Jesse Schell went on record about a month ago, talking about the impact of demos. I didn't really have much to say about it at the time - there was so much I wanted to say, but without any cogent counter to his arguments, I didn't have the words to actively fight my corner.
Until last week, that is.
I'd heard so much about the game Antichamber. It was promising to be a mind-bending first-person platformer, long-hailed by critics as a genuine diamond in the rough. Everyone raved about it, from the venerable Mr Ben Kuchera, to the Culturelab over at New Scientist. This game is groundbreaking, they all said. You owe it to yourself to play this game, they all said.
At the same time, my housemate acquired a copy of the 2012 Need For Speed: Most Wanted, and proceeded to burn through it at a rate of knots. He's very much one for fast cars, and so the game sat in his trusty Xbox 360 for days on end. He's only played around 10 hours, but those 10 hours have been the high-octane highlight of his year so far.
These games both piqued my curiosity, and by extension, my wallet. However, being the cautious consumer I am, I wasn't willing to put my money down and pay for them without making myself an informed customer. With Antichamber, I was worried that the game simply wouldn't live up to the hype, and when it came to NFS, I didn't know if the PC version would be as satisfying as its Xbox counterpart. There was just one problem...
Neither of these games had demos available on PC.
Now, Jesse Schell would argue this is a good thing - as he said, "The thing is, with no demo, you've got to buy it if you want to try it". I very much disagree - your customers shouldn't be just cash cows. In the digital age, you're not providing a product - you're providing a service, and you're providing it to a group of very loud and like-minded people, who will not hesitate to shout from the rooftops if they don't like your service.
So, I did what any smart consumer would do. I fashioned my own "demo".
That's right - I openly admit it. I "otherwise-acquired" these two games in order to try them out. And I'm oh-so-glad I did.
What I found was this - Need For Speed was an absolute riot, which managed to capture my attention within minutes of booting up - it even had multi-screen support and PC controller integration, AND managed to pick up my friend's Xbox gameplay through its Autolog service, so we could compete cross-platform.
Antichamber, however, came across as pretentious, inconsistent drivel. The game frequently and willingly broke its own rules. It committed the cardinal sin of giving players instructions that, when followed, actively hindered them. There was no fun to be had from this game. After less than 20 minutes of nothing but sheer frustration at how disjointed the experience was, I gave up.
I deleted all traces of both games, and then proceeded to get out my credit card and buy Need For Speed. £25 very well-spent, in my opinion.
The reason I think this voice is so pertinent is because these games could very easily have a demo. Antichamber is a series of non sequitur puzzles, on a timer - any of these puzzles could be in any order, and no story would be lost, no plot missed. To take half a dozen of the easier puzzles, put them in to a sequence, and give the player a reduced timer... well, that's an instant 10-minute demo, with existing resources and gameplay mechanics, that would satisfy the curiosity of consumers.
Need For Speed has a much easier job - give the player a car, and a couple of races. In fact, it's so easy, that they did exactly that! This game already HAS a demo! The problem with it, is it's exclusively a console demo. Why this wasn't introduced on the PC, I'll never know. It would have made my life so much simpler.
I was on the fence about both of these games. If it had come down to whether or not I'd buy them on the strength of the news I'd heard about them, the answer would have been no. There are so many other great games out there that I can try before I buy, that it would make no sense to buy untested games, whether the testing is for compatibility with my computer, or just to see whether the game is for me. The fact is, "demoing" these games made me buy one of them! I put my money where my mouth is, and said "This game's worth buying", because I tried it out.
Jesse Schell's argument, "The thing is, with no demo, you've got to buy it if you want to try it", contains two fallacies. The first is that you don't necessarily have to buy the game to try the game, as evidenced here. His second is that he feels there is inherent value in the unknown - that consumers will take a risk on something unproven, because they've heard the hype and want to experience the whole thing for themselves. I've seen first-hand that this would have been a mistake with Antichamber, and gamers worldwide are feeling that sting with recent launches - even with strong developers holding high-value franchises, such as Gearbox with Aliens, and Maxis with SimCity. Selling a terrible game on the basis of shiny trailers and broken promises is the fastest way to generate ill-will, and trading bad publicity for short-term capital gain is a mistake.
Coming back full-circle here, the move in gaming from a product to a service comes with its own set of issues. In what has become a service industry, old models of thinking simply won't work. Hook me on a demo, and I will buy your games. Right now I've got 3 demos downloading in Steam, and I fully expect to be buying at least one of these games by tonight. If these games didn't have demos, I'd have not looked at them, but I have, because at least I'll know if I'm getting my worth out of the service before I put down the cash. It's a dangerous game to play if you're letting pirates provide part of that service, because before too long, pirates will provide the full service. Their games arrive DRM-free, easily demoed, and functionally identical to the real product in terms of gameplay (well, unless you're Croteam, and even then, I want to try this
The thing is, Mr Schell, with no demo, you've got to convince me that I want to buy it. I don't think that's a winnable position in the long-term.