Do Game Demos Hurt Game Sales?

Releasing a demo for a game actually hurts the chances of that game selling well.

Or at least that is what game industry analyst and Puzzle Clubhouse CEO Jesse Schell claimed in an interesting presentation at the 16th annual DICE Awards this year.

In a handy dandy little chart, Schell breaks down Xbox 360 game sales with four different lines. At the bottom of the totem pole are games that don’t have any trailers or demos. Surprisingly, barely above rock bottom, are games that only have demos released. Games with promotional trailers only soar far and above the competition in terms of sales.

Jesse Schell

For Schell, the answer is simple. Games with trailers only are the most successful.

“The thing is, with no demo, you’ve got to buy it if you want to try it,” Schell said.

This seems like a somewhat logical conclusion. Curious players who download a demo and play a game may be intrigued to purchase the game upon release or leave unimpressed. Players who are curious about a certain game and don’t have a demo to play may buy the game upon release and still be unimpressed, but hey, they bought the game.

Despite Schell’s role as an industry analyst and the numbers that back him up, I think making the link between lower game sales and games which release demos is a case of mistaken cause and effect.

Schell is equating demos as the cause, and lower sales as the effect. But what he completely misses is a simple fact that is apparent to most of us – we just aren’t interested in many of the games that release demos.

Remember these? They are evil, terrible ideas. 

Demos are used by developers to further increase the number of people interested in a game so that they will potentially purchase it when the full game is released. It is for promotional purposes.

However, you don’t often see demos for huge triple A titles such as Halo, Skyrim or Call of Duty. Why is that? Because there is already so much player interest and support that a demo doesn’t actually help increase sales. A demo, when almost the entire gaming community is excited about your product, is pointless and a waste of a developer’s time and resources. When a triple A game does get a demo, it is usually well after the game’s launch.

Demos are instead primarily used for lesser known titles or games whose success isn’t 100 percent guaranteed. Many of these games are less than great. Let’s take a look at some of the recently released demos on Xbox Live. We will take the first five: The Crysis 3 open beta, Dead Space 3, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts 2013, and NBA Baller Beats.

The first three titles on our list are games many would consider popular. However, none of them are going to even come close to selling as many copies as games like Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty, Skyrim and other AAA games. Metal Gear is a tough sell on the Xbox, as Metal Gear has historically been a PlayStation franchise. Dead Space 3 is trying to sell itself as an action title featuring co-op and more gunplay. Demos are being used to increase awareness about what these products are all about for gamers who might be interested but not sold on their ideas yet.

Now, Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts and NBA Baller Beats is our other reason for releasing a demo. These are games that are not going to achieve huge financial success and have very little marketing going for them. Demos are released then to increase interest with the hope of somebody downloading the demo, having fun, and deciding to shell out some cash. Dangerous Hunts 2013 has a metacritic score of 58, while Baller Beats has a 73.

You are telling me this game didn’t sell well because it had a demo, and not because it’s a game that appeals to a very specific demographic? Not to mention it’s Kinect only.

I propose that demos aren’t the reason for these games selling poorly. It isn’t because gamers, once they get a taste of the game to come, decide to opt out of purchasing it at launch. Just think of how absurd Schell’s statement really is. He is saying we, as consumers, would rather spend $60 to try a game rather than trying it for free in demo form. It doesn’t make sense.

The real reason game demos seem to point to lower game sales is really quite simple – the games that have demos are games not many people are interested in purchasing in the first place.  Demos aren’t the cause of lower game sales; they are more of a symptom that a game won’t break any sale records. A developer releasing a demo says they are trying to get as much attention to their product as possible, that they aren’t 100 percent confident in its ability to be successful on trailers alone. It’s not the demo that is causing the lower sales, or the trailers causing high sales. It’s just the game. It’s really as simple as that.

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