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Should you release a demo for your game?

Creating a demo version of your game can teach you a lot, both about how people react to your game and some of the technical pitfalls along the way.

Clinton McCleary, Blogger

July 11, 2018

10 Min Read

Caustic Reality is a one-man studio comprising of Clinton McCleary. His debut game, a first-person horror thriller called Infliction, will be released in October, but he released a free demo two weeks ago to coincide with its launch on Kickstarter. Here is what he learned.

Let’s just get one thing out of the way and answer the question in the article title: YES.

This is my personal conclusion, of course, based on my experiences with the Infliction demo, but it was such a positive and productive one that I definitely plan to do it again with any games I make in the future.

Video game players these days have gotten used to early access periods and open betas, but they aren’t always a good fit for each game. Infliction is a single-player, story-driven horror game, so early access to the full game would have detracted too much from the final release. However, a small demo to give a taste of the full game was ideal, sort of like a playable trailer. It wasn’t easy, but I feel like it was worth it.

Here is the story of how it happened.

Screenshot from the Infliction Demo

Screenshot from the Infliction Demo

Making a demo was not originally my idea. I was an independent solo developer less than six months away from releasing my first game, so when the idea of releasing a demo was first suggested, my initial reaction was basically the opposite of enthusiasm. “Oh god,” I thought, “another major task on top of my already impossible mountain of things to do!”

The idea stuck in my head, though, and as I pondered it over the next few days, I realised it wouldn’t be as big a job as I had first thought. Infliction was far enough along that making a demo wouldn’t require making a lot of new content, but just selecting the right pieces from the existing game.

It turned into a fun puzzle to solve. How could I take an interesting, self-contained slice from the game while cleanly removing the rest of the game around it? That is pretty much exactly what I did. I surgically removed an existing level from the game, hand-scripted a few events that are more procedural in the full game, put a menu screen at the start, and called it finished. Easy!

What I didn’t realise was that just making the demo was actually going to be the easy part. Releasing the demo out into the world where people could play it was where my woes really kicked in.

My first challenge was deciding on a platform to release the demo on. I considered Steam at first, but dismissed it out of hand because I was sure that uploading a demo to Steam would be complicated. I was also worried that the demo would take over the store page for the main game that was already on Steam, or that I would end up with a double listing.

After much consideration, I chose itch.io, that wonderful indie paradise. This site is great, though I struck some difficulties uploading something larger than 1GB using itch.io’s command prompt uploading tool. Even so, it’s a powerful tool, so learning how to use it was worth the effort.

I got the demo uploaded, and that’s when I was plunged into security warning hell. The biggest problem I discovered was that Unreal Engine games often have problems with their digital certificate signing. Typically, itch.io signs downloads from its server with its own certificate, but Unreal Engine games are all signed by Epic when they are compiled. I’m not sure of the exact process, but itch.io trying to sign already-signed software caused some problems behind the scenes. After doing a test download, Windows was convinced that the file wasn’t signed at all, and threw up a big scary warning.

Windows Defender SmartScreen

Windows Defender SmartScreen

Nobody wants to see that pop up when they’ve downloaded a new game demo from a previously never heard of developer. I considered just tolerating it and putting a warning for users on the itch.io page, explaining how to bypass it, but I was worried that it would frighten people away. I might have bitten the bullet and just gone with that solution, except it wasn’t my only problem.

Suddenly, my virus scanner started to freak out at the downloaded file—a file that I knew was definitely safe because I was the one who compiled the bloody thing! I am not too proud to admit that I panicked. The plane was plunging into the side of the mountain and I had no idea how to level it out. I was only days away from launching the demo and suddenly I was being forced to deal with major issues I hadn’t even suspected would come up.

Virus scanner reaction to my demos executable file

Virus scanner reaction to my demos executable file

Oh well, if the digital certificate signing was the problem, then I decided I would get my own certificate and sign everything properly. As I mentioned earlier, anything compiled in the Unreal Engine is signed by Epic, but I was confident that there had to be a way around it.

