Why demos could cut your sales in half, and how Diablo 3 broke adventuring

Why demos could cut your sales in half, and how Diablo 3 broke adventuring

Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and author of The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses gave a fascinating speech at the D.I.C.E. Summit this year, filled with interesting tidbits on how we react to game design and pricing. Take, for instance, what happens to our brains when we see someone in an MMO who is wearing an incredible set of armor. We don’t see it as a series of objects, we see it as a plan: We ask ourselves what we need to do to get that gear for ourselves.

“When you put a plan in someone’s mind, they seize on it,” he explained. “When you’re playing World of Warcraft, and you see someone with awesome gear, it’s not just cool that they have it, it suddenly becomes a plan in your mind.” You see yourself wearing that armor. You begin to devise the method of acquiring the gear. “The next thing you know, you’re spending 90 hours of your life trying to get that glowy sword.”

This fact that plans change our behavior can be seen in game sales. Schell brought up a slide that showed off cumulative unit sales for Xbox 360 games, and the lowest sales were games with no trailer and no demo. Games with a demo, but no trailer, sold slightly better. Games with both a demo and a trailer sold slightly better than those two groups.

Here’s where it goes weird. The top line, the games with just a trailer, sold the best out of this group by a large margin.

“Wait, you mean we spent all this money making a demo and getting it out there and it cut our sales in half?” Schell asked. “Yes, that’s exactly what happened to you because when you put the demo out, people had seen the trailer and they’re like that’s cool, and they made a plan. They had to try that game. And then they played the demo. Alright, I tried the game, that was okay, alright I’m done. But the games with no demo, you have to buy it if you want to try it. These plans make a big difference.”

How Diablo 3 broke adventuring

Schell discussed large, wide-open games like Skyrim, and how much it would suck if you had to pay a few dollars here and there for items or adventure. We’re happy with Skyrim because, as we discussed in the first story about this concept, you pay once to get into the park and then you’re riding everything for free. We love Skyrim because of the freedom it gives us: Gamers spend literal days inside the game, wandering around and enjoying what it has to offer.

“Compare that to Diablo 3, where it’s like ‘oh man, the Brutality Blade, what do I need to do to get it? Do I need to kill a dragon? What do I do?’ Well, you could do that, or you could just pay $1.15. That doesn’t feel so heroic, really. That doesn’t feel like Utopia.” 

This gives us a hint at why so many gamers reacted so negatively to the real-money auction house. It irks the part of your brain that sees cool gear and makes a plan to get it. The fact that there is a struggle, and a long path to that gear, is the entire point of the game for many people. We spend a significant amount of time and effort doing an activity that we find enjoyable, and then at the end we’re rewarded with the bad-ass gear. We get to show it off, and then other people think of the plan to get that gear. It’s a visual indicator of dedication and skill.

The real-money auction house turns that plan into “I can just pay a dollar or two for that stuff,” which short-circuits what should be the game’s built-in reward structure. Schell brought up the fact that we’d love if our tax software allowed us to press a single button and have our taxes figured out, but that strategy would ruin games.

No one wants a game where you can hit a single button and “win.” We don’t plan our vacations for efficiency; cutting the time it takes you to do yard work is a big win, but planning to do everything on a vacation in three days feels like we lost something. We want shortcuts in things we have to do, but putting them in things we want to do is leads to a negative reaction. 

We can ignore things like the real-money auction house, but it’s very existence means that doing so turns us into irrational actors. Playing the game is inefficient when you could just pay a few bucks for the same items. The Skinner box becomes explicit, instead of implicit. Having good gear in Skryim means that you played the game well, unless you modded the PC version. Having good gear in Diablo 3 could mean that you paid a few dollars in the auction house.

There are no magic bullets when it comes to game design, but you may see a boost in your sales by simply not offering a demo. Make the best gear in your game aspirational, not a simple matter of a microtransaction. Both approaches should help player satisfaction, and possibly your sales.