How to Increase Trial, Improve Conversion Rate, and Sell More Games

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?

284 Responses to How to Increase Trial, Improve Conversion Rate, and Sell More Games

  1. I completely agree. Look at Crackdown, Skate, Dead Rising, Dead or Alive 4, heck even Just Cause. All of those demo’s occupied my mind for weeks after I played them and I went back to play them many more times before finally realizing I was getting sick of the limitations. Just Cause is a GREAT example of how a demo prompted me to get a game. It got terrible reviews, but I had so much fun playing around in that demo, I just had to have the final thing, if only so I could go explore other jungle areas, and get cooler vehicles. I think what made it work best was that it showed off it’s gimmick really solidly in the demo, and showed you also that there were a lot more opportunities to have fun with that gimmick if you bought the final game.

    Skate. is another phenominal example. I had grown to hate tony hawk games. In my mind that meant I hated skateboarding games. I heard about skate., tried out the demo and I was hooked. I think what the secret to it’s success was, it made me feel like if I just had more space I could do some really amazing things.

    Anyway, those are great examples to look at of demos that caused me to buy the game.

  2. I can only agree on that, I can remember several demos of games i really enjoyed (especially older ones, back from the time where i was a poor child without Internet, living off game demos from obscure gaming magazines).

    Fallout 1 for example had a great demo, they gave you a leveled up character and put you into a modified town that was also in the original game, but with different NPCs, quests and things to do. You were already leveled quite a bit and had some good weapons – you were already able to start and participate in a little gang war and you were able to loot and use the signature weapon of the series, the minigun. I had a lot of fun for an rpg demo, it lasted for about 30-45 minutes if you didn’t know what to do, but it was great fun to toy around, shoot random people or join the other side of the gangwar-quest.

    Another example for a “new content” demo was Half-Life:Uplink, I guess everyone remembers that one.

    I also saw a whole different demo concept in the game Albion, I don’t know if anyone remembers it, it’s an old scifi-rpg made by BlueByte (get the demo and Dosbox). The demo basically gave you the beginning of the Gameplay up until you leave the first continent of the world, where the demo ends. That was basically 1/5th of the game, giving you more than roughly 10 hours of gameplay if you didn’t know what to do, and the real clue was that you could import the savegame from the demo into the full game to continue just where the demo stoped.

  3. My person rule of thumb is that if I play the demo over ten times I should just go buy it. I try almost every demo just to give a game a shot (and why not it’s free.) I agree with everything posted.

    The only thing missing was accessibility. Some games take 2-4 minutes just to start it up and then boot you from the demo when finished. If you make it a pain to get the demo started I will already be frustrated before I even start playing your game. Let me play the demo a few times and feel it out. If I keep wanting to play it you sold a copy.

    I was hooked on the Full Auto demo when I purchased my 360 and couldn’t care less what the scores said. I could see for my self that the game was fun and after playing it 50 times I was compelled to pick it up.

    Shadowrun, Full Auto, Golden Axe, Lost Planet, Rainbow Six Vegas, Wik, Outpost Kaloki X, Time Pilot, I purchased solely based on demos. And Bioshock had me at hello but the demo sealed the deal.

    I also am wanting to pick up Kane and Lynch when it is a budget title. (Sorry it’s not worth the 60 price)The PR campaign was so compelling and the demo was fun enough that I want to give this game a go. The reviews cut this game to shreds but I will put that aside just to continue the experience I enjoyed in the demo.

    Atari’s is an example of a company whose demos are too short. You can never get involved with their games because the experience is over too quickly. 2 minutes with an arcade game is not enough time to get most people hooked.

  4. Completely agree. This is a major reason why there are little Unreal Tournament 3 players. Someone please forward this to Mark_Rein@epicgames.com.

  5. Very good article!

    I would specifically mention “do not force people to stare at the upsell screen for a whole minute”. Many times I found myself at the end of a demo and want to play it again but discover that I’m unable to skip the upsell message at the end. Even worse: many times the demo will kick you back to the dashboard, forcing you to load it again from the beginning.

