Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Potential game buyers and their attention spans

There is something very tricky about selling games through demos. The problem is, the complexity of interaction required for the full experience.

Take a fairly complex strategy game, like Gratuitous Space Battles. To really appreciate what the game offers, you need to experience the visual excitement of a big battle, preferably two different ones to show the variety of ships, fleets, backdrops and visual effects. You need to experience the way the honor system works, and the shop section where you unlock new modules. You need to see the design screen, and put ships together, try out the deployment screen with the different ships orders, and you need to see the variety of missions to choose from. Plus you need a brief bit of challenge play to see the online integration, and if we are talking all the DLC, you need a run through of campaign maps, campaign repairs etc…
To explain how to do all of this in the game takes AGES, and you only really learn it by doing it. Lets call the time taken to experience brief elements of all of this time ‘T’.

Now lets take a movie, such as…oh I dunno… Enemy At The Gates. This film has a bit of character background (Vassili as a child), it has high drama (the crossing of the river) it has the characters of Khrushchev, Tania, the rivalry with Danilov over Tania, the death of Koulikov, the betrayal of Sacha…etc blah blah.

The difference is, that we don’t need to ‘learn’ how to experience any of that. A 3 second clip of stuka divebombers… CHECK, a 3 second love scene clip CHECK… and we can jump from one to the other no problem. This means that the time taken to experience brief elements of all this is T2. I think T2 is maybe T/10
Where it all gores wrong, is generally peoples attention span is A, and T > A > T2.

What a geeky way of saying it’s easier to sell a movie than a game :D But what I’m getting at is that the very NATURE of games (interaction) means that it’s much harder to provide an effective demo. (although to be fair, books have the same problem)

And this is what I’m worried about with my next game (GTB). It’s actually got a ‘sort-of-backstory’, and to explain the mood and the style of the game will take more than 30 seconds. Gratuitous Space Battles was pretty much summed up in it’s title, and this one won’t be. So I muse nervously on how to hold peoples attention while I explain the background to the game.
The mechanics of the game are pretty simple by comparison. I’m just taking an existing genre, flipping it, scaling it up, and setting it against an original backstory.

Plus lots of stuff blows up and it should look nice, in a GSB kinda way :D

11 thoughts on Potential game buyers and their attention spans

  1. I think you might be over-thinking the requirement of a demo.

    PC Demos serve 2 primary purposes

    1 – to allow people to ensure that it works on their PC. This doesn’t just apply to high-end games with their CPU/GPU permutations – it applies to the guy who’s wondering if your game will work on his netbook/laptop/3-year-old desktop…

    2 – to get a hands-on feel for the game

    What you’re talking about – showing off the game at full-steam – is more a job for videos IMO. The sort of people who want that level of understanding will spend the time watching stuff like that.

    Meanwhile the demo should just walk the player through the basics and let them have a bit of a play. At some point it cuts-in and says “at this point in the full game you’d have access to bigger lasers/more galaxies/larger space-fruit as well as [insert feature list here] with a big ‘BUY ME NOW’ button on there.

    There’s a fine line between showing someone the goods and letting them soil them :)

  2. Thank you, Cliff, for just filling my brain full of amazing ideas to turn a demo for a story-based game into a trailer that does exactly what a movie trailer does.

    Interactive vertical slices of the game welded together to introduce the environment, principal characters, and an overview of the plot.

    Expensive, time-consuming, and potentially confusing? Sure, but so are movie trailers.

    Added note, the standard demos for story based games give us a large chunk of the opening chapter, usually up to the hook. I think that beyondthepillars’s Winter Voices ( does this very well.

  3. and after I wrote that stuff up there, I tried the demo of Solar 2 on Steam – which basically spent time telling me what I wouldn’t be able to do in the demo, cracked a few jokes about demos (including a cancer one which was mildly distasteful) and then left me to wander around as if I’d installed some massive screensaver…

    I’ve still no idea what that game entails – really – hey ho!

  4. Or you could go the other way and put out a demo/trailer entirely unrelated to the game. See Dead Island trailers, or the demo for FEAR2 that only showed you a mech piloting segment (the most random and short-lived part of the game possible, completely unrelated to the story).

  5. Please don’t make game trailers that try to be movie trailers. If I’m watching a game trailer and it starts off with a bunch of text explaining the backstory and game universe, I switch it off. I want to see the gameplay right off the bat! That’s what I (and I assume most other people) play games for! A good backstory or interesting setting is definitely nice to have in a game, but if that’s all you’re showing in a trailer, you’re not giving your potential customers any idea what the game actually plays like!

    A lot of AAA games can get away with making cinematic teasers and trailers for two reasons:

    1) They’re most often sequels, so potential buyers already know the gameplay from the previous game(s).
    2) They’re most often first person shooters, and potential buyers already know what an FPS plays like.

    Indie games can’t/shouldn’t compete with that. Instead, they offer new and interesting gameplay mechanics. Show them!

