Play-Before-You-Pay Gathers Strength

The Canadian company is best known for its heavyweight PC series' such as Disciples, Supreme Ruler and Galactic Civilizations. In the PC gaming community, these are decent-sized brands commanding loyal followers and strong review scores. But on retail shelves, they struggle to find a place alongside mainstream IP, and monster-marketed big brands.

Strategy First supplements its retail efforts with an online shop; but one with a difference. As well as being able to order boxed copies, consumers can download entire games for free; and play them for a trial period of three hours, before deciding whether or not to pay. No credit card details are required until the decision-point is reached.

According to Product Manager Emanuel Wall, "If consumers have the chance to play the game before buying, it helps alleviate potential buyer remorse. If someone buys a game they hate, then it results in a bad feeling about us as a brand. This system eliminates that risk and in doing so helps sales overall."

It all sounds a bit, well, soft-hearted, until you look at the facts. "We're finding that most people who make the commitment to download a game, then come back and buy it. Whether that will continue as this rolls out, I don't know, but it's an encouraging start."

Bag of tricks

Try-before-you-buy is not a new concept in the game industry. Players have been able to poke around with in-store demos for decades, while cover-mounted demos and now downloadable demos are ever in the canny marketers bag of tricks.

But demos are throw-away pieces of content that consumers download or play whether or not they have a serious interest in making a final purchase. Downloading the whole game seeks out consumers who are nearly, but not quite, ready to buy.

Demos also take time to prepare, and are sometimes poorly created, to the detriment of sales. A full game only has itself to blame if it can't grab a consumer's attention after three hours.

"Depending on the size of the game and the consumer's broadband capabilities, you're looking at about two hours of download time," says Wall. "You're making a commitment to the game already, but you want to be certain."

Smaller outfits

For Strategy First, the idea is to give consumers enough confidence to come back to more. Whatever is lost in consumers who download, but don't make a purchase, is gained in repeat traffic.

The company, which regularly publishes material from smaller outfits, sees itself as a potential hub for niche product that's difficult to buy, and hard to judge. It's also good for the international market.

"Our games are difficult to find in some territories in the world where people want access to our games and for one reason or another can't get them. This is a good way around that." Consumers, increasingly, are happy with digital content and have no interest in waiting for boxes to turn up at their doorstep. But digital downloads can still disappoint. This system alleviates that potential.

Of course, there is always the danger from those who would take advantage of consumer-friendly innovations. " Piracy is always the fear," says Wall. "Every day someone here is finding ways to prevent that, but it goes with the territory. Piracy affects all distribution channels."

What about marketing? "The whole point of this exercise is word of mouth. If consumers have a good experience, they will pass on the message. That's what's happening, and we are expanding the number of games we're making available in this way."

Wall says the technology needed to drive such retail systems is dropping in price. There might come a time when the smallest PC game developer could use this system," he says.

"For a company of our size it can't be our only route to market," adds Wall. "But it complements retail and offers us a new way to reach consumers and to keep them happy."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.