Trial by fire: the return of the game demo

Katharine  Byrne
Final Fantasy XV

Demos used to be a staple part of a game’s launch cycle. Even as far back as 1994, games magazines would boast about the number of playable demos they had that month, and it was generally accepted business practice that demos were largely beneficial to a game’s overall sales.

Indeed, Capcom’s EMEA marketing director Antoine Molant tells MCV that many publishers thought of them as “the perfect tool to boost pre-orders” in the early days, and Bandai Namco’s PR and marketing director Lee Kirton remembers a time “when demos were everywhere.”

Over the last console generation, however, they’ve become a rarer kind of beast. Online multiplayer betas still persist, but demos for single-player, story-driven games have practically become non-existent. That is, until Konami rolled out the PT demo/teaser for a Hideo Kojima-developed Silent Hill title at Gamescom 2014. 

Since then, demos are again taking pride of place in a game’s marketing campaign, with tasters of Square Enix's Final Fantasy XV (see Final Countdown for more on FFXV's three demos), Capcom’s Resident Evil VII: Biohazard, Bandai Namco’s Tales of Berseria and PlatinumGames’ Nier: Automata all releasing to considerable buzz. Publishers are now even releasing demos post-launch, with Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs 2 and Square Enix’s Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration giving players even more opportunities to try before they buy. 

As for why demos disappeared in the first place, some might attribute it to a rather damning DICE presentation given by Schell Games founder Jesse Schell in 2013. In it, he showed that, far from making a game more profitable, releasing a demo actually cut sales in half compared to games that launched with just a trailer before release. 

Left to right: Hajime Tabata (director, Square Enix), Yosuke Saito (producer, Square Enix), Antoine Molant (EMEA marketing director, Capcom), Lee Kirton (PR and marketing director, Bandai Namco)

For Final Fantasy XV director Hajime Tabata, however, the reasons why demos faded away aren’t very clear-cut. “I don’t really understand [it] myself,” he tells MCV. 

“However, we certainly realised how high the development costs of a demo actually are when we tried doing the ones for Final Fantasy XV, and we also came to understand how the risks from a marketing perspective were much greater than we had previously imagined. I have a feeling that these kinds of factors are not completely unrelated to why people don’t do demos so much anymore.”

Nier: Automata producer Yosuke Saito echoes Tabata’s sentiments, stating that creating a demo nowadays “still requires a lot of development time and effort, especially as a majority of the work on a demo will usually overlap with the mastering period for the full game.”

He continues: “The reason that demo releases became a lot scarcer for a while may have been due to companies making the decision that the benefits of a demo did not outweigh that effort.” 

Kirton adds that “consumers expect nothing but high quality”, and Molant agrees: “Going live with an average game demo pre-launch could actually have a serious negative impact on sales, on top of adding to the overall dev costs,” says Molant. “Publishers are now much more careful regarding demo content and whether it makes sense to release one.” 

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

Deciding to release a demo today isn’t quite as straightforward as it once was, then, but in Final Fantasy XV’s case, Tabata says creating the Episode Duscae demo was vital in showing fans how far the game had come after such a long time in development. 

“Episode Duscae was an important milestone for the development team,” he says. “The previous incarnation of what would become Final Fantasy XV had not shown enough progress publically, to the point where negative rumours were circulating about the development. 

“There were two reasons why we released demos for the game. The first was because we valued direct communication with the fan base so much. The second was because the game used such a new play style that we felt we needed for people to check it out and understand it before the final release.”

The same was true for the Nier: Automata team. “As this title is part of the action RPG genre, we felt that it would be difficult to convey its full appeal through still images and word of mouth alone,” says Saito. 

“Of course, we could always focus the promotions around video content but we also really wanted to get across how great the feeling of actually playing the game is and so made the decision to do a demo quite early on in the development.”

Getting players to experience its world and characters was also important for Bandai Namco’s Tales of Berseria demo. “We don’t have the opportunity to release demos for a lot of our titles so it’s good to allow players the chance to pick up and feel new mechanics, look at the graphics and universe, and as we have a stunning PC version as well this is very important,” says Kirton. “It allows the game to do the talking, or rather playing.”

For Capcom, Molant says the company wanted to demonstrate “the quality of Resident Evil VII as early as possible, and the best way to do it, when you’re confident you indeed have that quality, was to get gamers to play the game.”

A WARM RECEPTION

Of course, when the game in question relies so heavily on its story to deliver its dramatic impact, this naturally causes quite a few problems when it comes to avoiding spoilers. 

“We came up with the idea of having several updates over a period of a few months,” says Molant. “That way we could introduce various aspects of the gameplay, enhance the quality from one update to another, keep the content fresh, and benefit from several spikes of buzz as opposed to one only.”

It seems to have paid off, too, as Molant says the Resident Evil VII demo has been “amazingly well” received by players: “As of today it has been downloaded by more than 7m gamers globally. While we did support each release with a marketing push, it is the positive word of mouth that allowed for such a high number.”

