The End of the Free Game Demo?

Free Video Game Demos May Become a Thing Of The Past

This past week has seen some important activity in the digital download video game marketplace, with the unforeseen success of Capcom and Canadian developer Blue Castle Games’ Dead Rising 2: Case Zero. Capcom chose to release Case Zero on Xbox Live weeks before the actual launch of Dead Rising 2, as a $5 DLC prologue/demo hybrid, bridging the gap between the first game and the second — while demonstrating some of the new features and game mechanics players can look forward to seeing later this month when the official game is released.

The industry has been buzzing over the last couple days as initial sales figures were released, revealing that after one week of sales, DR: Case Zero’s gamer friendly price point has garnered well over 328,290 purchases. Take away Microsoft’s 30 percent cut, and Capcom is left with over 1 million in sales prior to the release of the actual game. Not to mention the record on Xbox Live for the best week one unit sales in the history of all content distributed through XBLA. Not too shabby.

Charging money for demo’s is not a new notion and has been discussed and hypothesized a great deal in the games industry as of late, with no real actions being taken to implement such a strategy. But now that DR: Case Zero‘s prologue/demo has achieved such incredible success, consider industry publishers officially interested in the idea. But will this  model spell doom for the gaming community and their bank accounts?

The majority of responses from those who purchased DR: Case Zero is that the pricing was perfect, the content was substantial enough to warrant the $5 prologue/demo hybrid, and a lot of people went from the mindset of, “I’ll probably pass on Dead Rising 2”, to “Give me Dead Rising 2 right now!” Mission accomplished Capcom. Right?

However there are those who feel that the success of DR: Case Zero is treading on dangerous ground and may jump start the end of the free demo era in video games. Many are weary that companies will see this as a sign that consumers are ready and comfortable with paying for demos, even though DR: Case Zero is no ordinary demo.

It’s important for publishers to note that the success of DR: Case Zero does not mean this is a one-size-fits-all strategy for every game. The unique characteristics of DR: Case Zero is that it’s a demo with a purpose that gives gamers the opportunity to sample most, if not all, of the full retail games elements – minus multiplayer/co-op and some other minor features. You get a miniature nonlinear gameplay, some narrative, a boss battle, experience and money that can be transferred into the full game as well as 12 full Achievements.

While I did enjoy DR: Case Zero and believe it was well worth the $5, I’m hesitant to glorify Capcom on their accomplishment – for fear of the double-edged sword that arises from doing so. Saying, “$5 bucks to smash zombies in a miniature sandbox that isn’t part of the upcoming game, I’m in!” could send a misconstrued message to those individuals who make these decisions, that gamers are eager to hand over an extra $5 to an already pricey game and something that was previously offered for free or included as free DLC on original purchases (Mass Effect, Alan Wake).

Many people feel sending this message will ensure that demos become just another utter to milk and one more excuse to charge the player. Calling it a prologue chapter makes no difference. Especially considering Dead Rising isn’t a story-driven game that requires a significant intro, compared to other titles like Alan Wake, Uncharted or Deus Ex.

Nothing Is Free. Everything Has its Price

Presently demos are offered for free and most big studios defer their releases until after the game is out. One reason for this is because many buyers will buy a game based only on a promo video or trailer. It can also decrease the chance of word getting out, if the demo sucked gamers will tell eachother that the full game should be avoided. Not releasing a demo prior to a release shields initial sales from taking heavy hits. However, there is a great deal of impetus from publishers to monetize demos if they release them (as they should) before the release of the game.

Don’t be fooled folks. Publishers are looking for every way possible to monetize all aspects of the gaming experience. EA’s Online Pass, Activision’s Map Pack madness, etc. These are not people who love games, they love money. They see opportunities in the gaming experience and are constantly looking for ways to exploit it for profit.

For example, Games Industry recently interviewed Sony’s European President Andrew House , who said:

“On the principle of making online portions of the game available or unlocked from the disc-based release for a fee, we’re broadly supportive of that,” said House.

(Read: On charging people addition money on top of the $70 for the disc they just bought, we absolutely think that will enhance their experience with our product.)

So now you’ve got a $69 single player game with $5 to unlock multiplayer and it’s also another $5 to try the demo. Gamers bank accounts can look forward to death by a thousand paper cuts.

Moreover, there is statistical evidence that demos do not increase sales of games, rather the retail availability + promotional materials of the game sell more units compared to retail availability + promo materials + demo. Demos can work as a boon or a burden, depending on budgets and the quality of the product you’re putting out there. To the publisher, releasing a demo is only done because it just feels “expected”. With successful models like DR: Case Zero, this “expected luxury” may become just another fee gamers are expected to pay for.

People may be fine with paying for a $5 prologue demo of Dead Rising today, but a year from now publishers may require them to pay $5+ for a singleplayer demo mission stripped out of the middle of the next Modern Warfare game and $10 a year to enable you to play online. What was it my pappy used to say…”give em’ an inch and they’ll take a mile”.

It will be interesting to see how publishers use this as a case study to create new price models for their previously free content. As I mentioned earlier in the post, it can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach or merely attaching a price tag for something that was previously free. There has to be added value and content that merits adding the price tag.

Despite the success of DR: Case Zero, I still hold firm in the belief that lower prices combined with continued free content can still provide increased sales figures and substantial profits for publishers and developers.

Look at the figures from last years Steam holiday sales and how it equated to a big win for Valve and their partners.

The following holiday sales data was released, showing the sales breakdown organized by price reduction:

10% sale = 35% increase in sales (real dollars, not units shipped)
25% sale = 245% increase in sales
50% sale = 320% increase in sales
75% sale = 1470% increase in sales

Source Shack News

Furthermore, Valve has hired an experimental psychologist to help maximize the excitement of Steam sales and other marketing opportunities. According to the article, one suggestion by the psychologist was to provide one free copy of a Valve game to every 25th buyer of Left 4 Dead.

Hopefully the success of DR: Case Zero sends the message to publishers that gamers are more than willing to pay for prologue DLC/demo hybrids weeks before a games release, provided there is substantial content and experiences worthy of the price tag. Just adding a dollar value to regular demos and taking advantage of those gamers who are willing to pay for them is a trend I hope doesn’t catch on. In addition, could the DR: Case Zero model become the accepted style for delivering modern demos — where paid prologue DLC with substance is used to sample game mechanics, graphics and weapons that will be featured in the upcoming game, rather than just directly slicing a level out of the game and offering it for a free demo?

One thing is for sure, with Case Zero achieving the sales numbers that it did, it’s a safe bet industry publishers are taking notice and contemplating how they can achieve such results. Resorting to paid demos may just be their answer.

For more news and info you can follow me on Twitter @The_GeekJock


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