Why Demo Downloads Matter

If you want to see how the game industry regularly acts as its own worst enemy, try and download the demo of a game that interests you. After getting several enthusiastic word-of-mouth recommendations for THQ’s Company of Heroes, a new WWII-themed real time strategy game, I went looking for the playable demo– only to find several barriers of hype and greed blocking my way.

Because downloading the demo means going to the official THQ site, and being bombarded with a loud Flash-animated action video that’s not even representative of Company’s gameplay, then clicking to the download page– and getting assaulted by another Flash barrage.

And when you finally get to the download section, you’re still not ready to get the demo, because that page directs you to three external download servers run by gamer sites, CNet’s Gamespot, and IGN’s Fileplanet and 3D Gamers.

Which would be fine, but after clicking any of those links, you’re still not able to get the demo yet, because like web pornographers, CNet and IGN have a subscription gate waiting for you there, so you can pay for the pleasure of using their precious servers.

To be sure, you can find the Company of Heroes demo on a free download server, if you look hard enough and you’re willing to wait in a server queue. But what happens if you give up before then?

As we know now, THQ probably loses a sale. Because according to a new study by leading market research firm NPD, playable demos are the key to selling games.

While company and gamer sites inform consumers and advertising is a factor, NPD told GameDaily Biz recently, “they are less important when the consumer gets closer to making the actual purchase decision, when other factors such as being able to take the game for a ‘test drive’ at an in-store location, online, or at a friend or relative’s house, matter much more.”

But the thing is, the experience I described with THQ is totally typical. Instead of making demos freely and immediately available, publishers pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in marketing and promotion, and develop effects-heavy sites– while treating distribution of the actual demo as a pale afterthought they outsource to gamer sites, which in turn use it as marketing for their own revenue streams.

“While various means of allowing consumers to test drive games have long been an important part of most publishers’ marketing mixes,” NPD’s Anita Frazier told GameDaily, “the findings of our study now show that it is of particular importance for attracting the broader gaming audience.”

That’s an understatement. Smart publishers should think about drastically cutting their advertising budget, and invest that cash where it really matters: developing quality games and quality demos of their games, and just as key, paying for cost-effective, broadband solutions that don’t require subscriptions or several hoops to jump through. Because far as I can tell, the only people who benefit from the way things work now aren’t the game publishers or their gamer customers, but media companies like CNet and IGN, who also charge publishers millions in advertising– then charge gamers when they try to download the games featured in their ads and advertorial. In the era of broadband, they’re an unnecessary middle man charging tolls that don’t need to be paid.

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