    Both those thing seem especially stupid. First, in Xbox 360 you can always hit the Guide button and quit to the dash board yourself. Second, why would a publisher try to stop me from playing the demo again? If they don’t want me to play it why make a demo at all?

    I have more than once abandoned the idea of playing a demo a second time (and definitely abandoned the idea of buying the game) because of this. Even with some games that seemed interesting.

  6. Yup yup Crackdown <– i have to say this was one of the best trials that i
    have ever played, it had just enough to run around but not too much to see the whole game.
    you had the 30min limit after you got to a certain point. the accelerated skill progression was something that made me want to see what it would be like as a master agent. The reason i bought crack down was for the game and not the Halo 3 Beta, heck i didn’t even bother to download the beta because it was downloaded using the ingame menu and i just had issues with leaveing that up and running for 5+ hours. If it was not for the crackdown demo i would have probally never bought the game.

    Skate <– im still 50/50 over this game but the demo is something that im looking at more and more, i might buy it but i have bills this check maybe next.

  7. Well, the XBLA emphasis kind of targets the “small games” niche. But demos and online gaming portals are not necessarily targetted at this niche. In fact, the only gaming portal with this restriction I know of is XBLA.

    FWIW, my last 20 games, be they small or blockbusters, where bought online. I haven’t bought a single game at retail, aside from games for a certain console, in the past two years.

  8. AustinHoudini

    I’ll tell you what gets me everytime on XBox360… tell me during the demo that if I had bought the game I would have earned an Achievement.

  9. I often find myself looking at what’s in the online store of my console and there’s a lot in there that I have no idea what it is. A logo and some text will not sell the game to me. But I get every starter pack I can find, and so far there’s only one of those I haven’t paid to upgrade to the full game.

    Developers need to have more faith in their games. I’m a lot more likely to “press this button to unlock all levels” than to buy a completely unknown game. Sure, a trailer can work (Bionic Commando, when the original music started playing…), but please: Make sure you show me how great your game is, and make it easy for me to buy it.

  10. A number of the retro titles didn’t get the “too short” memo. I seem to recall being cutoff after a single level on several of those.

    Also, the remainder of this is somewhat irrelevant if you can no longer play your purchased XBLA games due to the ongoing DRM issue. I’ve seriously curtailed my XBLA purchases due to this single issue, and your developers probably don’t even realize that their sales are down because of it either.

  11. That was a great article. Thanks for the tips; I’ll be sure to pass them along to my devs here at NinjaBee!

  12. The demo should also be as accessible as the full game, specifically with regard to controller layouts and such. And long demos (I’m looking at you, KUF: COD) should let you save the game.

    One more thing… if you’re going to put a complicated controller mapping slate on the loading screen, LEAVE IT ON THE SCREEN until the player dismisses it! Xbox 360 demos are loaded off the hard drive so they have short loading times. There’s nothing worse than trying to memorize a complicated controller map in the 3-5 seconds it takes to load the demo before the screen disappears.

  13. I challenge this article. Look at an example game like Timeshift. It had a singleplayer demo that was amoung the best released. They showed cool tech, cool features, and time control. It ended with a “cliffhanger” where the mech owns you instead of you it. And that game didn’t sell really well. Do you have anything to say about that game’s demo as an example?

  14. Timeshift has horrible graphic, not matter how good the gameplay is

  15. I really like your article :)

    I think every game developer, especially indie, should learn a little bit about finance, business, and marketing. Otherwise, the game will stand no chance against those big companies.

    I don’t believe in ‘good product speaks for itself’. The team has to do more efforts to increase the sales, because in the end, sales matters. Okami and Psychonauts proof that without enough sales, their good products (or company) cannot survive the competition. Polishing the game trial is a good start :)

  16. The only thing missing was accessibility. Some games take 2-4 minutes just to start it up and then boot you from the demo when finished.
    anyway Thanks

  17. I’m trying to improve my conversions, thank you for the helpful article, could you give me some advice on my site? its http://www.neatmusic.com

    Thanks

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