lot of nothing straight to the greatness that is Etrian Odyssey. If someone didn’t know what Etrian Odyssey was and tried it out because they liked the art style, they would be bored out of their mind with the slow start. An RPG fan might not buy this game because they tried the demo and stopped playing before anything happened. In cases like these, a demo might prevent people from buying the game outright.
Again, I don’t agree with him, but in cases like these, Jesse Schell may be right. Demos don’t necessarily hurt game sales. Bad demos can hurt game sales. And in a time when RPGs are losing popularity, we need to figure out a way to properly show their strengths. And, of course, by me I mean the developers.