The Demo Is Dead, Part 2

Because my previous blog post was not a complete academic essay on the subject, nor indeed intended to really go any further than the few people that visit our blog, it seems that a few people are deconstructing the arguments and poking some big holes in the assertion that “The Demo is Dead”, which is fine, but the article is not at all complete, and contains no hard data (of which I have a lot). At the time, I just thought I’d pen some musings on the subject talking to people who already didn’t care (existing blog readers, who are generally customers and therefore unaffected by what we do with our existing titles).

Anyway, the internet sort of exploded in rage and disbelief that a tiny indie developer could become such a cruel, heartless, candy-snatching killjoy.

As a general reply to various comment all over the place, here are some further musings:

99 Reasons To Not Buy Your Game

This was clearly an exaggeration for literary impact, and if that’s not obvious to you, for shame. But instead of just asking me what those reasons are, maybe you could engage in devil’s advocacy, and think of some yourself. Here are some I thought of, spuriously:

  1. I got my fill of gameplay already from the demo. (Our demos typically gave away 25% or so of the full game progression)
  2. I’ve had 90% of the initial delight of the game for nothing. Paying some money for the remaining 10% is a waste of money. (Note disconnection between “delight” and actual content)
  3. I can’t be bothered to pay for it when I can go and play another free demo somewhere else.
  4. I’ve already got a bunch of games I’ve paid for but not yet even played. Maybe I’ll not bother getting this one yet.
  5. I played the demo ages ago and forgot all about it by the time payday came because something else distracted me in between.
  6. I only buy games through Steam.
  7. I’m a poor student/waster/single mum and I don’t spend money on games especially when I can be entertained endlessly by demos for nothing.
  8. I loved the game except for this one small thing that I didn’t like like I can’t remap the fire button to X and for that reason alone I’m not going to buy it.
  9. I thought the game was too easy but that’s because the demo can only show the first 10 levels which have to be easy to not put off the 95% of people who find it too hard.

You’re Just Using Yourself As A Single Data Point!

Some have accused me of using myself as a single data point (“I’ve never bought a game in the last 5 years from playing a demo”) and drawing my conclusions based on this, which is fallacy. This is not the case; my own, singular experience was what got me to look at the data in the first place. It was just a hunch, that I got to thinking about actually a few years ago. It’s only in the last year or so that the data has become impossible to ignore (see below for some figures).

The Nature of Puppygames Demos

Few people were aware of the exact nature of our demos, or even our games, and it’s probably worth researching because our games are of a particular ilk and available only on a particular platform. We make desktop arcade games mostly, and that’s a pretty strange niche to begin with, which substantially effects the way demos work.

Our demos were “full” versions of the games, which could be unlocked by registration (no further download). They tended to let you play the first 25% or so of the game unfettered before expiring on a cliffhanger (eg. first boss appears, or you’re just about to see the next “world”, for example).

Claims that we’re “doing demos wrong” are from people who, I suspect, have not been doing this for as long as we have. The fact is, our demos were more or less no different from nearly every other demo I’ve ever seen. They weren’t even unsuccessful either – they converted at an industry-respectable rate, AFAIK. The problem is that rate is shit and the amount of money we can charge for a successful conversion has been eroded, which brings me to…

Context Is Everything

The context of pricing and market positioning, specifically. Over the last 10 years we’ve seen the average price of an indie game plummet from $20 (sold direct by the developers) to $5 (sold on Steam or BigFish in a sale) to about $1 (sold in a bundle of some sort). Steam pioneered the price slashing in the market – I’m sure you educated types with economics degrees have a special name for this manoeuvre. In the space of a couple of short years, direct sales plummeted to less than 1/10th of what they used to be (and they were never great). Almost overnight, the chances of being an actual indie developer – and succeeding! – have dropped from “you’ll be lucky” to “you’ve as much chance of winning the lottery”. Not only had consumer expectation of prices been eroded from $20 to $5, but consumers were also taught by Steam to buy on the basis of video and recommendation and, most importantly of all, discounts.

Then, just as things didn’t seem they could get more crazy, along comes the Humble Indie Bundle, and we’re now becoming accustomed to picking up titles for a dollar or less. Again, demo unseen. We’re conditioned to buying stuff because it is cheap not because we necessarily want it. I say “we” – yes! I am one of you. I am a consumer. I’ve got a hundred games in my Steam library. I am doing all these things. I won’t buy a game if it’s not on Steam any more. I won’t buy a game if it costs over $10. And so on. This reminds me of an anecote many years ago when a friend of mine came bouncing into the room full of glee because she’d bought some mint essence. When I enquired what was so amazing, she told me that it had been 75% off so she just had to buy it. I can’t recall her ever before or since actually making anything with mint essence in it, but it was a bargain!

