Recently at the 2013 DICE summit, on the first afternoon of a weekend containing a poker tournament, go-karting, nature hiking, a golf game and a no-denim awards show, Jesse Schell of Schell Games addressed the crowd of developers, referencing both his past orations and beliefs about the future of the industry, as well as making one decisive claim, around ten minutes into his speech. The idea presented at that time? That free video game demos cut actual sales of its’ finished title by up to 50% versus games that did not release any demos to the public.
Am I the only one that thinks this is ludicrous? First of all, Mr. Schell has been regarded as an “industry analyst” by some; I think that is giving him far too much credit. Having done some research into his background, there is nowhere in his educational history that gives credence to that title. Even with a Masters in Computer Networking from Carnagie Mellon. At best, I would call him an ‘entrepreneur’, but then we come to his history in gaming development.
Toontown Online, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, Toy Story Midway Mania, Puzzle Hollow; does anyone see a trend among these items? Why yes, Mr. Schell used to work in the Disney Imagineering labs for seven years, and is responsible for all of those games. May I point out, however, that only the first one has had any kind of acclaim in the gaming industry, with a Metcritic score of 85. Now, his company has produced small titles for mobile gaming, working with companies like PBS and Pixar… but out of the dozen titles attached to his name as a whole, I fail to find a AAA-rank console game among them.
I find it interesting as well, that he compares buying cookies at a bakery (with poor customer service, I might add) to playing World of Warcraft. Supposedly, no matter what price is put before you, it is simply THE IDEA of seeing what a game may have to offer that compels people to buy it. Furthermore, in use of a chart by EEDAR, a financial consulting firm specializing in the industry, Mr. Schell never mentioned what games were included in the sample material. However, let’s just believe he’s referring to current titles, and walk through his arguments one by one. Let’s see if they make any more sense to you than they did to me. Down into the rabbit hole we go.
First off, he makes the claim that the work done on the demo is essentially wasted, because the overall sales figures of games without a demo but with a trailer is double the amount with both available. Sadly, however, without specifics about the sampling done, as well as without information on the length of time involved in the sampling data, that could mean absolutely anything. Furthermore, even if assuming that all the games were AAA-titles and popular, is this data only counting the first week of sales? What about returns of those games, or online sales as well? In other words, his first argument is nothing more than what he wants others to believe, nothing but smoke and mirrors. I believe it would fit in well, with his history as a comedian and professional juggler.
Next, the claim is made that when people only see what is in the trailer of a game, they get excited about what may occur in that game. Once more, referencing the same MMO, Schell said that gamers will look at an image of a character in-game, then become so very excited that they would be willing to “waste 90 hours of their lives looking for that glowy sword”. However, he states later, that if a demo is available, the excitement and hype goes from ‘All right! I gotta try that game!’ down to “I tried that game, it was okay; now I’m done.” Then, he makes the statement that, without that demo, gamers have to buy it to try the game. Once more, I have several problems with this idea; the only time that I have failed to enjoy a demo, therefore not wanting to play the game it came from, was when the game was POOR in quality to begin with. In fact, many times, I have rented or played a game demo, then wanted to purchase it later because I got to try it first without investment.
Obviously, Mr. Schell has never heard of the retail concept of the ‘ownership principle’. For those of you that also do not understand, let me explain it for you. Have you ever tried out a cell phone in a kiosk, or tried a sample in a food court at your local mall, then you started to enjoy what you were testing out, so you decided to buy the new phone or purchase that new dish? Those salespeople were using the ‘ownership principle’, which states that if you can get your figurative foot-in-the-door, get your customer to try a product and experiment with it, hold it in their hands… it becomes something that they WANT. Humans do not want to let go of something they already have physical hold of; it is something ingrained in our collective psyche, inherited from when we had to fight for survival. That is why we want demos as a gaming community. Their creation and availability satisfies that basic need of trying something out, making sure it fits for us and what we need, before it becomes something that we want. How many times have you taken a game home, having spent sixty dollars of your money, then regretted that decision in the next five minutes? That is what demos are for.
Now, I have gone a long way to dispel these ludicrous ideas and myths, though it does explain the current adversarial relationship between developers and the gaming communities they are supposed to serve. These ideas, from a developer that almost no-one has ever heard from before, is essentially the voice of even the larger publishers; how they feel and think about what they produce, as well as what type of people they think we are. This is what industry professionals think when they consider whether to produce a game or not, whether to make a demo or not, whether to localize a title or not. This is how ignorant the developers are, and this is how they think of us as consumers, how they think of us as a community. Why do they think this way? What can we do to change this? Only the future, and more research, can answer those questions for us all.
However, to Mr Schell and the other developers at that summit, I have one reply to this theory: Don’t look for data to justify the answers you want to have, look for answers out of all the data that is available. Gamers have a voice, and we are more than just mindless consumers. We sign your paychecks with our wallets.