I’ve debated writing this article for a long time. My hesitation has stemmed, in part, from the recognition that many people have already beaten this particular horse. At least once a year, I hear an excellent presentation on this subject, usually at a casual games conference (where necessity breeds ingenuity). That said, I believe that many developers and publishers are making mistakes — on many platforms, not just XBLA — which if corrected could improve the sales of their games. So what the heck, I’ll jump on the bandwagon and say a few things. Hopefully some of them will actually seem insightful.
PR… it’s not just for Halo
Having a free trial does not exempt a downloadable game from taking advantage of PR; not even in XBLA, where every game gets downloaded by a large number of people. Why? Two reasons. First, that “large number of people” could be a lot larger. 2x (or more times) larger, in fact. Just because a lot of people download every game that comes their way doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore the people who don’t. Plenty of consumers only think to download the titles they are familiar with — that’s why licensed IP is so popular with many publishers.
Second, conversion rates are influenced by anticipation. This is easy enough to understand. Imagine being faced with two games, both of relatively equal quality. One has been hyped in the press for months. One is unheard of. Your friends are all talking about the first game. You yourself have been looking forward to it. But the other game is just as good. Which are you going to buy?
Bottom line: neither independent developers nor publishers should be counting on base platform traffic alone to drive sales — not even with games featuring popular IP. Build buzz early and steadily, till people are falling all over themselves in anticipation of your game. Take a page from the playbook of The Behemoth, developer of one of our most anticipated titles, Castle Crashers. These guys have been actively building buzz for over a year. They showed up at PAX with a bright display you could see from across the floor, selling some of the best game shwag I have ever encountered (interchangeable CC figurines FTW!) I get asked every month “when are you finally launching Castle Crashers??” (Answer: I can’t tell you, but I’ll bet that when we do, it sells reasonably well.)
The trial… it’s not just the first five minutes of your game
It’s surprising how many developers don’t think about their game’s trial experience until the very last minute of the development process. A downloadable game’s trial is everything! If someone doesn’t enjoy your trial, then they probably won’t buy your game. It doesn’t matter if you licensed the three greatest IP of all time and fused them into the holy trinity of game design itself. If the trial stinks, most people won’t bother to lift the curtain on the full experience.
That said, here are a few tips on how to improve a game’s trial. To be clear: these are not scientific — they are based merely on my personal observations of what seems to be working on XBLA and elsewhere. Many of these tips may appear obvious to you, but producers, designers, and marketers should not simply assume that their development teams will appropriately handle trial design on their own. They might not — and frankly, they wouldn’t be the first!
- Don’t confuse or frustrate the player
Like I said… seems obvious right? And yet, I can think of several trials I’ve played over the course of the past year that were so insanely difficult I couldn’t even reach the end of the experience. If the trial kicks my ass, I’m not going to spend money in hopes that the full game somehow gets easier.
Another example: some trials do nothing to explain how to play the game, leading me to wonder if the game stinks or if I simply don’t get it. (Note: the vast majority of people will assume the game stinks.)
- Don’t make the player wait for the fun
Many people aren’t willing to play a trial game for 20 or 30 minutes before they start having a lot of fun. This tends to be a problem for developers who are used to creating retail games. Once a customer plunks down $50 for a game, you can generally be sure they’ll play past the tutorial. Not so with trials. I’ve heard different rules of thumb, but my gut feeling is: if your game isn’t fun within three minutes or less, you’re in trouble.
- Don’t make the trial too short
This is a tough one. How do you define “too short?” Basically, if the player never has a chance to really get into the experience and have a good time, they aren’t likely to buy the game. Many people don’t buy a game immediately after playing the trial for the first time. They need to remember it fondly if they’re ever going to come back and play again. This is one of those things that are worth testing — bring in some test subjects who fit your target audience and ask them to rate how much they enjoyed the trial. Have them play the trials of other, similar games that have sold well and ask them to rate those trials, too. If your rating is coming up short (comparatively), you know you have a problem.
- Don’t make the trial too long
Again, how do you define “too long?” There are various theories, ranging from amounts of time (i.e. 60 minutes), to gameplay milestones (i.e. after the first boss), to number of levels, etc. I can’t claim to know the right answer, here, but I will say that developers should step especially lightly around highly-replayable content. A single replayable mode of a really great game (i.e. Bomberman) is potentially satisfying enough to entertain many consumers for hundreds of hours. If you like the game but don’t love it, that one replayable experience might be enough to make you happy. Highly replayable content should be capped in some meaningful fashion. Not stripped down — you still want the trial to be as fun as it can be — but capped (by time, by early termination of the session, etc) such that hundreds of repeat sessions fail to satisfy.
- Intensify the player’s curiosity
Who says a trial needs to end at an arbitrary point (i.e. end of level or after 60 minutes?) Why not, after an enjoyable sequence of gameplay events, end with a major cliffhanger (i.e. immediately before battling a particularly cool boss, instead of afterwards?) To be honest, I’ve had this tactic used on me when I’ve been pitched games for XBLA. One developer cut off his prototype just as a massive (and really cool-looking!) boss creature appeared on the horizon. For all I know, the subsequent battle may have been a bore, but my imagination was already spinning with possibilities. That trick can be played on potential customers, not just portfolio managers. ;-)
- Work that upsell message
When ending the trial, that upsell screen is (potentially) the last thing your customer will see. Every other trial is promising “more levels,” “more characters,” blah blah etc. Why is your game different? If you don’t have an answer to that question, this tip may not be so useful.. but then again, maybe trying a little wit (or something else that’s memorable and positive) will help?
- Show off your best features
Here’s an example: if your game is most fun when played cooperatively, make darn sure players know they’ve missed out if they haven’t experienced the trial in cooperative mode. Don’t simply hope they stumble onto cooperative play — highlight that mode in the menu, and mention it in the upsell screen.
If your game has an incredible mode that fires up anyone who plays it, but that mode is only encountered in the final third portion of the game, think about ways you can expose a slice of that mode during the trial experience. There’s no law that says a trial must begin at the start of a game. And there’s no law that says you should be forced to “level up” in a trial to the point at which you can finally enjoy the most fun aspects of a game.
Know your audience
Last but not least, take the time to understand your audience and be honest with yourself about their expectations. For example, let’s say you’re making an arcade racing game, and you intend to sell it to racing game enthusiasts. Well, chances are, those people own some of the best retail racing games on the market. You aren’t going to beat those games on realism, and you probably won’t beat them on scope, either. So what exactly are you offering this audience that they don’t already have? “More of the same gameplay in a cheap package” probably won’t cut it — that $10 or $20 you’re asking for may seem cheap, but it’s $10 or $20 more than the customer needs to spend, given what they already own. So you need to be offering them something new. Or you need to rethink who your target customer is, which, again, means that you ultimately need to rethink what you are offering. After all, a racing enthusiast has very different needs than an occasional player of racing games.
A downloadable game portal, be it XBLA, PSN Store, or anything else, is not simply an opportunity to sell the same gameplay with reduced scope (or polish) at reduced prices. You need to be offering something different — something that fills a specific need that $60 retail games generally do not. Otherwise, what’s the point?