In this context, what we now see is that 95% of our incomeany developers income – comes not from conversions of demos, but from sales via gatekeepers and bundles. What the focus of my original article was really about is that there is a case for simply dropping prices through the floor and not giving anything away for free. There is “free” stuff everywhere, already. The differentiator we now have is that if you want to sample our stuff, it will actually cost you. Otherwise it is simply unavailable. It is out of reach. You can look through the glass into the shop but you can’t touch it until you spend a (paltry) amount of money. Just like with mostly everything else in the world these days.

Are We Right?

There’s no harm in being wrong. We can be wrong. We’re going on what the data tells us, and we have a lot of data. We’ve sold 481,529 games in the last 3 years, and 30,246 of those have been to people who played a demo. That means the other 451,283 sales were made without anyone ever seeing a demo. If you want percentages, that’s 6%. We’re quite happy to be proved wrong! If the data tells us we’re wrong, we’ll go back to using demos.

Our hypothesis is, we’ll make a bit more money if we ditch demos and drop the prices. As you can say what you like about the 97% of sales being without demos and argue till you’re blue in the face that you don’t buy games without playing a demo first, go on ahead. Argue away – you’re arguing that black is white. You’re not making us 97% of our sales. The bit you need to argue over is this:

6% of our sales are to demo players, direct, and they have made us $72,000. We think that if we drop our prices hugely, and ditch demos, that we’ll continue to make 6% of our sales direct, but that we’ll make a bit more than $72,000.

The Sands Shift Beneath Our Feet

And still that’s not the whole story. The thing that most beginning developers – us included – fail to take into account is how the markets change over time. As I said, when we first started, we sold conversions on demos for games that cost $20. We started just at the tail end of a golden era in independent game distribution (typical bad luck, huh). The internet had just revolutionalised developing games and the gatekeepers were just about to move in, along with a flood of other developers who suddenly discovered they could do it too. It is suprising in hindsight that so many developers clung to the $20 price model in the face of what was happening.

Things came to a head in about 2008 or so, when we released Droid Assault. Droid Assault was released to the sound of tumbleweed. No-one was even the least bit interested. It’s a great game (IMHO, haha), but when it was released, nobody wanted to buy it. Customers were already thoroughly in the pockets of Valve and BigFish by then. If you didn’t have a game on a portal, it simply didn’t sell. DA must have shifted literally a few hundred copies. By contrast on Steam, now it’s finally out on Steam that is, it’s shifted thousands of units.

And so we must realise that the market is changing, all the time, imperceptably slowly. Let’s look at those figures I just mentioned above, and instead, let’s look at just the last 12 months:

In the last 12 months we’ve sold 77,224 games, of which just 725 were demo conversions. The demos weren’t suddenly any different. The prices weren’t suddenly any different. Suddenly, after just 2 years, we’re only making less than 1% of our sales via demos. Nothing else changed except the entire rest of the market.

So actually what you really need to be arguing over is this:

1% of our sales are to demo players, and they have made us $5200 (yes, really). We think that if we drop our prices hugely, and ditch demos, that we’ll continue to make 1% of our sales direct, but that we’ll make a lot more than $5,200.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.




24 thoughts on 'The Demo Is Dead, Part 2'

  1. Two days ago, I was starting to type my disagreement with the previous post. Because I’ve always loved demos, and I really hated the moment when the big publishers stopped all of a sudden to provide demos for their games.

    Then I thought back about the past years.

    With the arrival of Steam as a sale market, providing promotions continuously, the constant income of great indie games from those last years, and recently with the addition of bundles… I reached a point in which I have so many games anyway in my backlog, that I picked for so cheap, that I don’t bother anymore.

    Most games I buy (indie, mainly) price at $10 on release. Maybe 15 sometimes. Most of them will be on a promotion in the coming 3-6 months. The best of them will be included in a bundle in the coming year.

