Should you make a demo? Looking at the numbers

Ichigoichie's David Guiseppe Ventura checks out the hard stats behind some of his studio's demo releases - should everyone look to put one out?
26/4/2022

Having a public demo for your game is a controversial topic. There are fears that it can cannibalise sales of your retail product, and often it requires producing a separate SKU as well its own set of code and debugging. So is it worth your time? I am a strong believer that the answer is yes. In this short article I’ll give you some validation for our theory, as well as some tips on what to include in your demo.

Initially I was hesitant to create a demo for our first tile. I was on a tight schedule, wanted to get to market before the end of year rush, and hadn’t produced a demo before. When I asked a developer rep for Nintendo his thoughts on the matter, his response was a resounding 'yes'. He mentioned in their experience they had never seen evidence that demos hurt the retail product. People who are not motivated to buy the full product wouldn’t get it anyway, so why not try for a little extra publicity and chance for a conversion? Ultimately I shipped a demo of the title - three months after the western launch, in parallel with the Japanese release.

To put things in perspective I decided to look into the conversion for demo downloads to purchase of full version of our game Hexagroove: Tactical DJ, across three platforms.

Hexagroove: Tactical DJ has a free demo on three platforms to showcase its unique mechanics and style

The game was initially released on Nintendo Switch but is now available on Xbox and Steam. The data is from Q1 in 2021 and during that time period I ran discounted sales of the game on all three platforms. For Nintendo Switch conversion, I could acquire regional data as well (Table 3).

Here are the conversions for each platform:

Table 1 - Platform percentage of total downloads. Note that Xbox and Steam released one year after the Switch version

Table 2 - Steam and Xbox conversion rate (on/off sale)

Table 3 - Nintendo Switch conversion rate by region (on/off sale)

On sale/off sale

The difference between on and off sale conversion is a significant increase in percentage. On Xbox, conversion during a sale was higher than I expected, considering Switch covers two thirds of total demo downloads. Our promotion of these sales are very limited to only posting on social media and no paid advertisement other than a minimal budget on Reddit, which did not convert very well.

Table 4 - Downloads of demo and full game, divided between US, Europe and Japan on Nintendo Switch

Opportunities and influences

Regional differences exist depending on the platform. In particular, as Nintendo and Sony are separate corporate entities that administer each region, the style in how content is promoted in each varies as well. In our case part of the high demo download rate in Japan may be attributed to the fact that the eShop Japanese channel routinely runs articles showcasing which titles have demos. This is not as common in Europe or America, so having a demo in Japan is a big boost to visibility in the increasingly crowded Nintendo eShop. Steam runs its semi-annual Next Fest events where titles with a workable demo are given visibility normally not afforded the endless flood of content in their storefront. So far participating in these has given a huge shot in the arm to our wishlist counts.

It’s also interesting to see that in my experience that Xbox conversion is higher regardless of discounts/sales periods. This could potentially shed some light on the viability of targeting Xbox for your game as an alternative to Nintendo Switch. When going through the list of games in categories/genres related to our game, I found there were few games on Xbox with a free trial. Filtering through games with demos here on Microsoft’s site the amount is even lower.

Table 5 - Games on Switch and Xbox with free demos available for a previous quarter in 2021, including us (From genres/categories relevant to our game)

Where to slice and what to include

Okay, so if you’ve committed yourself to creating a demo for your title, then the next question is what to include in it. On one hand, you want to give users enough of a taste that they’re hungry for the full version and go after it right away. On the other hand, if you include too much, the motivation to shell out the premium purchase price is a harder sell.

In talking with other indies and platform partners, my general rule of thumb is that 20/20 rule: try to make a demo the player can complete in less than 20% of the total estimated gameplay time and not include more than 20% of the content from the full title. This means if you have a game that reuses locations, characters, or has increasing mechanics, don’t use more than 20% of them in your demo.

People’s time is precious, and if the demo is going to end on a high note or cliffhanger (which it should), you need to get there relatively fast. This could be the inciting incident in the story, or the end of act one in a shorter game. Note that if you have a demo that takes more than 20 minutes to complete, having the save data able to be imported to the retail version is a smart idea to reduce player frustration.

The Steam Backbeat demo includes a number of original mechanics from advanced levels with a reduced amount of intermediate repetition and character building

It’s also worth noting that if your game makes use of original mechanics to sell itself, you obviously want to include a fair amount of these so the player can appreciate more of what’s to come. This may require intentionally skipping several character-building levels that normally occur in sequence in the retail version. I progressively cut out more and more of these in our demo of Backbeat to help the player get to more of the interesting time-manipulation and resource constraint mechanics that help the game stand out from traditional strategy and puzzle games.

In the case of our first game, Hexagroove, I included the three most popular musical genres to appeal to as wide a customer base as possible, and although many of the key single player mechanics were included, I left out the multiplayer and endless modes. Finally, make sure you include upsell in your demo, letting your customer know how much more exciting content exists in the full version. Though it’s worth noting on certain platforms you cannot use any kind of language that actually asks the user to make a purchase of any kind.

I hope this article was useful for anyone looking to publish a free demo on Xbox or Switch. If you start the design of your game thinking about an eventual demo, the whole experience can be a lot more straightforward - and hopefully you can pick up a bunch more sales too.

David Guiseppe Ventura
David is co-founder and Creative Director of Ichigoichie, a media production house and games studio located in Stockholm. His work has led him developing indie titles second and third party titles in Japan and Sweden. He is currently at work on his next title, the strategic puzzler Backbeat.

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