It’s become customary for publishers to hold beta testing sessions for online-driven games before they release, which became popular on consoles starting with last-generation systems and have only increased in prevalence since then. They were primarily for the developers to use for stress test purposes, to make sure the online functions will be working when the games launch. But developers also let players try out games so they can provide feedback on features they enjoyed, and those they feel need some changes.
For a while, that was exclusive to multiplayer games, but it’s become more common with some single-player games. The Dark Souls games somewhat count as examples here, as the demos could be played in single-player mode, though the titles have light multiplayer features. But Nioh from Koei Tecmo was a better example, where a couple of beta sessions were held in 2016 to make sure its features were well-received by most who were interested in it before the full game’s release a year ago. They used both to make sure the game was adequately balanced, and not only was the end result well received, it was also one of the best-selling games in Koei Tecmo’s history worldwide.
That’s why it made sense for Square Enix to utilize this strategy with Project Octopath Traveler for Nintendo Switch, despite it previously being unheard of for a single-player RPG. Following its lengthy showing on a Nintendo Direct in October, Square Enix released a demo that contained two story chapters. Here, you could either play as Primrose, a dancer out for revenge against those who assassinated her father, or Olberic, a somewhat-retired knight forced to wield his sword again after bandits strike his village. Both segments were lengthy enough for players to get a good feel for the game, and include several story sequences, dungeon exploration, and battles.
Following the demo’s release, Square Enix let players fill out surveys to inform the development team of what they did and didn’t enjoy. It took a short while, but Square Enix announced the changes they’ll be making as a result of the feedback. The demo was downloaded over one million times, though only 45,000 responded to the survey. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but the team was still satisfied with the number, and it was a large enough sample size for them to gauge how impressed (or not) players were with it. The video included responses from several members of the development team between Square Enix and Acquire, who will be responsible for spearheading the alterations.
For instance, players felt it took too long to travel from one area to another. So, they’re adding the option for characters to run by shifting the analog stick completely in one direction, instead of having to toggle between walking and running with the press of a button. Holding the “B” button while moving will enable an even faster run. The other alterations also qualify as basic-but-necessary additions, like improving the visibility in the environments, adjusting the UI in the “Save” and “Load” screen so it’s not as easy to overwrite a file, and adding the ability to skip dialogue scenes (which really should have been in already). They’re also adjusting the battles to improve the balancing, though they reportedly weren’t too difficult before if players came up with a good strategy.
This kind of demo is far from common for a Japanese RPG, but it would be nice to see this strategy used by more developers. It will be viable for new properties, as it will serve as a good way for developers to read precisely what their JRPG base wants. New RPG properties tend to be made by younger teams without as much experience, and could use a helping hand.
Not to say there won’t be some hurdles here. Demos take more time to make than some may think, since the developers have to comb through segments of the game that they feel will make for good showcases and first impressions. Demoing a portion of the game that’s underwhelming or too difficult could turn potential fans off. Since RPGs are long games, it’s difficult and time-consuming for them to choose the right section for players to try out, which could take away from development time. They’ll also want to choose a section that doesn’t provide many story or environmental spoilers. Basically, there’s a reason why RPGs tend to have poor demos. On the other hand, the smaller teams tend to be given lower budget titles to work on, and it’s easier for them to allocate time to make demos compared to multi-million-dollar AAA games — but it’s hardly easy, per se.
Project Octopath Traveler, whose name could still be a working title, is due for a worldwide release on Switch sometime later this year. Square Enix didn’t say whether they plan to provide another demo, or update previous one with the changes, but it’s best not to expect either. It could be wiser to dedicate their remaining resources for finishing and polishing the main game, which will ideally turn out well.