The Mac game market may be small, but it’s still rife with choices — enough that making a decision of how to spend your money can be quite daunting if you’re not sure whether you’ll like what you’re buying to begin with. That’s where demo versions come into play. Demo versions of games — downloadable, playable versions of titles that offer a taste of the full version — are popular marketing tools in the much larger and competitive PC game market, but they’re somewhat infrequent and inconsistent on the Mac side. To find out why Mac game demos are so few and far between, MacCentral sought comments from leading commercial publishers of Mac games.
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Development pitfalls abound
The availability of a PC demo is generally acknowledged by publishers and developers alike as the number one factor in whether a Mac demo can be made. If there’s a PC demo, there’s a chance it can be done for the Mac, depending on the quality of the code involved.
“If there is no PC demo then there won’t be a Mac demo,” explained e.p.i.c. interactive’s Thomas Steiding. e.p.i.c. is a German Mac game publisher whose library includes Earth 2140 and Knights and Merchants. “Even if you could spend the extra time and effort to create a demo version in all likelihood the license holder might not be too happy about that.”
But simply because a PC version of a game demo exists doesn’t mean the Mac version can be conjured into existence immediately. Westlake Interactive president Glenda Adams has overseen the development of more than 50 major commercial games for the Macintosh since her company’s inception in the late 90s. Adams told MacCentral that only about 10 – 20 percent of the time is a PC game’s demo code useable enough to craft a Mac version without major reengineering.
“The biggest issue for us is the length of development time,” she said. “If the PC demo version’s source code is available and is based on a recent build, we can usually go to the Mac publisher with a good business case to make a Mac demo.”
Almost half the time, by Adams’ estimation, the PC developer can’t even lay their hands on the original source code for the demo, either because it’s been misplaced or deleted all together. “PC developers sometimes don’t save off that demo code,” said Adams.
To make matters worse, PC game demos are developed in advance of the actual game’s release, using pre-release code. As a result, there can be significant enough differences between the demo and the actual game code that getting it to work on the Mac can take months of additional development time.
Aspyr Media vice president Jeff Baietto said that as relationships strengthen between Mac and PC game publishers, demo and conversion work often becomes easier. “As a PC game developer becomes more familiar with our work and the Mac platform, they do whatever they can to make the code more portable for the Mac,” he said.
“Experience helps,” confirmed Contraband Entertainment founder Bill Heineman, whose group is putting the finishing touches on a Mac conversion of Heroes Of Might & Magic IV for 3DO Interactive.
“The more experience any developer has, the more they look at every little thing that bites them. Portability is high on our list here,” said Heineman — his company also does original title development. “Portability solves two problems: It keeps platform conversion costs down, and it also increases the chances that we’ll find problems in the code, because disparate platforms expose flaws that you wouldn’t otherwise know about.”
Pangea Software founder Brian Greenstone develops original games for the Mac, including titles like Bugdom 2 and Otto Matic. As the original developer of such content, creating demos is trivial for Greenstone. “Most of the demo versions of any of my games I’ve done have taken no more than 3 hours to do. For me it’s extremely easy because I know exactly what to do to the code to turn it into a demo,” he said.
Limited return nixes some demo creation
In some cases, publishers don’t see much point in creating demos at all. Titles that carry with them a lot of hype from the PC side, and titles that players will be intimately familiar with sometimes don’t merit the effort.
“Certain games don’t need a demo version,” said MacPlay’s Henry Price. “Gamers are often very clear about what the games are and how they work, and are knowledgeable enough about the market that a demo may not help.”
“Games like The Sims or Medal of Honor sell themselves,” confirmed Baietto. “But we discuss and debate the issue of whether to create a demo with every single game.”
Mac game publishing companies almost uniformly outsource the conversion of their games to third-party development studios. As a result, there’s a very limited pool of talent to work with: Mac game conversion is a specialized field. With fairly low returns on investment compared to other game markets, Mac game conversion budgets are quite lean.
