Time-Limited Demos, Death by Auto-Save

The Designer’s Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! IX by Ernest Adams is up over at Gamasutra. If you haven’t read the column before, it’s a checklist of bad design choices that will frustrate the heck out of your players. If you missed any of the last eight episodes, you can find a database of all the points here.

This year’s column is particularly good. Points covered are:

- Failure to Explain Victory and Loss Conditions
- Time-Constrained Demos
- Obvious and Cheap Reskins
- Computer Crashed While Saving? Game Over
- Friendly AI Characters That Do More Harm Than Good
- Fake Interactivity
- Bad Gamepad-to-Mouse/Keyboard Conversions
- Setting the Player Up to Fail
- Your Only Save is Immediately Before Your Death

I’m hard-pressed to disagree with much that was said with the exception of time-limited demos. Most of the time, I agree, that time-limited demos are a bad idea. I’d rather have a content-limited demo. If the game cuts me off too soon I can’t tell if I liked it or not. That said, I’ve seen cases where time-limited demos have worked very well. For example, I think PopCap does an excellent job with time-limited demos. I’ve bought several of their games when the demo cut me off and I was eager to play more.

I’ve given some thought as to why some time-limited demos work, and some are just irritating. I think the key difference is not just whether or not the player has had enough time to enjoy the game before the demo runs out, but whether or not the player has had enough time to understand the game before the demo runs out. A casual puzzle game can be understood in a few seconds, and most of the demo is spent finding out if you like it. For an adventure game, you might have to play an hour or more before you understand the mechanics well enough to actually play. If the whole demo is spent learning how to play, you never get enough time to find out if it is fun.

The last point in the article, “Your Only Save is Immediately Before Your Death”, is a really important one. I think we’ve all been bit by this at some time or another; I know I have. You load the game from your save point and die before you have a chance to even do anything. After 10 reloads, you realize you might as well delete the save file. Ernest doesn’t mention it, but this is a critical consideration if your game auto-saves! If you auto-save, be warned that you may have just killed the player permanently if you are not careful.

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One Response to “Time-Limited Demos, Death by Auto-Save”

  1. Independent Developer » Blog Archive » Harry Connick Jr on Spore Says:

    [...] This video is very funny, but it’s also another great example of why it’s important to avoid the game design problem of “death by save file”. [...]

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