    All in all, it’s not anymore a matter of demo. If I enjoy the premise of a game, and read glowing reviews about it on sites I trust (RPS, for example), I will most likely buy it on the spot, to try this game mechanic which attracted me in the first place. If I’m not as enthusiast about it, or doubting how it delivers, I put it on a wishlist, and wait for the inevitable sales.

    I agree that often I bought a game without demo, and didn’t play it more than one hour. For sure, if I would have tried it, I wouldn’t have bought it afterwards. And the truth is, for the money I spent, it’s not that much of a loss. I have other things to play anyway, so I forget about it.

    So indeed, from an indie game dev, I see how it makes sense on the business level to just ditch the demo. Especially if your game relies on a specific arcad-y mechanic, which is likely to be most of the same during the whole game (like a good part of Puppygames’ titles).

  2. Puppygames needs no demos 🙂
    But with some games, demos are very useful for people like me who need to see how well a game works on an old computer, linux etc.

  3. As a developer I love offering demos, and as a gamer I love playing demos but especially considering that nobody has time for anything anymore it very well might be much more effective to make nice videos/trailers and have reviews instead of demos.

    Of course on the other side of the spectrum you have a lot of free-to-play games today, which finance themselves through micro payments and stuff.

    Like always it would be great to get some numbers…
    I suppose one could look at vgChartz and check for games with or without demos. But its kinda arbitrary as there are so many factors.
    Duke Nukem Forever sold almost 1 million copies. Beside being horrible, it had a demo to show you…
    So yeah – we need more data I guess.

  4. Personally I like the design of your games…
    This wasn’t the case for your early game, but I bought Ultratron as soon it was available!
    Maybe, new editor needs some demo or needs some reviews.

  5. So you’ve made the point that people aren’t willing to pay more than around $5 for a game these days, and generally look for bargains. They’ve concluded, rightly or wrongly, that they don’t want to pay $20. You have to ask yourself something, then: could there be a reason why they don’t see these games as worth $20?

    And what DO you think of the people who buy $20 games based on the profoundly inadequate information in videos, the ones who would have found a (justified!) reason that your game wasn’t for them. Those dissatisfied customers who find they have no recourse whatsoever thanks to the digital games market allowing for no returns or resale? What happens to them?

    Because, honestly, I think the former is the response to the latter. We get burned, so we aren’t willing to risk as much cash, especially in this economy. As demos go away, we’re only going to get burned harder and more often, so we’re going to be willing to risk less, and less, and less…until eventually we end up gravitating towards the oceans of F2P, social and mobile games which do allow us to “try before we buy”

    I wish you luck and success. But do remember that consumers’ funds aren’t infinite, and that your fears of their getting something for nothing aren’t any more valid than their fears of paying for something that doesn’t deliver. If game creators try to kill demos, you can’t blame game consumers for responding in turn.

    1. The thing is, consumers have been happy to have it this way for maybe 7 or 8 years now.

      Buying direct from the developer has its advantages of course – we refund anyone who’s disappointed. Steam is rather guilty of not providing a refund policy. The whole argument is kinda moot if you can just get a refund.

  6. You have your 6% demo conversion rate, but is that simply those who registered the game within the demo? There wouldn’t be any way to track those that have played the demo and then bought the game through Steam or a bundle, right? Wouldn’t they appear as people who have downloaded the demo and not bought the game? I suppose you can track full-price sales on Steam to have some vague correlation of this, so nevermind I guess.

      1. I’m curious as to how you’re doing that. Is that from IP addresses? Maybe the save data from the demo is used in the Steam version? That seems clever.

        1. All sorts of clever stuff involving cookies and registries and UUIDs and a bit of database magic. I think it’s pretty highly accurate, but the tale it tells is basically terrifying.

          Mostly terrifying for advertising companies, but still pretty scary for us.

  7. Off topic:

    I was about to ask you if you had any new games, but I re-checked your blog to see if I missed anything, read about BattleDroid, as well as this tidbit:

    “We’re planning to blog on progress every week until we reach the point where we run out of money, and then we’re going to come begging. This is our development diary.”

    I’ve never played a F2P game, but if you do one, I’m sure to try it. You’d probably get more money out of me if you sell it for $20 though. Either way, planning on updating us on the progress anytime soon?

    1. In my experience, F2P is about exasperating the player to the point where they finally just go “FINE! TAKE MY GODDAMN MONEY!”