Most major Mac game conversions are completed by only one or two programmers, as opposed the hordes of programmers who can work on the original PC title. The weeks or months a Mac developer can spend working on a demo can detract from their effort on another major game conversion, so the time a programmer spend on a demo is a constant consideration for the developer and publisher alike.
“Do you take a month of [the developer’s] time to get a demo out? Ultimately that decision cuts into our bottom line,” said Price.
Baietto explained that if a demo can be created quickly and without incurring a major development expense, his company is more inclined to pay for the demo’s conversion. Ultimately, it comes down to the condition of the code, the availability of the programmer, and the cost involved — issues echoed by Price and MacSoft producer Al Schilling.
Distributing game demos isn’t cheap. Game publishers depend on magazine CD demo discs and the availability of bandwidth from sites other than their own to feed public demand. High demand just for game updates has shut down servers in the past, and demos are usually dozens, if not hundreds, of megabytes.
Bandwidth isn’t free, even for major players in the market. Baietto even recalled one where Apple removed access to an Aspyr game demo it hosted on iDisk after seeing an alarmingly high number of downloads. This issue is magnified on the PC side, where some game demo downloads have been so popular they’ve actually caused regional Internet disruptions.
Demos sell games … or do they?
Demo versions of games have long been recognized as a useful marketing tool, but it’s far from certain whether or not they actually have an effect on the Mac version’s sales numbers, according to some publishers.
“Having a playable demo can [positively] impact sales, according to surveys I’ve read,” said Schilling, but he indicated that MacSoft hasn’t seen empirical evidence to support it. Price and Adams agreed.
Baietto said that Aspyr hasn’t seen a quantifiable difference in sales and demo versions, but his own suspicion is that Aspyr’s game sales may be higher during their initial weeks of availability when a demo is available.
Heineman has a different perspective on the comparative worth of demos. He’s seen them drive sales directly, through in the inclusion of an order form embedded in the demo itself. “We had orders sent to us by mail and fax from the game demo order form. This was particularly important to international customers,” he said.
Some publishers MacCentral interviewed added that some game demos may actually hurt sales. Publishers supported their suggestion by pointing to frequent online play of demo versions compared to their full retail counterparts, as well as disproportionately high numbers of demo downloads compared to retail sales.
“I think that in some cases, the demo gives too much of the game away. People will play them for hours, and that’s enough for them,” said one publisher.
“I do feel that demos need to be a good sampling of the game, but sometimes it needs to be a bit more of a teaser,” said Baietto, who added that publishers are limited by the PC demo’s own parameters. “We don’t choose where we stop the demo. I trust that the line is drawn where the [original] development studio thinks it’s right.”
Also impacting sales of a game is piracy. Greenstone said that some users inclined toward casual piracy may be more inclined to steal a copy of game if no demo is available. “Having a demo would certainly stop encouraging people to find a pirated copy, that’s for sure,” he said.
Heineman disagreed. “People who pirate, tend to pirate. They don’t buy software,” he said.
Even Greenstone acknowledges that the numbers of demo users who might otherwise pirate a game is small, but he added that the percentage is still significant to a bootstrap Mac game publisher like Pangea. “Demos might cut down piracy by 5 percent or so. That sounds small, but that’s still an extra 1,000 copies sold which can equal around $20,000 extra profit,” he said.
Feedback is important
Alternately, a well-crafted demo can also help sales. Price points to MacPlay’s experience with RealMYST, their conversion of the 3D real-time version of the classic adventure puzzle game, Myst. Price said that MacPlay was convinced to do a demo after receiving e-mail from users curious about various aspects of the game’s play.
Other publishers likewise emphasize the importance of user feedback. “I’d like to say that we’re smart enough to know what our users want, but it’s very important for us to hear from them,” said Schilling.
Schilling said it’s important to be courteous, though. “E-mails telling me about what an idiot I am go straight in the trash. Constructive, thoughtful e-mails are definitely read, however — and the things that our users tell us about in e-mail are the issues that we respond to.”
“None of us take user feedback lightly,” reiterated Baietto. “Things our users have brought to our attention come up all the time in our weekly meetings and really help us prioritize what gets done.”