Best of 2015: Allow Me To Demonstrate

First Published: May 13, 2015
Voted For By: Chris, Ric, Lorna
Reason(s) For Vote:
“Demos always made up a large part of my gaming childhood, especially on PC. Cover discs on magazines came with the promise of a taste of things to come. Although they’re not cost effective these days (in all likelihood) they still have a place and their lack of inclusion in modern gaming leaves the gamer placing tons of trust in the developer. We’ve seen in the past that this is abused so Adam’s article of asking where demos are highlights their importance perfectly. ” ~ Chris

“Adam is the kind of person who can completely break apart an article in a single sentence, so if you give him an article you know it’s going to be good. This is a very interesting angle on the evolution of games, looking specifically at one thing that has fallen by the wayside in the era of Web 2.0 and all that bollocks.” ~ Ric

“This piece really spoke to me because it covered something we don’t often consider: the fact that demos seem to be a vanishing part of the gaming ecosphere. Demos were a big part of my gaming past and, I believe, are still a necessity. An interesting, thought-provoking piece on a little-considered topic. Great stuff.” ~ Lorna

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 DoomKnee-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.


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