The Free Sample: Explaining Minecraft's Enviable Success

Matt Barton's picture

Minecraft: It takes more than screenshots to sell gameplay.Minecraft: It takes more than screenshots to sell gameplay.I'm certainly not the only one who has ever wondered why so much of modern gaming (and, if we look back, past gaming) is so focused on graphics. Surely, there are more important issues at stake when we discuss a game--for instance, its rules, setting, story, modes, and so on. There is a reason why so many people still enjoy Tetris, for instance, whereas games whose major appeal was graphical (such as The 7th Guest) fade quickly after the initial blitz. Most people who bother to give it much thought will quickly come to the conclusion that graphics have much less to do with their enjoyment of a game than the marketing seems to suggest or even insist.

I have given the matter much thought over the years, but keep coming back to marketing. The reason why graphics continue to dominate most discussions of game quality is that so many of us depend on them to learn about new games. In particular, I'm thinking of still shots--screenshots that can be put in a magazine review or advertisement, the back of a game box, a website, and so on. It's enlightening to look through a stack of 80s gamer mags and see "eye-popping" screenshots of games that look woefully crude to us today. It has always been easy to put these images on the marketing materials and use them to lure gamers. It is something that gamers can see or glance at, then make a snap evaluation of the game's quality. The fact that this evaluation is so often wrong does not seem to deter gamers the way it should.

However, the reason visuals persist in marketing materials is that it is difficult to sell gameplay. To do that, we have to rely on lots of text or complex illustrations, and even then you aren't likely to get it. Anybody can look at a fantastic screenshot on the back of a box and say, "Wow, that's awesome." However, imagine trying to get someone excited about playing Tetris just by describing the rule set. Even if you allow for video captures on modern websites, you are still unable to advertise the gameplay--the only way to do that is to let someone actually play your game. Most websites for new games just feature "trailers" that do indeed function like movie trailers--marketing materials for a static medium.

I think things are changing very quickly, though, now that designers can use browser-based playable demos and such to quickly give people a taste of the actual gameplay. That's probably why Minecraft and similar projects have done so well recently. While screenshots from Minecraft would be very unlikely to impress anyone enough to buy it, trying out the playable demos do the trick. Arguably, playable demos (especially the ones that shipped on CD-ROMs with gaming magazines) have been doing this for a long time, but it's important to see that they are still bundled with magazines (which depend on the revenues generated by advertisements, which suffer from the static image problem I discussed earlier). Beyond acquiring them and putting them into your machine, you'll probably still have to deal with a long install procedure and who knows what else. You still need a way to get someone interested enough in trying a game to bother; it hasn't been nearly as casual and non-committal as it can be today.

What's nice about all these quick and dirty browser-based games and playable demos is that they can give you a free sample. They remind me of the food vendors in shopping malls who give away the bourbon style chicken on a toothpick to passersby. You'd probably never consider actually going up to the counter and asking for a sample, nor would you be likely to stand in line or wait for one. The reason you take it is that someone hands it to you; there's a strong incentive just to try it out. You also get an idea that you'll like it; otherwise, why would they be relying on this tactic?

The quick and dirty browser demo is similar tactic; put a small a piece of your game in a browser and let people play enough to get a good taste of the gameplay. Eliminate any commitment or obligation; just hand it over and cater to the impulse: "Oh, that was fun, let me spend the money to get the full game." An intriguing side benefit to small developers is that their games, which typically aren't heavily invested in advanced graphics, can fit more easily into this format.

In short, it's quite possible that we are currently in the midst of a very intriguing period in game design history, in which even the most humble game developer can put together a fun and innovative game, put a playable version on the web as a free sample, and lap up the dollars as gamers drop in to sample and then savor the gameplay. Suddenly, the uber-expensive eye candy is unimportant and quite possibly even irrelevant.

Think for a moment of advanced graphics simply as a very expensive marketing or advertising campaign for a game. For the same reason that you don't really need to care about whatever chain is selling the bourbon chicken at the mall--you just need to know that you like the taste--you don't need those graphics to sell you on a game with awesome gameplay. All you need to do is cheaply, quickly, and effectively sample it. Instead of a huge advertising campaign or million-dollar audiovisuals, all you need a small piece of your game stuck on the end of a toothpick.

What will this mean for the near-future? I think we're already starting to see a surge of really innovative games. I'm sure that more will follow in the years ahead, at least until web and browser technology enable the big players to throw more advanced demos onto the web for instant-sampling.

Comments

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
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Joined: 12/31/1969
I think that's why Xbox Live

I think that's why Xbox Live arcade games have been so successful. Each and every game is a downloadable demo that gives you a real taste of the full version and then immediately gives you the opportunity to purchase it while still playing the game while the proverbial iron is hot. The PC and Xbox 360 are probably the best at this, followed by PS3. The Wii doesn't offer them and it suffers because of it (at least my purchases). The iPhone and similar mobile app stores also tend to offer lots of lite versions to entice you and/or very low cost of entries (.99 is hard not to take a chance on). It makes perfect sense, just like longer song demos on sites like iTunes and Amazon MP3.

I'm still trying to figure out how to place mined blocks in Minecraft. I played my full version for the first time yesterday and was of course killed by monsters once night fell and I didn't build a shelter...

n/a
Chip Hageman
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Joined: 10/06/2010
Bill: It's probably best to

Bill: It's probably best to set the game mode to 'peaceful' (turns off monsters) until you get the hang of things.

BTW: nice article Matt, I agree that this is a very engaging way for authors to get their games noticed. Truly viral marketing at it's finest. But this model is kind of limited to Flash and Java based applications at the moment.

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Matt Barton
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Limitation or Feature?
Chip Hageman wrote:

BTW: nice article Matt, I agree that this is a very engaging way for authors to get their games noticed. Truly viral marketing at it's finest. But this model is kind of limited to Flash and Java based applications at the moment.

Arguably, though, that's precisely what makes it so powerful. As long as you're "limited" to Flash and Java, the playing field is wide open. Probably sooner rather than later, there will be some platform that will allow much more sophisticated stuff, but that will also require a big team with a big budget. Right now, anybody could jump in there and do this.

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clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
blocks
Bill Loguidice wrote:

.

I'm still trying to figure out how to place mined blocks in Minecraft. I played my full version for the first time yesterday and was of course killed by monsters once night fell and I didn't build a shelter...

Left button takes , right button puts (err or is it the other way around). also make sure you have the block selected (in the inventory window at bottom of screen, think FPS, but not guns, blocks!)

Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Now tell me how to play Dwarf Fortress... ;-)
clok1966 wrote:
Bill Loguidice wrote:

.

I'm still trying to figure out how to place mined blocks in Minecraft. I played my full version for the first time yesterday and was of course killed by monsters once night fell and I didn't build a shelter...

Left button takes , right button puts (err or is it the other way around). also make sure you have the block selected (in the inventory window at bottom of screen, think FPS, but not guns, blocks!)

Thanks, I''ll have to try that again. I was able to take fine and I had stuff in my right hand, but it seemed like it would throw or hit with the items rather than place them nicely during my first play session.

n/a

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