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The Demo is Dead, Long Live the Demo

As his firm secures new funding, GameSessions CEO Ed French explains all

With developers telling us that reviews and Metacritic are all but obsolete, the task of persuading a player that they'll like your game seems increasingly mercurial. Gone are the days of coverdiscs or shareware distribution, and even downloadable demos have metamorphosed into mass QA exercises rebranded as 'public betas.' Even the church of free-to-play, although very much in the ascendance, has yet to convert the purveyors of high-budget games or developers unwilling to, sometimes literally, nickel and dime their audiences into submission.

More recently we've seen some innovative attempts to try and solve the problem of putting a player in front of your game. Public pre-release events like EGX or PAX are great to build hype and PR, but have an unavoidably limited audience. Gaikai struggled with its idea of streamed demos before being swallowed up by Sony so it could repurpose the tech for PlayStation Now.

Ed French, CEO of GameSessions, thinks he may have hit upon the solution, at least for PC games.

The idea is that players download a full game, at a speed which is, according to the company's press release "typically 3x faster than from anywhere else," which then integrates into Steam, providing all of the platform's DRM, but which is only playable for a limited period of time. Not only does this let players decide on whether they like the game and whether it runs satisfactorily on their rig, French believes he can radically increase sales for publishers. A recently completed round of investment, raising his total to $5m, seems to indicate he may be on to something.

The service is free to consumers, with GameSessions taking its cut from any sales that the demos generate - all other set-up and integration costs are shouldered by the company itself, creating what the company hopes will be seen as a win/win situation. Some publishers seem to be convinced: the second beta phase for the project launches today, headlined by flagship title Ryse from Crytek.

Intrigued, we caught up with French for a few answers on the ins and outs of the service.

We've seen this sort of service tried in various formats, from demos to shareware to OnLive and Gaikai. What makes you think you can succeed where they fell down?

With GameSessions there's never been so little friction between trying a game and owning a game. It's on your own machine, and you can play on straight after purchase with the same saved game state. What's more the user ends up with a Steam install that's 100 percent a normal Steam install that players trust and love.

"Streaming services can be great and if you want to play PC games on a low-powered tablet they're the way to do it today. However, it's challenging to make the experience really good"

Streaming services can be great and if you want to play PC games on a low-powered tablet they're the way to do it today. However, it's challenging to make the experience really good. It's definitely preferable to avoid connecting on wifi, let alone 3G; you want a cabled ethernet connection to avoid lag. Then there are problems around server costs and performance trade offs that are pretty tough.

Just how robust is the DRM? We haven't seen many impenetrable systems which don't impact the player experience somehow...

When you purchase a game on GameSessions you end up with a 100 percent vanilla Steam install, so you get whatever Steam DRM has been switched on by the publisher. Some take the view that DRM increases sales revenue, and so those companies use a relatively robust level of Steam DRM, others are less convinced of the benefits.

Whilst running as a trial you are using our DRM, and because we demand an internet connection (for the overlays, for the in-game purchase and for logging), achieving good DRM that doesn't get in the way of the user is much easier.

I think the industry accepts that there is no such thing as impenetrable DRM, just harder and easier systems to crack. However we believe our DRM, and particularly the stronger variants, are as effective as anything in use at the moment. As you can imagine, for some of the biggest publishers to work with us we have had to convince them our DRM is strong; after all we let people download the whole game for free.

Have you encountered any resistance from publishers or platform holders like Valve?

Just about every publisher we've spoken to so far is in the process of coming onto the service. We believe that it will take a few months, but we will end up with the vast majority of publishers and games available for free trial, and many for rental too. The biggest problem for publishers can be simply getting enough attention for their games, and free trials are without doubt the best way of engaging gamers in a way they appreciate.

"We talk to Valve regularly to make sure they're well informed about what we're doing and they've been encouraging. That's not surprising, as they stand to gain at least as much as we do"

We talk to Valve regularly to make sure they're well informed about what we're doing and they've been encouraging. That's not surprising, as they stand to gain at least as much as we do. Valve's business is predicated on being supportive of PC gaming as an experience and PC gamers as a user base, and I believe they totally understand that taking friction out of reaching the widest possible audience is to their long-term benefit. At the end of the day the user is getting a Steam key to the purchased games, and have to install the Steam client to run a purchased game. We help Steam reach new players and that's very much in their interest. What's more, every time a gamer buys DLC for the games they purchase through us there is a further benefit to Steam from that sale - we don't get a share of that revenue.

Are session times or progress limited?

Today all sessions are time-limited - that's simple and makes it quicker to bring games onto the service. The publisher gets to choose how long a trial will be as our experience is that it needs a very different length of trial for different games. There's some stuff coming along soon to allow more control over how the game and GameSessions interact and we'll be announcing that shortly.

Will the option to rent/try be integrated to Steam? A button next to the buy button, for example?

That hasn't been done yet - but I can imagine it's something that might appeal to the core Steam fan base. Beyond that we're just as keen to reach a wider audience of PC gamers - there are so many PC's that could be used to play games but I feel that system requirements, long downloads, and fear of buying something they won't like have all made it a bit too scary for many people.

Dan Pearson avatar

Dan Pearson