Allow Me To Demonstrate

Do you know how many games there are on Steam right now? 6174. Do you know how many demos there are on Steam right now? 889. Not too bad, you might think, 15% isn’t terrible, but once you start looking a little closer you realise that things are actually much worse. In the old days it was hard to publicise your game; the internet was in its infancy, none of the consoles were online, nobody outside of the games media and people who went to E3 ever saw trailers, and if you wanted to get people’s attention your best bet was a magazine cover story or a big cardboard display in every games store you could manage. In that world the demo was a powerful tool; distributed via magazine or that little display thing at the checkout of your local Electronics Boutique it enabled you to get your game into the hands of potential customers and allowed them to experience it, to some degree, in the hope that it would entice them into making a purchase.

Shareware – a thing that basically doesn’t exist any more – was specifically designed to get your product spread as far and wide as possible to get a buzz going, and often included entire acts of games with no limitations. I fondly remember playing the first chapter of Doom – Knee-Deep in the Dead – endlessly, forever wondering what the later chapters The Shores of Hell and Inferno might be like but lacking the financial wherewithal to find out. PC Gamer cover CD demos are pretty much what sustained my gaming habit between the ages of twelve and sixteen as my parents rarely bought me any games and I was too lazy to get a paper round.

Illustration by Nanka Kurashiki

Now the landscape is very different; the internet is ubiquitous and so, it seems, are trailers for games (10,627 on Steam right now). Your Xbox One and PS4 dashboards are jammed with adverts for new games and Steam has them on rotation front and centre. Shareware has been replaced by Free To Play; it serves the same purpose of providing a free taste as a means of encouraging you to spend money, and none of the big publishers really bother with demos for their banner titles any more.

Actually, that’s not entirely true, they do have demos they just don’t call them demos and they frequently charge you for the privilege of playing them. I am, of course, referring to “Beta Access”. I shall refrain from writing too much about the fact that “Beta” has become an all but meaningless term because it’s now used to refer to everything that’s in a pre-release state, but these days “Beta Access” for games is basically just an opportunity for the developers to get some free stress and QA testing for their probably-already-gone-gold game. You have to admire the dickish ingenuity in convincing people that pre-ordering a game in order to play a demo of it for a few days is some kind of amazing reward and a perfectly acceptable thing to have to do.

The one big AAA exception to this pattern actually seems to be Blizzard, who have almost gone the shareware route in allowing you to play the first 20 levels of World of Warcraft and the first Act of Diablo 3 for free. No nagging micro-transactions, no “you’re actually helping reduce our QA budget here”, just the first couple of hours of the games for you to play and see if you like them followed by a brief “you can buy the full thing now if you want to”.

The thing is, there are still almost 900 demos on Steam, so who’s making them? The answer is, generally, budget games, indie games and casual games. Games such as Galagan’s Island: Repymian Rising, Elementary My Dear Majesty, Stay Dead Evolution, and BANZAI PECAN: The Last Hope For The Young Century. Clearly the publishers of these games feel demos are worthwhile; perhaps because they can’t get good coverage and so need an alternative way to promote their game, or perhaps they’re floating in a sea of so many near-identical titles that if they don’t provide a demo nobody will even glance at them.

I can understand why publishers don’t want to bother with demos any more; they’re expensive to make, often at a point where the game isn’t really finished yet and you really want to focus your resources where they’re most needed, and people are likely to moan if you just put out the first half hour of the game or spoil any part of the story. On top of that, the games media are now ferocious when it comes to covering any issues with a new game, and word of mouth spreads so fast that putting out a demo can easily be seen as too much of a risk. What if people find something they don’t like? Will people cancel pre-orders and tell their friends not to buy it? Will Polygon run a hit-piece because you’ve not included a playable female character in your demo? Will TotalBiscuit put a logo on your Steam page that gets you death threats because it doesn’t run at 1080p 60fps?

It’s easy to argue that the need for demos is long gone; there’s so much in the way of gameplay trailers, Twitch streamers, and games media coverage that you don’t really need a demo to decide if you’re going to want to buy a game or not – besides, you probably pre-ordered it months ago anyway because you’re an idiot. Thing is though, demos still work. Take the Blizzard example I mentioned earlier, if not for that I’d never have bought Diablo 3 because it’s fairly expensive (especially if you want the near-mandatory expansion as well) and while I like ARPGs I didn’t really see why it was worth my time over something like Path of Exile, based on the media coverage I’d read. After playing through the fact act with a couple of characters, however, I was hooked and immediately went to Blizzard’s store and bought the game.

Shareware, demos, free trials – however you want to do it – giving people a free taste of your game is a good thing, if your game is actually any good, of course. You don’t even have to put it out pre-release if you’re really scared; most of the pre-orders and day-one purchasers will buy your game regardless, but those who are unsure, or on the fence about whether to buy your game or not will likely be swayed if they can play a bit of it. Plus it removes the largely bullshit “I like to try before I buy” piracy excuse that people often cite.

So go on, publishers, give us more demos, let us see why your stuff is worth buying and we’ll likely buy it, just don’t be dicks about it. I still remember the god-awful BioShock demo that came with SecuROM DRM (yes, on a demo) which meant it refused to run on my PC because it detected “hacking tools”. I would have had to download a crack for a fucking demo if I wanted to play it and as a result I resolved never to buy the full game. So, you know, don’t do that.


Last five articles by Adam B



  1. Chris Toffer says:

    Man, demos. I miss demos. Half-Life had a demo, although I only played it after the release.

    Great work dude.

  2. Lorna Lorna says:

    I used to base most of my purchasing decisions on demos – to some extent I still do. Back in the day, there was less money to chuck at things, so each game bought had to be carefully considered. Sometimes all I could do was endlessly play the same levels over and over from one of the PC Gamer cover discs. I remember constantly playing the first three levels of Commandos until I eventually bought it. Even back on the Amiga, I used the cover floppys extensively – stuff like Worms – all three levels – was played to death.

    More recently, Amnesia REALLY yanked me in with its trailer. That was the reason I wanted to play it – the fear, the tension, the interesting gameplay. Another one has been Zombi. I know the game is old, but only just now being released on PS4 etc, but damn that trailer is good. In fact, word is that the trailer and song are fantastic but the game sucks! There is something to be said for making a strong trailer!

    I guess I still very much appreciate and value trailers and DO base purchasing decisions off them. Is it perhaps that we come from a time where these things were commonplace and integral to playing, therefore we place more weight in them? Maybe they just work for me.

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