mirror-lonelyIf we think about LittleBigPlanet, Age of Conan or Mirror’s Edge, we notice they have two things in common: very successful and well received demo versions (or beta stages) and very poor, lower than anticipated game sales. And since these are not the only titles in which a demo (or the lack of it) appears to be connected with their commercial success, I believe we should analyze the influence demos have in the game world and debate: are game demos game killers?

As a note for those wondering, I am including “game demo” and “open beta” in the same category since, even though the concepts are slightly different, they do the same thing: present a bit of the final product.

Now let’s start with LittleBigPlanet, a game Sony hoped to turn into a huge financial success and even a “console seller”: it had an impressive beta stage (Eurogamer servers simply could not handle the amount of visitors wishing to get one of the limited 5,800 keys and other websites started to offer even more) and everybody who tried the game was impressed, amazed and blown away by it. And that was not all – LittleBigPlanet scored incredibly high in review scores and bucketloads of websites considered Media Molecule’s title one of the best games of the year. You would believe that such a successful game breaks sale records after sale records, right? Well… wrong! Until now, there are around 1.3 million unique users in LBP and sales are nowhere near initial predictions.

Age of Conan is another good example of a game killed by its own successful beta: considered a potential “World of Warcraft beater” and probably the most anticipated MMORPG of early 2008, Age of Conan’s beta was a success, with over 50,000 accounts being made during the first 24 hours only. Not to mention that Massively named AoC “everything I was hoping for and then some”. The results? When the full game was released, nobody wanted to buy it anymore and Funcom’s game never managed to get anywhere near the predicted sale figures. Even more, it was recently announced that many servers will be closed because of the lack of players.

And still, that’s not everything: last week I presented you the list with the most played Xbox Live games in 2008. The Battlefield: Bad Company Demo was at number 8, while the full game barely made it to number 14. Mirror’s Edge Demo was also one of the most played XBL titles, but the full title didn’t even make the top 20. Also, the Too Human Demo, considered by many a huge disappointment, still managed to get into the top. And similar examples can go on and on and on…

hazeSo, I have to ask myself (and, of course, you) what could be the logical explanation of such strange behavior from gamers? We do love playing the free demos and we all rush to do so, but when the full games get released, the sales are much lower than anticipated. I mean… OK, if we would’ve talked about a game like Haze whose demo disappointed big time just like the full game, I would’ve understood. But we’re talking about very popular demos here. Where does all the love disappear?

But there’s even more! If we take a closer look to recently released games, we can notice that titles which offered no demo versions were still incredibly well received by the public and sold big time: Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4 are probably the most recent examples.

Could it be the fact that part of the hype simply disappears after we get the chance to play the game? Could it be the fact that, even though the general reaction to a demo is good, there are still lots of players who find it disappointing and decide against purchasing the full product? Could it be that game demos do more harm than good?

It seems so… but there is something that complicates things a bit: in Halo 3, for example, 800 000 people took part in the beta tests. Still, the game remains the flagship Xbox 360 title and is still one of the most played XBL games. Call of Duty 4 also went through beta testing AND a demo release and it still was a bestseller and one of the most played multiplayer games on all platforms…

So if it’s not the quantity of players involved in the “testing” of the final product, nor the quality of the said demos (since all of them were real hits), then what is it that makes certain demos perform better than the full games? Could it be the FREE factor bigger than anybody would anticipate? It could: a couple of weeks ago, I started playing Unreal Tournament 2004 for the Time Traveling feature and noticed that the most populated game room was the one for the demo version of the game. Which is simply amazing: four years after the game’s launch, it is still the demo that survives. But did it kill the video game? Please share your opinion!