Saito says the Nier: Automata demo has also gone down well with players and that he’s “delighted [with] the feedback from all around the world saying people find it fun.”

As for Final Fantasy XV’s Episode Duscae, Tabata says that player reactions were “positive overall” but the most valuable feedback came from the more negative responses. 

“Regarding the negative feedback, there were some very distinctive differences between Europe, Japan and North America,” he explains. “For Europe and North America the criticism was largely targeted at the need for an RPG style character growth system and for Japan more towards the fact the game progression is not 100 per cent story driven. 

“One thing that was common across all regions, though, was a dissatisfaction towards the appeal of some of the characters. The development team’s perceptions were somewhat out-of-sync with this opinion, so we worked on improving that a lot for the final release version.”

However, while Episode Duscae was a factor in making Final Fantasy XV the game it is today, Tabata says his “gut feeling is that the demo perhaps was not that big a factor in people buying the game.”

He explains: “Of all the demos we released globally, none of them were actually a segment of the finished game, so I think it would be difficult for people to see those as a definitive factor in deciding whether to purchase or not.”

STANDING TRIAL

Despite there being something of a resurgence of demos recently, the marketeers speaking to MCV say that these trials aren’t suitable for every release. 

“We are of course considering demos as part of our strategy to market and launch a game,” says Molant. “It doesn’t always make sense, [but] as a rule of thumb, when we can and we think it will be a positive experience for gamers, we do try to make it happen. Quality over quantity is a winning formula for everyone.”

Kirton concurs: “It depends on the title. Some just can’t make it work without giving away too much, spoiling or not giving away enough and therefore gaining negative comments from players. 

“With each game we can research each part of the experience and decide if a demo is doable, if it’s the right strategy, right for production and what would be the best timing.”


BURDEN OF PROOF

Of all the demos that have been released over the last year, you’ll find the vast majority of them have been from Japanese games companies rather than Western ones. Do Japanese game makers have more to prove than their Western counterparts? Bandai Namco’s PR and marketing director Lee Kirton explains:

“It’s important to showcase [JRPGs] in the best way as it’s very genre specific,” he says. “It’s hard to gain the same amount of exposure as Call of Duty, but the target market is different with little cross over.

“A lot of the titles are very core to the audience and we have a lot of Japanese licenses from Naruto, Dragon Ball, One Piece and Tales of. We also have Japanese developed games that aren’t JRPGs and focused on a western audience.

“Demos such as [Resident Evil VII’s] Beginning Hour and PT were very clever ways of focusing on production early to deliver something that players just get excited to jump on and play and therefore create amazing buzz.

“Imagine if Kojima and Sony suddenly put a playable demo up for Death Stranding. The impact and buzz would be through the roof. If anything I suppose you can thank Japanese companies for being a bit different and creating a new kind of marketing buzz that gets people excited. It’s a shame that PT never came to be, but at the time it was epic and probably the most talked about demo there was.”


 

FINAL COUNTDOWN

Given the amount of time that goes into making a game demo, it’s not surprising that most studios can only afford to make one before release. Square Enix, however, released a grand total of three demos for Final Fantasy XV demos before it launched at the end of last year. 

The first was Episode Duscae, which was bundled in with copies of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. “Final Fantasy Type-0 HD had huge significance for Final Fantasy XV,” says director Hajime Tabata. “The global project structure we set up for FFXV was run as a trial on Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, which is why we were able to pull off such a large-scale development on FFXV and handle it globally at the same time.”

The second demo was the freely available Platinum demo, which Tabata says was released “with the intention of largely being a tech demo" rather than a way to experience the main game.

"However, we wanted to offer more than just a standard tech demo and we included part of the protagonist Noctis’ childhood in there as something exclusive to the demo, as well as some more casual player focussed gameplay elements," Tabata explains.

"What we were aiming to let fans experience the technology behind FFXV, while also having a fun game experience at the same time and to enjoy something a bit different while they were waiting for the final release.

"In that sense the Platinum Demo was perhaps closer in nature to [the game's accompanying film] Kingsglaive or [anime spin-off] Brotherhood than to a regular demo. A demo that was part of revealing character information and mythology, rather than being a true reflection of the final game mechanics."

Finally, Tabata and his team released the Judgment Disc demo, which was only available to download in Japan. Despite its smaller audience, Tabata says this was the one that was best received by players. 

"This was a traditional demo that let you play a small slice of the main game. Games with big open worlds are not that popular in Japan. Because of that, even when Final Fantasy XV was about to be released there were still a lot of people who expressed the opinion that they did not know how you played a game of that nature. The Judgement Disc was a way of allowing the Japanese audience to try the final game ahead of release and obviously to judge it for themselves."

 

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Tags: feature , Final Fantasy XV , game demos , Resident Evil 7 , Final Fantasy XV demo , P.T. , Tales of Berseria , NieR: Automata , Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

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