I went ahead and purchased a digital certificate, and drove my car straight into another swamp. Digital security certificate vendors can only sell certificates to you if they are sure of who you are, obviously. If not, then any nefarious malware developer could get stuff signed. To keep the system secure, vendors have to verify your existence, and it just didn’t occur to me that this would be a lengthy process.

I sent them all of the requested paperwork and they were happy to proceed, but then they dropped a bombshell: they required me to be registered on a national business database. I looked into the registration process and discovered that it can take up to five business days. With the demo release less than a week away, I had no choice but the abort the whole process and request a refund. (Hmm, that reminds me: I need to check that they actually refunded me.)

My next port of call was IndieDB. I crossed my fingers and hoped that there would be an extra layer of abstraction between my demo and the person downloading that would remove all these warnings. Nope: I had the exact same issue as I had on itch.io.

I feel like I need to clarify at this point that I don’t think that these problems were the fault of any of these platform holders. I think it was on me for not knowing better, plus maybe a little bit on Epic since this is specifically a recurring problem with the Unreal Engine. Other engines like Unity have no such issues, or so I’m led to believe. (Don’t worry, Epic! I still love you!)

My final hope was to come full circle and return to Steam. I began the process with great trepidation, worried that it would be a slow, complicated process and that it would mess things up with my full game’s “coming soon” product page.

Thankfully, I was wrong on both fronts. It took me less than an hour to learn the process of using the Steam SDK and then to upload the demo. I also discovered that you can tell Steam that something you upload is a demo version of something else. It gets its own unique product code, but it is linked to your product page. Bravo!

The final test was to download it and see if I got any security warnings… Nope! All clear! Phew!

Infliction Demo available on the Infliction Product page via SteamInfliction Demo available on the Infliction Product page via Steam

I worked myself up to clicking on that big green button, but what followed was kind of anticlimactic, because nothing really happened. I clicked the button, launched the demo, and went to bed. When I woke up the next day, there were already an overwhelming number of YouTube videos giving the demo a positive response. Thank god!

Technical issues aside, it was only after the demo was out in the wild that I started to see its true value. Because it contains a taste of content from the final game, I was getting the chance to observe dozens, maybe even hundreds of people playing it. I got to see what was working and what wasn’t, what was scaring them and what was just annoying them.

Sure, I know that many YouTubers will ham it up a little for the camera, but over a large enough sample size I started seeing patterns. The most surprising was that the demo’s greatest strength was not in the big, scary climax, but rather in the combination of smaller moments that led up to it. Seeing how people have reacted to these moments, I’ve been able to pivot on the final game and add more of what people love.

Infliction Demo listings on YouTube

Infliction Demo listings on YouTube

If you have the capacity to do it, I strongly recommend releasing a demo, especially if, like me, you have limited experience releasing commercial games. It’s turned out to be an incredible valuable dry run of what the final release will be like, allowing me to iron out kinks in my release process now rather than on launch day.

One funny story along these lines was when a YouTube creator got in touch to tell me the demo had a major bug in it. When he picked up a specific item in the house, zoomed in to look at it more closely, and then pressed the R key, the demo would restart from the beginning. He had inadvertently discovered a debugging shortcut I’d put into the game to make testing easier but had forgotten to remove. I was astonished that anybody could have stumbled across the exact circumstances required to trigger the restart, but also grateful it had been found so early.

More than just heading off unexpected technical problems, though, the most important thing I am getting out of this demo release are countless ideas to make the completed game cooler, more surprising, and of course scarier. YouTube now has multiple pages of Let’s Plays, from major stars of the platform with millions of subscribers down to small channels with view counts of only two or three digits. All of them are teaching me things.

When the finished version of Infliction is released in October 2018, it will not only be a smoother launch process thanks to these lessons, but it will also be a better game.

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You can try the Infliction demo for yourself at bit.ly/InflictionDemo.

Infliction is currently on Kickstarter at bit.ly/Infliction.

You can keep up with the latest news about Infliction on Twitter and Facebook.

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