Viva La Demo-lution! A Free Taste Gets Gamers Hooked

Viva La Demo-lution! A Free Taste Gets Gamers Hooked
While ensconced at a lakeside cottage in Northern Ontario last month, I whiled away some hours exploring the sun-dappled forests of the not-yet-released Blue Dragon, a lushly animé-ted and somewhat surreal digital landscape replete with ancient amulets, vicious “poo snakes” and, of course, that enormous, eponymous blue dragon. The three-disc Japanese role-playing game dropped in the land of the rising sun last winter and featured the genre’s usual young villagers forced to fight an unspeakable evil from invading their homeland. Plus, robots.

Thanks to a high-calibre creative team including the father of Final Fantasy Hironobu Sakaguchi on story and design, a soundtrack by FF composer Nobuo Uematsu and character/ monster art from Dragon Ball Z’s Akira Toriyama, Blue Dragon quickly became that country’s biggest Xbox 360 game ever. But just as selling American-made Xboxes has been a challenge in Japan, so has it been convincing North Americans to get their J-RPG on. Game journalists are obviously one avenue, but the pre-release Blue Dragon I played wasn’t a press copy. It was a publicly available, and totally free, two-hour downloadable demo that included a fairly expansive pair of game maps and some levelled-up characters with which to go monster huntin’ (the game’s allegedly epic story was ignored in favour of turn-based fighting). Microsoft decided to post this early demo to its Xbox Live Marketplace to generate advance excitement amongst fans and entice non-RPGers who might never have given it a second-glance on the retail shelf. Xbox’s digital download service may be notorious for pioneering micro-payment add-on content for games, but they’ve made up for that by popularising the spread of free game demos.

“Downloadable demos are really just an extension of what publishers and retailers have been doing since the beginning of the industry — allowing people to try games in order to get them excited,” explains Canadian XBL manager Craig Flannagan, “whether that trial comes from an EB Games or a Wal-Mart or out at V-Fest. [XBL Marketplace] is the same, only on a much bigger scale.”

Indeed. Though Microsoft won’t differentiate between demos, game videos or overpriced horse armour, they say 70 percent of XBL members are filling their hard drives with content amounting to 135 million downloads since launch. Xbox has even introduced an “elite” 360 model with more memory banks, at least in part to handle the flood of demos, some of which top a gigabyte. (The Wii has yet to incorporate demos into its download service, but the Playstation Store has a bunch and the PS3 boasts a huge hard drive to hold ’em.)

While no doubt many folks are buying a few bonus Guitar Hero 2 tunes, one can safely assume the vast majority of downloads are free demos because hey, free stuff. My own 360 has been consistently loaded up with a Forza 2 track, several blocks of Saint’s Row, a level of The Darkness or a few rounds of Fight Night Round 3. It’s the crack dealer approach — first taste is free but more fun will cost ya. For Fight Night 3, Flannagan says that 60 percent of folks who tried the gorgeous, sweat-splattering demo bought the game, which wound up exceeding sales expectations. The wicked euphoria of zombie kill-a-thon Dead Rising no doubt similarly infected gamers who downloaded a section of its undead populated shopping mall.

As Flannagan notes, demos have also “allowed people to explore and enjoy new genres that they might not have otherwise tried.” Hopefully, that means eventually raising awareness for critically-acclaimed non-mainstream games like, say, Shadow of the Colossus or Psychonauts, which have a better chance at breaking through if gamers can grab a couple levels from the comfort of their couch.

Of course, demos can totally backfire on game-makers, which may be, in its own way, even better for consumers. The Superman Returns demo showed off a few fun gameplay features — what with the flying, heat-ray vision and car-tossing super-strength — but since the actual game was legendarily lame, the free demo was all fanboys needed. For last year’s Sonic The Hedgehog, Sega couldn’t even assemble a halfway enjoyable demo so prospective buyers were able to beware and subsequent sales were abysmal.

Unlike a pretty trailer, a playable demo can’t really disguise crappy code and if gamers get to judge for themselves, rather than be tricked into purchases by marketing and hype, than developers will be forced to up their quality just to keep competitive.

Not all companies can be bothered — Rockstar Games hardly has to dole out any square footage of Liberty City for Grand Theft Auto IV to be a blockbuster, though Xbox Canada figures the mega-popular Halo 3 multiplayer beta test helped make it the fastest selling pre-ordered game ever (not to mention garnering priceless “community” feedback). It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, though. The official Xbox magazine is going digital and will soon be offering up exclusive demos — for a price — which sets a terrible precedent in the Marketplace.

But in the race for our limited gaming dollars, more and more game-makers are still hoping to win us over with a free spin and that, like a fiery lap in Burnout Revenge, puts the gamer in the driver’s seat.