[This post was originally written for my personal blog.]
Isn’t it frustrating when someone makes a game that actually shows promise… but the public demo massively undersells it? I’ve been moved to post on this subject by Treasure’s just-released Bangai-O HD: Missile Fury for Xbox Live Arcade, which has - in my opinion - one of the very worst demos in recent memory.
So, without further ado, here’s some personal views on five things that Treasure makes a real hash of. How you can make your game demo actually… alluring? (I’m concentrating on XBLA here, but it may also be applicable to other formats!) Some notes:
1. Don’t throw the player into the midst of action with strong failure states. Bangai-O HD - yes, I know it’s a hardcore game from a Japanese developer known for its frenetic, otaku-ish gameplay - has an absolutely insane first level. In it, you _will_ immediately die if you don’t understand the somewhat counter-intuitive game mechanics behind the long-running series.
Obviously, you shouldn’t give a false impression of your title’s difficulty levels. But perhaps it might even be worth making special demo-only levels, to ease first time players into the experience. (I think this is technically a bit trickier on XBLA, since you use the same binary for the full game?)
2. Even if you get past that, there’s only three levels available in the Bangai-O HD demo. GameFAQs commenters note that Level 3 in the demo is Level 38 in the full game - again undisclosed, and something that will give you an even more false idea of where the title’s difficulty is.
Out of context picks for demo levels can be the bane of first impressions. This is something I found true with the Xbox 360 demo for the first Dead Space, which plunged you straight into the action. If you play the full game from the beginning, the carefully ratcheted tension-building gives you an entirely different view of the game. Obviously, it’s not always easy. But think carefully about the atmosphere you want to create with your audience.
3. If you don’t have completely intuitive game controls and objectives, put basic information up front, and make sure players read it. In fact, do this even if you do think you’re completely intuitive - because you’re probably not. Even one static intro screen with what the player has to do would suffice!
It’s amazing how many games don’t do this. Bangai-O HD is a maximum offender, since you start at a confusing main menu with most choices greyed out, and the Tutorial Mode is _OMITTED_ from the demo. When someone has to upload a video of the Tutorial Mode to YouTube for everyone else to see, you know you’re in trouble.
(Side note: rather than a Xbox controller diagram with text describing controls mapped to it, having more of an ‘action item’ of the top five things you will need to do seems to work better from a usability perspective. So - ‘You’ll need to press A to jump and X to dodge’, not ‘Read this 14 button controller map and try to work out which ones you should care about’.)
4. A word on upsell. On XBLA, you should _really_ try not to go for the obvious ‘Oh, you’re quitting… but here’s how many levels we have for you if you buy the whole thing!’ spiel. We’ve all seen that movie before. And remapping the buttons so the obvious button doesn’t quit _really_ won’t get you my money. I generally manage to press cancel before I hit the ‘Buy’ button.
A couple of tactics (neither of which Bangai-O HD tries) have appealed to me in the past. Firstly, let your player get an Achievement during the demo, and then say it’ll be unlocked if you buy the whole game - Runic’s excellent Torchlight does this, and it’s a real ‘I won and all I have to do is collect!’ rush. It’s a great use of XBLA features for upsell.
Secondly, do something unconventional. For example, have your characters talk to the player to persuade them to buy. As I recall, Telltale’s Sam & Max tries that tactic with specially recorded dialogue asking you why you’re being a lunk and not ponying up, and I was charmed. (Or, I guess, construct your whole concept around being pitched on buying the game - nice one, Silver Dollar Games.)
5. This is probably the trickiest on console due to logistics. But if you have a modular game, don’t make the step between ‘I’ve spent no money’ and ‘I’ve spent money’ be so large. Given how initially scary Bangai-O HD is in terms of overwhelming bullethellishness, a baby step into buying might pay dividends.
The best example of this on Xbox Live Arcade is obviously Zen Studios’ Pinball FX 2, which is free to start, and makes it easy for you to keep adding tables at smaller costs ($3 or so). It also provides social pressure to keep adding new tables. (’Hey, my friend just got a high score on that new Marvel pintable, and now his overall score is above me - I’d better buy it to catch up.’)
In any case, this middle ground between microtransactional increments and expansions is getting smaller. Would Bangai-O HD have done better with a $5 ‘Base Pack’ and three $5 ‘Hardcore Expansions’? It’s an interesting thought, at least.
And it isn’t to say that the game won’t sell to the cognoscenti - a quick look at messageboards reveals an enthusiastic fanbase. But they’re largely comprised of those people who already played the previous versions - and if you’re basing your success off people who played the Dreamcast version of your game, you’re probably in trouble.
Anyhow, I wish Treasure luck - and you too, as you launch into a world where there sure are a heck of a lot of video games out there. Just remember - first impressions count.