Let's talk about paid demos

Mega man Legends 3 PosterMega Man hasn't appeared in a game since March 2010's Mega Man 10. He's not scheduled to show his face again any time soon. That's so weird. The franchise has been the face of slapdash sequel profitability for two decades, so it's strange that we've gone a year and a half without any original Mega Man releases and may not see another any time soon.

As recently as three months ago, two Mega Man games were in development. Both were announced last year. Both were canned this summer. While one of those two aborted games was on course for Xbox Live Arcade obscurity, the other was anything but ordinary. Niche series revivals, long-removed sequels, fan involvement, executive politics...the Mega Man Legends 3 Project opened plenty of worm cans in the nine months prior to its abortion.

One can, in particular, piqued my curiosity: the paid demo. And I think it might have the most regrettable casualty in the game's cancellation. Before you groan, hear me out.

Game development is expensive and risky business. One commercial flop is enough to sink most studios, and there's no way to know if a game will break even until it's released. It's no wonder we see so many copy-paste sequels and widespread adoption of the latest blockbuster trends. We can bemoan the conformity all day long, but unless some serious change hits the industry, publishers will continue squashing unproven concepts and milking cash cows dry.

Capcom seems eager to start a new revenue generating trend in the paid demo, which they have tested a few times already. Their first experiment was Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, a bite-size prequel to Dead Rising 2, which was available for $5 a month before the full game launched. Capcom planned a similar approach with Mega Man Legends 3 Prototype Version on the 3DS eShop. Originally intended to launch in May, the Prototype would have given players a glimpse of Mega Man Legends 3 before the full game was even officially scheduled for a full release. Similar to Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, the Mega Man Legends 3 Prototype was a micro-adventure prologue to the full game. Additionally, the Prototype featured concept art and early glimpses of content planned for the full game.

Mega man Legends 3 Rollboss

The Prototype would have starred newcomer Barrett (right), assisting in the construction of a rocket that would retrieve Mega Man from a distant planet. The purple boss character was the winner in a fan design contest.

Paid demos could be beneficial to everyone if properly handled, and I think the Legends 3 Prototype was on the right track. Consider this scenario: the Mega Man Legends 3 Prototype is released in May 2011, prior to receiving its official green light from Capcom and at least six months away from completing development. It costs $3 to download, but anyone who buys the demo receives $5 credit toward the full game and/or access to exclusive content. As planned,  the Prototype is a small but whole adventure that gives the player a glimpse of the full game's mechanics and style. The adventure takes an hour or two for players to complete, after which they are issued a brief questionnaire ("Would you be interested in a full version of this game?") and given the chance to pre-purchase the game at a substantial discount, in the neighborhood of half price.

I see this scenario working out well for everybody. Publishers could gauge interest in the full product, grab some early revenue months before the full game launches, and even make a little money back on canceled projects. The reduced risk would afford developers more independence and foster creativity, and the player feedback would come early enough in the development process to actually allow meaningful changes. Finally, players get an early experience of games that may or may not see full releases, a chance to support and influence more experimental games, and a reduced price to commit early to a product (which, if canceled, would obviously require some sort of refund or at least a credit transfer to another game). It's like crowd funding, but the fund raiser needs to support its idea with a working prototype (the demo) and the crowd is at least guaranteed a small payoff for its investment (the demo, again).

Mega man Legends 3 Concept

It's easy to support the notion that all demos should be free. They always have been. But we're mired in inflexible $60 price points and safe, me-too games because publishers and players alike are resistant to change. Paid demos may not even be the solution to such problems, but if players can't accept this sort of change, then they had better get used to planned downloadable content, second hand purchase punishment, and intrusive DRM. Capcom's certainly no strange to such practices, but the company may have stumbled upon a fair way to offset risk, shorten revenue cycles, and even encourage creativity.

What do you think? Could paid demos benefit the industry, under the right circumstances? Are players, developers, or publishers too set in their ways to adopt such an arrangement? Is this even necessary as the economic viability of indie games increases along with the standardization of digital distribution?