What is Free to a Good Home?

I never asked for this.

If the reports are true, a bunch of dastardly (or heroic, depending on your point of view) Italians managed to steal (or liberate, depending on your point of view) a copy of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (or Deus Ex: Highlight Boogie, depending on your point of view) to the internet (or the information highway, if you’re stuck in 1994).

Square Enix/Eidos have taken this all rather well. They could have attempted damage control, talking about how evil piracy is, asking people not to download the game because it’s incomplete, and then finished with some dehumanizing marketing spiel, much like EA did when Crysis 2 was leaked. Instead, they took it in stride, going so far as to encourage discussion of the leak and request feedback, which was a great move. Where, like Crytek, they could have condemned their potential audience–people who downloaded the leak because they desperately wanted to play more Crysis–they embraced the leak and got their community involved. It showed that they were interested in making their game better. They weren’t just treating the leak like a demo–they were using the opportunity to dialog with their audience, and to make the game the best it could be.

I have seen discussions unfold where people who have played the leak actually convince others to preorder the game, or at least, check it out for themselves. Yes, it speaks to the high quality of the game, but it also brings to mind a question: why don’t developers and producers rely more on positive word of mouth?

In an era where game previews are guarded more tightly than state secrets, where demos have all-but disappeared (and, failing that, tend to be misleading or too short to provide an accurate picture of the game), and where reviews rarely come before the game is purchased, one might get the impression that developers are actually ashamed of their games. It’s as if the almighty marketing machine thinks that holding screenshots hostage is a better way to sell games than to get people talking about them.

The idea is, of course, hogwash.

Old Spice Bodywash is a superior alternative to hogwash.

Whether it’s Lost or The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, getting people to talk about something is the best way to sell it. Humans are social creatures, and we like sharing excitement. Most people weren’t terrifically excited by Human Revolution’s leaked screenshots; every game has those, and they’re from the same few levels that will be shown over and over again until the game is released. It’s hard to care about a picture beyond the initial game announcement phase. When Human Revolution was leaked, the excitement for the game skyrocketed. Once people got it in their hands and were able to play it, they got excited, especially when they got to experience things that had upset them before.

One of the biggest complaints about Deus Ex was object highlighting. A few people had got it in their heads that it would be an obtrusive “feature” forced on them by shoddy developers, so they started telling everyone how bad it was. Negative word-of-mouth spread fast. The team released gameplay videos, gaming websites said it wasn’t that bad, and Eidos Montreal said they’d include the option to turn it off, but nothing seemed able to stop the naysayers from their whining. It’s a different story now that the game’s been leaked, however; the complaints seem to have vanished.

Consumers do not trust the marketing machine, and, by extension, they rarely trust the gaming press. A consistent lack of respect from advertisers and phony excitement from the gaming press has helped foster an environment where consumers are increasingly cynical towards new games and longing for the excitement of the old. Even now, many gamers refuse to believe that XCOM will be a good game, despite 2K Marin’s solid history and a slew of excited previews.

Might be a great game. Might not.

How do developers entice the wary consumer? How does 2K calm down the X-COM faithful, or the people who say “it looks like all those other shooters?” After all, to everyone not wearing a tinfoil hat, the leak of Deus Ex was a happy accident. It’s not like it could become a legitimate business practice or anything…


Let me be clear: I am not talking about demos. Modern demos for AAA games rarely work; nobody wants to spend two hours downloading fifteen minutes of misleading gameplay. Fifteen minutes of gameplay is rarely enough to get anyone hooked on a video game. Players need something more substantial than that, and that’s where Free to Play comes in.

Judging by most reactions to those three words, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were slapping your forehead in disbelief right now, and I can’t say I blame you. Free to Play seems like a corporate scheme to make players spend $68 for a monocle, or to deliver neutered, unfun games that are only worth playing once you begin shelling out a small fortune on a regular basis in order to keep up with the rich kids who don’t mind doing that.

What I’m thinking of is more akin to the shareware model: offer the first several hours of your game for free to get people into it, and then let them pay for the rest. Of course, the shareware name is something that tends to be associated with small, indie products, as opposed to large AAA affairs, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. Imagine at E3 if a developer said “oh, and you can download the same preview build we’ve got here on the floor right now, so check it out and let us know what you think!”

By allowing early access to the game, developers can allay fears while simultaneously building excitement for the title. There’s a bit more than that, though. If 2K Marin were to release a demo that put me in exactly one XCOM mission, I can’t say I’d necessarily be interested in buying the game. I definitely wouldn’t be interested in the story, because fifteen to thirty minutes generally isn’t enough time to get fully invested in a video game’s fiction. If they offered the game’s entire intro, on the other hand, as well as a few missions after that to whet my whistle, chances are I’d be gnashing at the bit, screaming for more. A sufficiently lengthy involvement in the game is required to stimulate the “well, I’ve come this far! I’ve got to keep going!” response, and that’s what developers should be wanting. They should be getting their audience to think “I need more of this and I need it now!” rather than “bah, this demo is probably all the best parts, and not even in the game.”

I feel wrong just posting a picture of this game.

In addition, letting players get a good feel for the game without some PR person standing over their shoulder watching their every move would allow gamers, particularly those who might not be able to attend various gaming conventions, to get a good feel for the game. It’s somewhat hard to be objective about a game when you’ve got people nearby who are incredibly excited about it and want you to be as excited as they are, which makes it difficult to offer any worthwhile criticism or helpful feedback.

At the same time, developers benefit. Bioware, for instance, has admitted that they made many mistakes with Dragon Age 2–if they had released the first few hours of gameplay some months before release, they would have been exposed to the overwhelmingly negative consumer reaction while there was still time to do something about it. As it happened, an iron-clad PR machine steamrolled through leaving no one with much bad to say about the game, because they simply didn’t have the opportunity to be critical. Shortly after the game’s release, negative word of mouth had spread far enough that its sales plummeted drastically over the next few weeks. With a substantial early release, developers could use the feedback from players to determine what could be improved. Shooter developers could take the opportunity to iron out kinks in the multiplayer, and, more importantly, offer a free version of their multiplayer to people who might otherwise not want to risk their cash on an untested FPS title.

See, as game prices increase, so has the number of “I’ll just wait for the Steam sale” remarks, which ultimately means lost profits. Offering several hours of a game for free means an opportunity to pique the interest of gamers who might not otherwise be interested in a title. STALKER’s a hard game to sell to people who are unfamiliar with it, because it’s so unique. If there was a free version of the game with, say, the Cordon and Garbage levels for players to explore, there would be no entry barrier, and anyone who was even remotely interested could give it a try. Many of the games I own were only purchased because I got to play them for a good few hours at a friend’s or something.

Essentially, it’s a win-win scenario. Gamers can formulate their own opinions about games before their release while building a better relationship with the developer, and the developer is, in turn, getting free crowdsourced focus testing and great PR. It’s high time developers rethought how they relate to their audiences. The current method is broken, and gamers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied by being forced to take a gamble on their games. Allowing the consumer to offer honest feedback about games before they’re released means better games, and ultimately, allowing people to try a game is the best way to get them to buy it.

    • Stellar Duck
    • August 18th, 2011

    A bit of an old post to reply to, but I think you make some good arguments for releasing a good amount of the game before release.

    It reminds me a bit of the old shareware versions of Doom where it contained, if memory serves, the entire first act. While I’m sure a lot of people never bothered to play anything but the shareware version, it was a good way of spreading the game. Heaven knows that for the shareware of Doom I’d never have tried it, or at least only tried it long after the fact.

    The shareware secured id a massive market penetration that they in some ways still live off to this day. At least that is my suspicion.

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