Lessons in Demo Launching

EDIT: Hillariously enough, my host's servers just went down. You can still play the demo with these links:
Windows torrent (dropbox)
Linux torrent (dropbox)
Browser demo (mochi)

Cross-posted on gamasutra (which usually gets more comments)

An important phase in marketing any game is launching a playable demo.  We produced two versions - one that plays in a browser, and one that you can download and install for a nice, desktop-native experience with video features like fullscreen/resolution switching, etc.

In preparation for the launch, I spent a week getting the files and website ready for a "soft launch" where I showed it to just enough people to catch all the huge, obvious problems before the "real launch" where I would send out press releases and the like.  Response was mostly positive, and I was able to fix a lot of problems that people pointed out right away.

In today's article, I talk about the process and share some of the things I learned.

Click to play the demo!

Launching the Web Version

Deploying a web version is as easy as writing an <embed> tag, but I wanted to keep my hosting bill low, and also minimize the footprint in case high traffic from the "real launch" should take the site down. There's plenty of "free" swf hosting sites like SwfCabin, but I wanted something sturdier.  Mochiads immediately came to mind.

Mochiads is a service that lets you earn money by running pre-game ads. All in all, I wouldn't recommend this service for anyone trying to get rich : I've earned only $1,300 over 3.5 years with them, and my past games are actually pretty successful for the flash market.  Although I've made a decent living as a flash developer, almost none of it has come from ads, the bulk of my earnings having come through sponsorships, contract work, consulting, and other avenues.  Advertising is mostly chump change.

All that aside, Mochi is still good for free hosting!  I uploaded the game's demo to mochi's servers, disabled the pre-game ad, and voila!  I had an online, ad-free game demo and no server crash worries! Of course, Mochi's servers could always go down, but they're probably as or more reliable than my own hosting service, especially if there's a lot of traffic.

Don't show ads on our site!

If ads are shown for some reason, show one of ours

Mochi doesn't disallow this technique in their terms of service, and considering I'm still letting them make money off of ads in my older games, I feel okay with it.  Theoretically this means that I'm able to host the game for free without showing any ads, but if any ads crop up despite my settings I'll probably just suck it up and host the file myself, as ads turn people off and I'd much rather have a sale than measly ad revenue. This will become more important as the game gets closer to final launch.

Bending BitTorrent to My Will

Next, I needed a way to host the downloadable versions of the demo.  Hosting these files was a greater challenge than hosting the web version, as they were much bigger due to the uncompressed audio and graphics in the download version. Bittorent seemed like a natural solution - the more people torrent the file, the less stress my servers have as users start seeding to each other.

Of course, Bittorrent is not without its drawbacks.  For one, lots of people don't know how to use it.  For these players, however, there's always the web version which doesn't require them to download anything. Given that even downloading an exe file is too high a barrier for many people, this should take care of our less technical crowd.  The other problem with Bittorent, however, is that someone needs to be constantly seeding the files at all times.

Of course, I could have just left Bittorent open all day and seeded from my home computer, or asked all my team members to do the same, but that wouldn't be a permanent, fire-and-forget solution. I needed something stable, reliable, and cheap (preferably free).

One step in the right direction would be to web-seed the torrent file, linking it to a file on my web server, but that would still be a hit to my hosting bill I'd rather avoid.

That's when I stumbled across an interesting trick by googling around for a while.  Turns out, DropBox offers free file hosting up to 2 GB, and even better, provides web URLs to all your public files.  All Bittorent needs to set up a web seed is a URL - so, I dropped the demo installer files into my public dropbox, copied the dropbox URL's, and set those as the web-seed URL's for each torrent file.

Bittorent + Dropbox = free web seed!

Then, I just uploaded the .torrent files, and, magically, it all worked!  (To my knowledge, this isn't against DropBox's terms of service, either)  Now I had a web demo, and a set of cross-platform installer files, all freely hosted without paying a dime or violating any rules!

All I have to worry about now is if DropBox or Mochi's servers ever go down, but again, I'd be more worried about my own web host getting hammered then either of them.

As of this post, the windows and linux torrents are up. Mac version is coming soon!

Demo Length

Technical considerations aside, another important question we had was how to cut our game down from the full version to make a reasonable demo experience.  A lot of digital ink has been spilled on this topic, but as best I can summarize, the prevailing wisdom is :

  • Give the player enough content to understand what the game has to offer,
  • Stop short of satisfying them,
  • Tease them with future content, 
  • Convince them what's to come is worth it.

A common problem with demos is that they only give you the first few tutorial levels, so not only do you not get to do anything fun, you don't really get a taste of what features the game really has to offer.  On the other hand, if the demo offers too much, you feel you've gotten enough milk for free, so why buy the cow?

