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 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

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.


  1. That all sounds so very simple, and yet I was just about to release a demo that included most of the features of the full game. Thanks for the timely wake-up! :)X

  2. I imagine it must have been difficult to decide on how to make the demo of Oasis. The game seems to hinge on the idea of replayability. Its kind of like a game of Civilization or virtually any board game. Sure you can play it once and say you’re done with it, but the idea is to play it again and again to try different tactics and strategies and become better at it. By letting you play once until the end, they probably hoped to hook you by letting you play and say to yourself, “Wow. That was kind of fun, but I didn’t do all that great. I bet I could do better a second time! How much does this thing cost?” or something to that effect. Perhaps that didn’t come across too well or maybe we, as consumers, don’t pick up that hook too often anymore.

    This might be a stretch but the game is similar to Pac-Man in an odd way. Each time you play the game, it’s really just the same game over again. Sure, things are randomized, you don’t start off with the same situation in every game of Oasis and the ghosts don’t act the exact same way each game (at least I think so, I can’t remember if there was really a pattern or not, but for the sake of my example, lets pretend that they’re random). If you were allowed to play one game of Pac-Man, would you want to buy the game knowing that every time you played, you’d be playing the same game over and over? Games like that used to do very well back nearly twenty years ago now. Maybe this form of a hook is no longer effective (or, at the very least, it wasn’t effective on you)?

    Really, I’m just trying to say that maybe Oasis isn’t a game that works too well for shareware and the hook just doesn’t come across as well.

  3. Even with replayable games like Oasis there are ways to create a hook.

    There's a game I play called Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. It is a highly replayable very short game with randomly generated levels. The hook for me in this title was item system and the high score list that was prominently displayed after each game. Within the demo period, you kept seeing new things and you kept getting a higher score.

    At the end, I was like "Oh, I need to improve my score and I want to see more cool things." Quite effective.

    Oasis has both of these elements. They have a scoring system for each board and they have random powerups that you get as you adventure across the map. A slight change in presentation could bring these elements to the forefront.

    If a game is fun, you can increase it's sales with a proper marketing-oriented demo. Some games will always sell more than others, but proper sales execution has a big impact on your revenue.

    One of the themes running through this website is that "If you build it, they will come" is a strong cultural belief amongst game developers. If this approach fails, the response if often "Huh, I wonder what happened? Oh well, better luck next time." This is a naive way of running a business. By applying marketing, consumer psychology, economics and operational management techniques game developers can dramatically improve their chances of making a stable and fulfilling living.