Running Game Demos

Game demos are one of the key ways of expanding the player base of a game. While it’s possible for people to just see the book and buy it for the art or content, many buy games after they had a great time playing it. There is something about an in-person demo that lets a person connect with a game on a more personal level than simply reading the book.

This means the purpose of demonstrating a game is to entice sales or attract other players. A successful demo is one that ends with a sale or at least a positive recommendation. Therefore, there is a protocol in place to make sure the demo accomplishes this.

I’ve seen this principle missed a couple times by people trying to sell me on games (one board game and one video game), so I thought I’d write up their errors. It’s a good example of what not to do if you want someone to be invested in something you enjoy or are trying to sell.

1. Give the person learning the best starting situation you can. When I had the video game demonstrated, the guy picked a character and then revealed after character selection was done that he had taken the one with the best performance in the game. This is something you help someone with before hand. If you know a certain character or combination works well, recommend it. Don’t force it, but it’s information a new person will appreciate.

2. Try to make the initial experience as balanced as you can between challenging and straight forward. If it’s a cake walk, then the game will come off as too easy. If it’s too “curb stomp the new guy,” they won’t have any fun. For example, when I tried the board game, the other person deliberately chose the play style my chosen faction was weak against. As a result, the game was one-sided with no hope of victory. I ended up going through most of it frustrated I couldn’t do anything interesting. No one wants to play a game they feel is broken.

3. Suppress the desire to win quickly. You need to balance your play style – if you know you’re going to win, deliberately make a few mistakes or bad calls to give the other person a chance. Let them try something out. Let them discover the game’s magical combo bits. Shutting them down by going cut throat (as both demonstrators did) denies the essential experience of the game.

4. When demonstrating a game with lots of options, recommend a set you know to work well. I have a poor impression of the video game because my chosen combination wasn’t very good – but the guy trying to sell it to me didn’t help even though I asked!

5. Be a good sport. This is the biggest sin the board game demonstrator made. He made a huge deal of his wins, crowing about it non-stop, even though he knew I was frustrated. Taunts have no place in this setting if you want to get someone into it. If you make the other person think that everyone who plays the game is a jerk, they will stay away. (Magic the Gathering has this issue in spades.)

Since Aes is a role-playing game, there are some special caveats that come with that.

Designing pre-made characters (iconics) is a good path toward getting points 1 and 4. Part of the fun in an RPG is character creation, but some want a quick game to get to the mechanics and lore. Each iconic should be balanced and playable in their own right, with a variety of options the player can pick from. You don’t want one out of six of the icons to be “the sucky one,” since then the player who ends up with them will have a terrible time and you just lost a customer. (This is not the same as the character not matching the play style of the explorer – that’s just a mismatch and they’ll be able to see that.) It can help to couple pre-made characters with preset demo scenarios that give each of them a highlight. Players who get even one “Moment of Awesome” in a game are far more likely to buy it.

The second is to generally avoid GM vs. player situations. Challenge maps, where the Invisible Hand is deliberately trying to kill everyone, can be fun, but only if announced in advance. Aes is focused on storytelling with the Invisible Hand as a guide rather than a tyrant, so challenge maps wouldn’t work to show off the game’s best traits. By not having a “win” condition for the Invisible Hand pegged to player loss, you stay in line with point 2 and 3 above. The GM wins when the players are smiling and laughing.

Player vs. Player (PvP) should be strongly discouraged. PvP can bring out another competition source that can derail the intended positive atmosphere of the game. PvP often leads to a violation of 5 above, since bad sportsmanship can quickly emerge if the players start to war among one another. This is especially bad if there are a mix of experience levels. Aes is meant for cooperative play more than PvP, so this again is a necessary choice to convey how the game is intended to unfold.

Avoid the mistakes, focus on how to create the right environment, and you’ll be good at drawing in new players to your favorite games!

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