Visit the site of almost any large game company—not to mention download sites like fileplanet.com—and you'll find hundreds of freely distributed, fully playable versions of the latest PC games. To be sure, the downloadable files are not the complete, shrink-wrapped version you'd buy in a store. For example, the sports titles will offer one matchup between two predetermined teams, and other games usually offer one or two levels that you can play through. By comparison, the version you shell out $40 for offers a few dozen levels or a full league of teams. But at a time when the free distribution of digital entertainment is a somewhat controversial matter, this creates an interesting state of affairs. Video game companies are effectively subsidizing our ability to play their games for free.
After all,getting these games into the hands of eager players is not cheap. For one thing, the file sizes are massive, some of them more than 100 MB. (Too big to download using a dial-up modem, but only an hour's worth of downloading via cable or T1.) And, not surprising given the price-point, the demand for these games is extensive. The combination of thousands of people simultaneously downloading immense files can lead to only one result: immense bandwidth costs for the game providers.
Why are the game companies so keen to give their product away? The video game industry has a long history of borrowing tricks from the movie business, and these downloadable games are no exception: They're the gamer equivalent of movie trailers, which are also freely distributed on the Web. Like trailers, the demo versions are designed to whet your appetite for a title rather than satiate it.
But movie trailers make economic sense because movies are narrative experiences. Most of the time, seeing a fragment of a story makes you more interested in seeing the whole thing. But while most video games follow some sort of obligatory narrative, I suspect few gamers are drawn to these titles because of their storytelling. Video games are experiential—they're about dropping into an interesting new environment, checking it out for a while, and then moving on.
The game companies' willingness to subsidize the market for free demos suggests that they think the primary appeal of video games is narrative: completing all the objectives, making it through all the levels—in other words, getting to the end of the story. This may well be a major attraction for younger players who have endless time and patience for this sort of thing. But for an elderly gamer like myself (I'm 34), making it to the end of the story is overkill. It takes around 50 hours to complete most of these games. That's time that most people with a job or a family do not have.
Consider my experience with Eidos Interactive's recent title Hitman 2. I was intrigued by the early press on this game because it belonged to the "first-person stealth" genre: While there's no shortage of violence in them, stealth games reward you for being quiet, for lurking in the shadows before you go in for the kill. Hitman 2 was supposed to be one of the most accomplished of the genre—and in fact, the introductory level I played, set in a Sicilian mafia palace straight out of the Godfather series, was entrancing. I'd creep around the grounds for 10 minutes, then pounce on a sentry, then go back to creeping. I worked my way through the assassination over three nights and enjoyed every minute of it.
But when the time came to pony up for the real version—which promised to take me from St. Petersburg to Kuala Lumpur and beyond—I didn't feel the need to dig any further. This was partially because, at this pace, committing myself to finishing the full game was going to be a monthlong affair. And partially because I wanted to throw myself into the free demo for No One Lives Forever 2. No doubt the gaming market is driven by 15-year-olds who are dying to travel to St. Petersburg after sampling Sicily for free. But the gaming business already owns that demographic. If they're going to continue to grow at the rate they've grown over the past 10 years, they need to attract the generation raised on Pac-Man and Intellivision, precisely the crowd that has little interest in playing games all the way to their conclusion.
For a grown-up gamer, the Hitman 2 download was the perfect size: just enough game-play to get a taste of the action but not enough to alienate the boss or the wife. And right now, you can't beat the price.