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Lessons in Demo Launching
by Lars Doucet on 10/05/11 10:26:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Cross-posted on my personal blog

An important phase in marketing any game is launching a playable demo.  We produced two versions - one that plays in a browser, and one that you can download and install for a nice, desktop-native experience with video features like fullscreen/resolution switching, etc.

 In preparation for the launch, I spent a week getting the files and website ready for a "soft launch" where I showed it to just enough people to catch all the huge, obvious problems before the "real launch" where I would send out press releases and the like.  Response was mostly positive, and I was able to fix a lot of problems that people pointed out right away.

 In today's article, I talk about the process and share some of the things I learned.

 

Click to play the demo!

 

Launching the Web Version

 

Deploying a web version is as easy as writing an embed tag, but I wanted to keep my
hosting bill low, and also minimize the footprint in case high traffic from the "real launch" should take the site down. There's plenty of "free" swf hosting sites like SwfCabin, but I wanted something sturdier.  Mochiads immediately came to mind.

Mochiads is a service that lets you earn money by running pre-game ads. All in all, I wouldn't recommend this service for anyone trying to get rich : I've earned only $1,300 over 3.5 years with them, and my past games are actually pretty successful for the flash market.  Although I've made a decent living as a flash developer, almost none of it has come from ads, the bulk of my earnings having come through sponsorships, contract work, consulting, and other avenues.  Advertising is mostly chump change.

 

All that aside, Mochi is still good for free hosting!  I uploaded the game's demo to mochi's servers, disabled the pre-game ad, and voila!  I had an online, ad-free game demo and no server crash worries! Of course, Mochi's servers could always go down, but they're probably as or more reliable than my own hosting service, especially if there's a lot of traffic.

Don't show ads on our site!

 

If ads are shown for some reason, show one of ours

 

Mochi doesn't disallow this technique in their terms of service, and considering I'm still letting them make money off of ads in my older games, I feel okay with it.  Theoretically this means that I'm able to host the game for free without showing any ads, but if any ads crop up despite my settings I'll probably just suck it up and host the file myself, as ads turn people off and I'd much rather have a sale than measly ad revenue. This will become more important as the game gets closer to final launch.

 

Bending BitTorrent to My Will

Next, I needed a way to host the downloadable versions of the demo.  Hosting these files was a greater challenge than hosting the web version, as they were much bigger due to the uncompressed audio and graphics in the download version. Bittorent seemed like a natural solution - the more people torrent the file, the less stress my servers have as users start seeding to each other.

Of course, Bittorrent is not without its drawbacks.  For one, lots of people don't know how to use it.  For these players, however, there's always the web version which doesn't require them to download anything. Given that even downloading an exe file is too high a barrier for many people, this should take care of our less technical crowd.  The other problem with Bittorent, however, is that someone needs to be constantly seeding the files at all times.

Of course, I could have just left Bittorent open all day and seeded from my home computer, or asked all my team members to do the same, but that wouldn't be a permanent, fire-and-forget solution. I needed something stable, reliable, and cheap (preferably free).

One step in the right direction would be to web-seed the torrent file, linking it to a file on my web server, but that would still be a hit to my hosting bill I'd rather avoid.

That's when I stumbled across an interesting trick by googling around for a while.  Turns out, DropBox offers free file hosting up to 2 GB, and even better, provides web URLs to all your public files.  All Bittorent needs to set up a web seed is a URL - so, I dropped the demo installer files into my public dropbox, copied the dropbox URL's, and set those as the web-seed URL's for each torrent file.

 

Bittorent + Dropbox = free web seed!

 

 

 

Then, I just uploaded the .torrent files, and, magically, it all worked!  (To my knowledge, this isn't against DropBox's terms of service, either)  Now I had a web demo, and a set of cross-platform installer files, all freely hosted without paying a dime or violating any rules!

All I have to worry about now is if DropBox or Mochi's servers ever go down, but again, I'd be more worried about my own web host getting hammered then either of them.

As of this post, the windows and linux torrents are up. Mac version is coming soon!

 

Demo Length


Technical considerations aside, another important question we had was how to cut our game down from the full version to make a reasonable demo experience.  A lot of digital ink has been spilled on this topic, but as best I can summarize, the prevailing wisdom is :

  • Give the player enough content to understand what the game has to offer,
  • Stop short of satisfying them,
  • Tease them with future content, 
  • Convince them what's to come is worth it.