  6. ‘Indie games can’t/shouldn’t compete with that. Instead, they offer new and interesting gameplay mechanics. Show them!’

    boooring, I WANT some narrative, I want to feel part of a story, a link to the why’s in the game as all gameplayers are required to use their imagination to participate and play, why not fuel it further.

    sure, you don’t get that in tic-tac-toe, but you did get that in Goo and countless other small indie games… its called charicter and it sells just as much as the gameplay.

  7. I never said games shouldn’t have narrative or character. I’m talking about what you chose to show when trying to sell the game with a trailer:

    “A good backstory or interesting setting is definitely nice to have in a game, but if that’s all you’re showing in a trailer, you’re not giving your potential customers any idea what the game actually plays like!”

    Check out the trailers for World of Goo on YouTube. Sure, they have short animations and quotes praising the game, but 80% of the trailers’ runtime is still dedicated to actual gameplay, not some backstory about the World of Goo Corporation.

    I just see so many 2 minute trailers for indie games that consist of:

    20 seconds of logos
    40 seconds of black text on a white background setting up the story and universe
    20 seconds of quick cuts of explosions from the game
    20 seconds of cutscene footage
    10 seconds of actual discernable gameplay
    10 more seconds of logos

    All I’m saying is (just as Cliff chose to name his other website): Show Me The Game!

  8. Basically I think you hit the nail on the head but also solved the problem at the same time.

    No need for Demo’s really. A good “Trailer” for a game is all that’s necessary. The demo really only provides a sample for “Will this work with my specs?”.

    That’s basically it.

    So demo’s, these days, aren’t really necessary if you can compliment the game with a cool trailer. Fun, exciting, tantalizing visuals, sound, and a show of some of the enjoyable elements of actual gameplay. That’s it.

    When put like that, I think Demo’s might actually be a bit detrimental to the final product. Really, it might only come down to making sure that the game works on different PC’s with different specs. In other words, the only thing necessary is a tool that will test the system and confirm how optimally the game will run.

    I know a lot of people still like playing through demo’s, I used to be one of them, but I’ve found very little need for demos over the past half a decade or so. If I like the trailer, read up on the specs, and see that it’ll work on my system, I buy the game. Simple.

    I know I’m not the only one who does this either. I have no idea what the ratio is, but people who care about trailers to people who care about demos would be an interesting statistic to find out. If I had to guess I’d say that there are more people who care about a good trailer. Just a guess, but it’s kind of elementary during the age of YouTube. Not saying that it’s definite or that there aren’t large numbers of people out there that prefer demos. Just that those people have to deal with the idea that they might be vastly outnumbered by people who would rather see an awesome trailer that will convince them that a game is of interest. That’s the category that I fall into now. Oh, and I do read up on the game if I am interested. I’ll go to the games website and read up on things like, gameplay, controls, features, etc. etc. This is all quicker than downloading numerous demos and figuring out which game I want more than another.

  9. I’ve often come across people that refuse to buy a game if it doesn’t have a demo. But personally, I just watch Let’s Plays of games I’m interested in now. Those kinda work like demos, but you’re just watching someone else play it instead of yourself. So, in that sense, I agree that for me, demos are just a means of making sure my system can run the game.

  10. I think of myself as the guy who doesn’t buy a game unless it has a demo, but Christian’s comment made me realize that I pulled the trigger on Plants vs. Zombies after watching someone else play the game for a while. They were hooked, and I got hooked just watching. I wanted to try different plant building strategies than what I was seeing, so I bought the game. It’s all about the “oh, I want to do that” moment: being able to see how you could do something that’s *different* from what you’re watching and wanting to do it. You have to have some idea of what’s possible, but you don’t have to appreciate everything that the game offers, and in fact, as the developer, the the more you can surprise the player by giving them more than they anticipated, the better they will like your game and the more likely they will be to trust your brand in the future. You just need them to catch that initial hook. They don’t have to want to play the whole game, they just have to want to start playing. You can change everything later, and it will work as long as you can provide that unbroken stream of “I want to do that.” It’s about bootstrapping attention capture, not trying to compress the whole essence of the game into a demo or trailer or anything else.

    I like to watch Let’s Plays too. Usually I have no interest in playing the game afterwards, because I can get most of the experience without having to expend the time, energy, or money to play it myself. The few games I actually buy are the exceptions. Often these are strategy games and builder games like Minecraft, in part because those are the games that give the player the most freedom to do things differently.

  11. Ok.. the trailer is the answer as many have said.

    I’m a bit with Christian Knudsen here, show me a game in the trailer.

    For example, CoD : MW3, I usually like CoD games and its over the top stories… I loved the MW3 video, although after I saw it I understood nothing about the game whatsoever. All I know is that is based in the USA, England, France, Germany and things blow up, A LOT it seems. I took the bait of that video because I already know what kind of gameplay it has.

    Your next game wont have that chance, I known GSB but before it I only knew Kudos2 and before that Democracy 2. So you wont have any other option than to show me the gameplay and that is what the demo is for.

    But, alas, my time is limited to play lots of demos for every other game there is, indie or not… I’m a married man with two kids tell why should I spend my game time playing your demo to see if the game is nice to actually buy it?

    Show me a good trailer…

    So for me you have to create a good trailer to sell me, time wise, your demo in order to sell me, money wise, your game.

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