Saturday, July 9, 2005

Oasis: How to create an ineffective game demo

I just played through the demos of Oasis, Clash N Slash, and Future Pool. I'm admittedly a demo whore. I'll play them, form an opinion about the mechanics and move on. It takes a truly rare game for me to plunk down my hard earned money.

Of the three, Oasis had the most innovative gameplay. Others have compared it to Civilization meets Mine sweeper and I'd agree with the characterization. It plays with the well-honed mechanics of a veteran German board game: tight rules, well paced risk/reward schedules and an appealing setting.

I was quite impressed by the Tutorial mode, which took me about 50 minutes to complete. It manages to introduce a wide variety of concepts in an incremental fashion so that the player is never overwhelmed. All board games should have this feature built in. :-) Goodness knows, I'd be able to convince more people to play Settlers of Catan and Adel Verpflichtet if I didn't have to give them a complete brain dump of all the rules all at once.

Aren't you trying to sell me something?
I didn't purchase Oasis, even though it is exactly the type of game I enjoy. I played the game, finished the demo and was satisifed to leave the experience at that.

The Tutorial demonstrates a meta-game associated with collecting the Glyphs of Power. It is a rather classic mechanic. Every game that you play may gain you a Glyph of Power. Gather all the Glyphs of Power and you win the meta-game. Striving for a complete set of Glyphs kept me playing the main game over and over again.

However, as soon as I completed the meta-game of gathering all the Glyphs, I felt a lovely sense of completion. At this point my trial time had mostly run out. The game made a feeble attempt to ask me for money, but I was riding high. I had conquered Oasis...it was beaten. Why should I pay more?

Oasis was a very enjoyable class A game, but the structure of the demo provided no hook, no reason to play further.

A demo is a selling tool!
Back in the shareware days of Epic, we would always leave a big hook at the end of the game. The rule of thumb was:

  • Show 1/3rd of your game in the demo
  • Promise 2/3rds more content if they buy the final game
Now there is a hook! We'd promise new units, new maps, new weapons and prominently display them to the player. We promoted it as a transaction. The message was simple:

"If you give us money, we will not only let you keep playing, but we will also give you lots of very cool stuff. This will make your experience even more enjoyable than it is now."
The Oasis demo is an unfortunate example of a game demo that doesn't realize that its sole purpose in life is to addict people and convert them into sales. It currently sends the message:
"Now that you've seen everything under our skirt and had a jolly bit of fun, won't you pay us out of a sense of respect and appreciation?"
This is an honorable and naive attitude that relies too much on the inherent value of design. The idealist in me respects this attitude, but the pragmatist in me worries that the talented folks at Mind Control are not making the bank that they should on this delightful title.

Alternative techniques
Here are some alternative techniques that could help with the sales of the Oasis trial:
  • Give each player an hour and a half trial: Let them get half way into a new game before you end the trial. Promise that you'll let them continue their current game if only they pay you. I like to call this 'holding the player's game hostage.'
  • Create a 'buy now' button in the game: Give the player every opportunity to purchase the game.
  • Promote the hook: Create a screen or three that describes the great content available if you buy. Pimp this at when they download, at the beginning of your game and every time they close the application.
  • Track your conversion rate. Ping a server with a unique ID when the install is complete and ping it again when the purchase is complete. Use the conversion ratio to judge the success of your trial. Put out several trial variations and then promote the one that does the best.

If you can increase your conversion rate from 4% to 5%, that's a 25% increase in revenue. This is generally well worth the small development cost associated with creating a data driven trial system and posting several variation of the trial. If you have a well-publicized game like Oasis, it is silly not to perform this type of analysis.

Lessons learned about creating a good game demo
This is capitalism, baby. Make me a pitch. Tell me about the benefits I get from buying your game. Make it bold, make it exciting. Entice me into purchasing the game. By collecting simple data, you can ensure that the changes you make have a positive impact on your bottom line. Do not rely on mere hope that I will appreciate your efforts.

take care
Danc.

PS: So that I won't feel horribly guilty about critiquing this demo, I did ultimately purchase a copy of the game. After all, I had a jolly bit of fun and enjoy supporting indie game developers. I am happy to say that the purchase wrapper that was used is quite elegant and the buying process painless.