If there’s one thing that’s getting old, it’s grizzled writers waxing nostalgic about the good old days. Sure, they were great, but how many times can we rattle on about tramping ten miles through the snow to buy the latest King’s Quest sequel before youngsters wearily roll their eyes while streaming the latest, phatest game demo? Nevertheless, I’m going to do it, and you whippersnappers out there with your fancy-pants DSL connections and zippy download rates are going to listen. Ahem. In this editorial, I will discuss the negative effects of the absurdly large PC demos publishers and developers have been unleashing, and present solutions for companies hoping to get more bang for their demo buck.
Here’s the part where you youngsters will roll your eyes, although you salt-and-pepper haired gamers out there will fully understand: Remember when developers released small shareware files jam-packed with hours of gameplay? One of the first shareware titles I ever played, Apogee Software’s Goodbye Galaxy, fit on a single 1.44MB floppy disk and didn’t even use up half of the available storage space. I played that game, which contained around 18 huge levels, for over a week, first beating all the maps, then returning to find the secrets and to achieve a higher score. When I had finished and was hopelessly hooked, I shelled out the 30-some-odd dollars for the full version. Image that: A demo completely dominating my game time for an entire week. When was the last time that happened to you?
The purpose of this editorial, however, is not to disparage the difference in the amount of content between the much beefier shareware games of yore and the demos currently strewn across the Internet. Although the content in today’s demos pales in comparison to most classic shareware offerings, publishers and developers are under no obligation to release any portion of their product for free. Therefore, I’m encouraged by those companies which continue to put their cards on the table by giving the public access to any portion of a product, no matter how much game time is involved. Rather, I use Apogee and id’s wee classic to point out the main reason for publicly sharing a program: To grab us by the insides and not let go. In other words, to demonstrate a game’s core features and give players an enticing morsel of the larger experience. So, why is it that demos have grown so large in size when all it takes is a little nudge to point us in the direction of our wallets and purses?
The answer can be drawn from an old saying that’s full of truth: “Give someone an inch, and they’ll take a mile.” Or in the case of compiling PC game demos, give a publisher 56K of bandwidth and he’ll take two megabits. A perusal through our own download area, the PC Release List, reveals several new demos from the 100MB Club. It’s no longer uncommon, either, for most demos to exceed 50MB. To state the obvious, this increase in size came hand-in-hand with the appearance and fairly widespread dissemination of broadband connections such as cable and DSL. It also came with the arrival of games that took advantage of all the multimedia enhancements offered by current hardware. (Marvel that a single texture in a modern 3D action title is larger than the entire Goodbye Galaxy installation file.) The logic therefore seems straightforward: Since players are able to download larger files at faster rates, let’s give them the whole kit and caboodle, companies must be thinking. Consequently, when Friday, the day high profile demos are typically released, comes, many of us download not only essential game files but also extraneous graphics and audio files along with pointlessly included cinematics.
One problem larger demos should have caused by now, but strangely hasn’t, is a decrease in the number of downloads. I’m not convinced that statistics on broadband usage are all that meaningful when it comes to gauging who downloads games. Users of all bandwidth persuasions are continuing to access free programs, no matter the size, or so the download tallies for demos above 50MB on the PCRL would indicate. While an increasing number of users are getting broadband connections, a lot of low bandwidth users are still out there. Even though they’re complaining about demo sizes, they’re still logging on and clicking to their hearts’ content, sometimes using programs that resume broken downloads or accelerate the transfer rate to get what they want.
All this is quite clever and it says a lot about the tenacity of die hard gamers, but 56K is still 56K, and it can take a long time and sometimes multiple attempts to snag a much-coveted demo. This can lead to a negative experience for some users, who might find the scant amount of gameplay and conversely large cinematics disappointing in comparison to what they went through to get the free goods. Add in the fact that a lot of demos use incomplete and buggy code in order to meet publication deadlines for magazine CDs, and you have to wonder what lunatic school of thought marketing people are using when it comes to promoting a product online and creating positive buzz.
One major problem has been exacerbated by the phenomenon of ever-bulging demos: The limited numbers of download hosts. In case there’s anyone who hasn’t noticed, online game publications have been dropping left and right due in large part to a lack of advertising revenue. The numbers of available download locations are therefore diminishing, placing a heavier burden on those sites that remain. Since bandwidth costs money, even publishers are beginning to forego hosting their own demos and are instead relying on Internet-based media outlets for online distribution. Perhaps “leaning” would be a better word, as some publishers are placing the burden of providing bandwidth on enthusiast and game sites currently unable to afford it. Of course it’s great to be able to download files from ZDnet, and FilePlanet, but these publications are essentially paying for the privilege of promoting a publisher’s product. This leads to clogged download queues and slower transfer rates, and places undue financial stress on media outlets.
Two recent examples showcase the range of publisher activities when it comes to hosting downloads: Some companies are continuing to uphold their end of the bargain, allowing media outlets to mirror files while continuing to host their own product demos. One example is Eidos Interactive, which releases a near-constant stream of promotional trailers and game demos. Almost without exception, Eidos both encourages online publications to mirror new files and allows media outlets to point to an Eidos-hosted download location. Quite simply, this is what all the larger publishing houses should be doing for both demos and patches. I was therefore disappointed when major Half-Life and Counter-Strike patches from Sierra and Valve, and the Rails Across America demo from Strategy First, were not made available on the respective publisher’s websites or FTP locations. In fact, go to Sierra Studio’s FTP site and you’ll find only older patches for Half-Life and Counter-Strike that were released last summer. Never mind the implications for customer support; this is an unsettling trend for companies generally renowned for fantastic support of their fan community.
What’s the solution? While it would be too encyclopedic to come up with an ideal download size, companies can take several steps to ensure fair and accessible circulation of their demos and to avoid the bad download experience that can taint a user’s perception. The first is to release multiple versions of each large demo, including slimmed down versions without the cinematics and other high quality multimedia files. If someone wants to jump right into the gameplay, why force them to download a 30MB movie and a mass of speech files to get there? Some companies make these files available as a separate download--which is a smart tactic, because you want to eliminate all the things that stand between players and a positive first experience with your product. Second, if you’re a publisher, begin hosting your own demos. It’s not wise to rely on overly stressed media outlets for promoting your product. If you want to get the most people possible happily playing your game, you’re going to have to make an investment. Let’s look toward productive solutions for the future rather than giving grizzled writers such as myself more excuses for waxing nostalgic about the good old days. By the way, did I mention it was uphill both ways when walking through the snow to buy King’s Quest?
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