A common problem with demos is that they only give you the first few tutorial levels, so not only do you not get to do anything fun, you don't really get a taste of what features the game really has to offer.  On the other hand, if the demo offers too much, you feel you've gotten enough milk for free, so why buy the cow?

Given that our game features a fairly deep battle system with 6 unique character classes, each specialized for different combat situations, we could easily send the wrong signal by only giving them a handful of levels to play with one or two classes - we'd barely scratch the surface, and players could go away without knowing how deep the game really was. On the other hand, we still have to hold most of the game back.

For the player to feel that the full version will be worth playing, two things need to happen:

  • The rest of the game needs to be much longer than the demo
  • The player needs to correctly perceive that fact

Originally, our game was split into four "acts," not unlike a play. Act II fell at a natural stopping point, representing about 15-20% of total linear progress across the game's map (but only about 5-10% of the total gameplay, as later levels are longer and more involved), and introduced the player solidly to the first two character classes (berserkers and rangers) and just barely introduced the third (healer).

 

Sending the Right Signals

Immediately we ran into perception problems with our testers. "So... I've played through half the game already?" They said in the after-play debriefing session. "No!" I said "the final two acts are much, much longer!"  The testers stared blankly at me and replied, "Okay, I guess so - but there's no way to tell that from here.  Right now, the full version doesn't seem like it will be much longer if it's only four acts."  

Here, perception was everything - even though the second half of the game was over twice the length of the first, dividing the experience up into "acts" created the expectation that each act would be roughly the same length.

 

Incorrectly implies 50% of total content

 

So, we divided up the content to span seven equally sized acts. Hopefully, this will make players feel like they've just gotten started, rather than nearly being through with the game.

 

Correctly implies ~20% of total content

 

Hold Something Back

Average play-time for the demo is between one and two hours, which is pretty high, so a few people suggested that I hold something extra back.  Originally, all mission sub-challenges were playable in the demo, so I tried locking all the "extreme" challenges after Act I.  Leaving the "advanced" challenges in would still showcase our extra missions and level design, but giving players (particularly hard-core ones) something extra to long for.

Immediately, I started getting a reaction from testers. "I want that!" they said, pointing to the locked challenge.  I even got this reaction from players who previously had never even tried the extreme challenges.  I guess sometimes the simple act of holding something back can make people want it even more!

 

 

 

 

Encourage their Return

 

Since the final game isn't ready yet, we can't immediately direct someone to a "buy it now!" screen, so we need to give players some reason to come back.  For now, all we can really do is direct them to our website and encourage them to sign up for a newsletter.  I imagine most people will skip right past this, but it does give people a way to follow us and keep in touch.  Furthermore, if we wait to release a demo until the final game is ready, we lose the ability to build some buzz ahead of time, and overall sales will be lower.  As they say, better to get 10% of something than 100% of nothing.

 

This will be replaced by an "upsell" screen when the full version comes out


Respect their Time

 

Usually, when you sink a few hours into a demo, that time is lost as you have to start over when the full game comes out.  I don't have exact numbers on this, but I know of lots of people who have refused to play demos because they don't want to start over again, or, having played a demo, won't buy the full version even if they liked the game because the sting of lost time is too much.

 

So, we let the player export their save file.  When the full version comes out, they can import this and pick up right from where they left off.  This does open the game to cheating if players hack their save file text, but it's a single player game, so I don't really care :)

 

This screen is shown to the player  when they quit or finish the demo.

 

It's a small gesture of respect for the player's time, and hopefully when they find out from either our newsletter or the internet that the full game is ready, they'll see that little *.dfq file on their desktop and start itching to find out what happens next in Defender's Quest.

 

Future Considerations

All in all, the "soft launch" was a success. I got a lot of good feedback on the game, found a lot of immediate, obvious bugs to fix, and figured out some clever methods to host the game files without having to worry about server load. When the final version comes out, we'll still be able to use this hosting method to keep our hosting costs down and our servers up should we have the "good problem" of too many users trying to play and download our game at once. 

However, when we start selling the game, we'll need to have a direct download solution that works for our non-technical users who aren't comfortable with using Bittorrent.  In this case, whatever 3rd-party sales provider we use for our storefront (like FastSpring) should cover the hosting for the final game files themselves. (We'll also be trying to get the game out on Steam, etc). 