      Also, you’d THINK they’d make more out of you with a fixed, higher purchase price, but frankly you’d probably be shocked at what people will pay, in F2P games.
      I know people who pay $50/£40 a (every) month for advantages in such games, and the advantages they get are negligible, AND they just mean that you’re on more often, so you’re more likely to spend in the premium item store.
      These same people think that a WoW subscription is expensive, and Guild Wars 2’s price is “astronomical”, yet have spent literally thousands.

      It’s just insane.

      1. Proper Battledroid development will resume in July after we’ve gotten Rezzed out of the way and Chaz is a little more freed up to actually start doing some graphics for it.

        I’ve never actually played a free-to-play game either. At least not so much as to spend money in it; but this is mainly because I don’t really play games much any more – when you make them all day for a living, there’s not a lot of time left for playing them. This might be both good and bad… on the one hand we’re not really influenced by fads and fashions going on around us, on the other hand, everything we create tends to be in a vacuum.

        1. As someone who work in F2P, I would discourage you from trying to create one. It require a lot of work, most of which is marketing and timing more than IT, most F2P make no money at all because the market is overloaded, and thoses rare game who earn money are very fickle and crash very fast.

          Adam is right in that people pay insane amount of money in free to play. But it have more to do with online casino than with game making. And it’s definitely not an inch easier to pull off.

          (on another note, I don’t believe the argument that demo make people buy less games. But that’s your call ; people overreact on this, since demo have a very limited use anyhow)

  8. Dude,
    Your games rock. I have them all and love them all without exception.
    Bought them way before they were on Steam.
    Totally worth 20 bucks each.
    I find your sincerity quite pleasing as well.
    Do not let the lamers on gamasutra put you down.
    Keep creating great stuff and I will keep on buying them.

  9. It’s funny for PC games I generally never use demos to gauge a purchase. Usually I buy games so cheap that I won’t bother so long as there is good buzz about it in the community.

    I still download demos for almost all of the games I’m interested in on Xbox Live though. I guess because the process is more streamlined and because transactions on XBL are more expensive and annoying(converting real money to MSpoints) to go through, so I want to be absolutely sure that whatever XBL arcade game will be worth my time and money.

    Recently been intrigued by demos for Castlestorm and State of Decay, considering those.

    1. I’m sure the demo numbers for XBL are a lot higher than PC numbers. You can’t pirate on XBL as easily and they never have worth while sales. You have to be more careful with your money there. But when Steam regularly has games on same for $5 or less, like you say, there’s no need for a demo.

  10. This isn’t a response to just this blog post, but the last ones you’ve done since your Ultratron post.

    Honestly, I understood why you guys did away with demos before I read either of these articles. Mainly from personal experience, but I haven’t played a demo since the PS1. Although, back then the internet wasn’t what it is now.

    I picked up two sets of all of your games, albeit from steam, without even thinking of playing the demos. Even now I’m considering picking up a third set here from you guys so no matter what I’ll always have a DRM-free version. Not only to support you guys, Cas, but to support developers that still offer DRM-free versions of their games.

    Still, as a developer that is at the beginning of his journey it is hard to see one of his favorite developers discouraging others from doing what they love (first paragraph of your March 22 blog). After all, there’s plenty of us that are doing it not because we love the industry, or because we think we have a good chance at “hitting it big,” but because the idea of building something that we can have fun with is more important than any sales figure.

    Meh, I guess when your livelihood is attached to a sinking ship it isn’t hard to become bitter and jaded with the industry. I do miss when you were a bit more chipper, Cas. But again, I understand where the discouragement is coming from.

    1. Is it a sinking ship? 77,224 sales in 12 months sounds good for a small team if they can average a couple of dollars per sale.

  11. This might not apply to PuppyGames, but the recently released Indie game Gunpoint (which is a fantastic game BTW) is evidence that Demo’s are still necessary. Apparently a lot of people have been asking for refunds due to the game not working on their system. Unfortunately this also includes people who purchased the game through Steam, and the developer has no control over Steam refunds which makes for a bit of a situation. The developer is willing to give a refund no-questions-asked, but the Steam users who can’t get the game to work were a little upset I’m sure. Thankfully the dev is crunching away on fixing any and all problems, but this is definitely a case where problems (in most but not all cases) could have been avoided if even a very short demo was made available.

    1. That’s why we’ve made it so that you can only buy the game from within the game. It has to actually run successfully to be able to buy it!

      Anyway – all of Gunpoints issues will be resolved in fairly short order, no-one’s going to lose their money for nothing.

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