Given that our game features a fairly deep battle system with 6 unique character classes, each specialized for different combat situations, we could easily send the wrong signal by only giving them a handful of levels to play with one or two classes - we'd barely scratch the surface, and players could go away without knowing how deep the game really was. On the other hand, we still have to hold most of the game back.

For the player to feel that the full version will be worth playing, two things need to happen:

  • The rest of the game needs to be much longer than the demo
  • The player needs to correctly perceive that fact

Originally, our game was split into four "acts," not unlike a play. Act II fell at a natural stopping point, representing about 15-20% of total linear progress across the game's map (but only about 5-10% of the total gameplay, as later levels are longer and more involved), and introduced the player solidly to the first two character classes (berserkers and rangers) and just barely introduced the third (healer).

Sending the Right Signals

Immediately we ran into perception problems with our testers. "So... I've played through half the game already?" They said in the after-play debriefing session. "No!" I said "the final two acts are much, much longer!"  The testers stared blankly at me and replied, "Okay, I guess so - but there's no way to tell that from here.  Right now, the full version doesn't seem like it will be much longer if it's only four acts."  Perception is everything - even though the second half of the game was over twice the length of the first, dividing the experience up into "acts" created the expectation that each one would be roughly the same length.

Incorrectly implies 50% of total content

So, we divided up the content to span seven equally sized acts. Hopefully, this will make players feel like they've just gotten started, rather than nearly being through with the game.

Correctly implies ~20% of total content

Hold Something Back

Average play-time for the demo is between one and two hours, which is pretty high for a demo, so a few people suggested that I hold something extra back.  Originally, all mission sub-challenges were playable in the demo, so I tried locking all the "extreme" challenges after Act I.  Leaving the "advanced" challenges in would still showcase our extra missions and level design, but giving the player (particularly hard-core ones) something extra to long for.

Immediately, I started getting a reaction from testers. "I want that!" they said, pointing to the locked challenge.  I even got this reaction from players who previously had never even tried the extreme challenges.  I guess sometimes the simple act of holding something back can make people want it even more!

Encourage their Return

Since the final game isn't ready yet, we can't immediately direct someone to a "buy it now!" screen, so we need to give players some reason to come back.  For now, all we can really do is direct them to our website and encourage them to sign up for a newsletter.  I imagine most people will skip right past this, but it does give people a way to follow us and keep in touch.  Furthermore, if we wait to release a demo until the final game is ready, we lose the ability to build some buzz ahead of time, and overall sales will be lower.  As they say, better to get 10% of something than 100% of nothing.

This will be replaced by an "upsell" screen when the full version comes out

Respect their Time

Usually, when you sink a few hours into a demo, that time is lost as you have to start over when the full game comes out.  I don't have exact numbers on this, but I know of lots of people who have refused to play demos because they don't want to start over again, or, having played a demo, won't buy the full version even if they liked the game because the sting of lost time is too much.

So, we let the player export their save file.  When the full version comes out, they can import this and pick up right from where they left off.  This does open the game to cheating if players hack their save file text, but it's a single player game, so I don't really care :)

This screen is shown to the player  when they quit or finish the demo.

It's a small gesture of respect for the player's time, and hopefully when the full game is released, they'll see that little *.dfq file on their desktop and start itching to find out what happens next in Defender's Quest.

Future Considerations

All in all, the "soft launch" was a success. I got a lot of good feedback on the game, found a lot of immediate, obvious bugs to fix, and figured out some clever methods to host the game files without clogging my site with ads. When the final version comes out, we'll still be able to use this hosting method to keep our hosting costs down and our servers up should we have the "good problem" of too many users trying to play and download our game at once.

However, when we start selling the game, we'll need to have a direct download solution that works for our non-technical users who aren't comfortable with using Bittorrent.  In this case, whatever 3rd-party sales provider we use for our storefront (like FastSpring) should cover the hosting for the final game files themselves. (We'll also be trying to get the game out on Steam, etc).

The game's length feels about right, though we've gotten comments that it's still a bit long.  I don't mind being generous with the demo, so long as people still feel like buying the full game.  Right now, the experience takes you all the way to a climactic boss battle, resolves with a few cutscenes and then lets you visit the next town before you hit the "demo over" screen.

Some testers have suggested that letting the demo resolve leaves them too satisfied, and one suggested that I end it right after the boss battle, without the resolving cutscene, so it's more of a cliffhanger.  Instead of letting the party debrief and talk about the shadowy portents to come, this tester suggested I cut things off with a splash page that says "What happens next? Find out.... in the full game!"

I definitely see the reasoning, but I'm still not sure what the best decision is.  I'll keep showing the game to more people throughout the week, and once I've gotten enough feedback I'll tweak the final demo for the "real launch" next week. 

For anyone who wants to see the demo, you can play it online and/or download the installer for your OS here:

So, that's my article on some of the things I learned in preparing a demo for launch. Any comments, criticisms, questions?