The demo's length feels about right, though we've gotten comments that it's still a bit long.  I don't mind being generous with the demo, so long as people still feel like buying the full game.  Right now, the experience takes you all the way to a climactic boss battle, resolves with a few cutscenes and then lets you visit the next town before you hit the "demo over" screen. 

Some testers have suggested that letting the demo resolve like this leaves them too satisfied, and one suggested that I end it right after the boss battle, without the final cutscenes, so it's more of a cliffhanger.  Instead of letting the party debrief and talk about the shadowy portents to come, this tester suggested I cut things off abruptly with a splash page that says "What happens next? Find out.... in the full game!"

I definitely see the reasoning, but I'm still not sure what the best decision is.  I'll keep showing the game to more people throughout the week, and once I've gotten enough feedback I'll tweak the final demo for the "real launch" next week. 

For anyone who wants to see the demo, you can play it online and/or download the installer for your OS here:

Play The Demo!

So, that's my article on some of the things I learned in preparing a demo for launch. Any comments, criticisms, questions?


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Comments


Keith Nemitz
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Well written article. Lots of good information. Hope your game does well!

Kumar Daryanani
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Excellent article, definitely a go-to reference for any indie developer approaching the release of a game. Lots of really good insight, thanks for sharing your experiences!



Having played the demo, I can say it's an entertaining experience that left me wanting to play the full game. Keep up the great work!

Lars Doucet
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Thanks! Hopefully these techniques will help people out.

Lars Doucet
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Oh joy, my server's down. Thanks Dreamhost!



This is a hilariously ironic example of what I've been worried about. Time to find a better hosting solution!



Torrents are still up on dropbox, though:



Windows:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4196349/DefendersQuest/DefendersQuestDemo
_v_0_5_0_3.exe.torrent



Linux:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4196349/DefendersQuest/DefendersQuestDemo
_v_0_5_0_3.rpg.torrent

Eric Kinkead
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I use dreamhost, what plan are you on?

Lars Doucet
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I'm on their super cheap-o hosting plan, which I should probably upgrade before the "real" launch. My website was on their "suva" server, which is currently down:



http://www.dreamhoststatus.com/2011/10/06/shared-server-suva-down
-for-unscheduled-file-system-check

Lars Doucet
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Finally, servers are back up. Sorry everybody!

Eric Kinkead
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oh man, that was bad luck., ok, restart! cool write up Lars.

Eric Kinkead
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oh man, that was bad luck., ok, restart! cool write up Lars.

Eric Pitts
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Question: How can I throw my money at you folk?



The demo is outstanding and you seem like a great team that I want to help support. Either donations or pre-order, I'm just wondering what options you've got set up.

Mike Ferguson
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Just got done playing the demo for a while, and had a blast going through and slaughtering the first few levels after picking up another archer and some gear, great work! Love the overall design, and I am looking forward to buying the full game, the demo export feature is a great bonus.



Seeding though dropbox is really interesting idea. I'm surprised they allow that, but if they're ok with it, then it seems like a nice solution.

Lars Doucet
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I know! It sounds too good to be true, but I'll keep doing it until someone shuts me down :)

Charles Stuard
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Hey Lars, I noticed your demo link on a later blog post (Status Effect Stacking) and gave it a try. Not sure if you remember me at all, but in a previous comment I mentioned that I didn't really like "party member" tower defense games and I didn't expect to like your game at all. I should also mention that the art style wasn't really drawing me in either.



Well... turns out I'm an absolute fool. I had a blast playing your demo! I found the gameplay really well thought out and engrossing, and I especially felt like each of the three classes brought something unique to the game. Managing health was probably the most difficult part, but once I had the healer that became a much easier element to manage.



I also really enjoyed the art and tone of the game. It's hard for me to formulate my thoughts exactly, but I think the word that describes it best is "comfortable". I was able to fall right into it and accept it without questioning anything.



I played it in the browser, which is an absolutely great idea. I loved having that option and I hope it leads to more sales for you in the future. Oh, and I read this article AFTER I played and closed it... and I have to admit, I didn't notice either the save export option nor the "continue playing" option. I guess I just kind of glossed over it when I knew the game was over. It might be worthwhile to make those options more noticeable.



Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for the great game and you've made a believer out of me! I really enjoyed it and look forward to trying out the full version as soon as I can!

Lars Doucet
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Wow, so I super forgot about this thread. Super thanks for the kind words!


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