New demos used to be like a small Christmas, or a birthday that you didn’t really care about but that was better than a regular day. Almost every new game would have some kind of demo available, and back in the day they even came on CDs! Attached to printed game magazines! (ask your parents what either of those things are). Now they seem to be a dying breed, and game developers rarely seem to create them anymore, particularly for triple-A games. So, what happened?
Perhaps the biggest thing is that gaming is now far more mainstream than it was ten and probably even just five years ago. Sony and Microsoft made gaming more affordable for the mainstream, and almost everyone carries a smartphone in their pocket which doubles as a portable gaming device. With the potential audience for your game now much larger than before, it stands to reason that game companies may not want to invest time and money into creating demos for their games. Let’s not forget that these things aren’t cheap. They don’t just coalesce into being in front of you, delivered on a cloud by a cloister of angels; it takes money and manpower to put them together. Spending money and manpower on a demo means there is some money and manpower that you aren’t spending on the main game itself.
Now, for the biggest games in the industry (GTA, Super Mario Bros., Call of Duty, etc.) they clearly need no demo to promote their game. Their audience has developed over literally decades in some cases, and if you’re someone interested in the series then you’re going to buy it whether there’s a demo or not. For something smaller though, a demo could be attractive. The downside of the near-ubiquity of gaming is that you have to compete with a lot of other games, and a demo can be one way to differentiate yourself from the pack, to show what you’re doing that others aren’t.
But demos can also have a dark side. One clear example was Gearbox’s early demo for Aliens: Colonial Marines. It was a vertical slice taken from the game that was still in development, and was shown at both PAX and E3 as “actual gameplay footage”. Colonial Marines was promoted and hyped on the basis of this demo, and no doubt it contributed in no small measure to the number of pre-orders and eventual purchases. Fast forward to when the game was released, and the slice of gameplay the demo was taken from was now radically different in the finished product. Aspects of gameplay were changed, with some being removed entirely. Jim Sterling took particular umbrage at this, and devoted one of his Jimquisition videos to deconstructing the precise changes. It’s well worth a watch.
Something that’s become more popular in recent times has been public betas of games instead of demos, with the meaning of “beta” stretched very thin. These are tantamount to demos without actually having the label of “demo”. Ostensibly they’re public tests of the game, primarily for the purposes of soliciting bug reports, trying to “break” servers during stress test events, and evaluating game balance. Whilst there are certainly some games that do more testing than others, many of these are just glorified demos, with the aim of getting as many people to play a certain game as possible, but at the same time changing little-to-nothing between the beta and the finished product. It’s almost as if “demo” has become a dirty word, with “beta” implying that your feedback is going to contribute directly to the finished product, making you feel good about yourself. Don’t get me wrong there’s nothing wrong with public betas – god knows I’ve been in enough of them over the years to know – but demos posing as betas is almost like false advertising. Don’t pretend that you’re going to listen to the community and make changes before a game goes gold if it’s your real intention simply to ship it as-is. Gamers – like anyone else – respect honesty, and do not like being used.
When it comes to episodic games – such as pretty much anything made by Telltale, for example – the first episode, often given away for free, seems to serve as an unofficial demo. They figure that if you like what you see then you’ll come back for more, and that’s certainly a philosophy I can get behind. Since Telltale have made many critically acclaimed series (The Walking Dead, Tales From The Borderlands, and Sam & Max come to mind) then it would seem they know what they’re doing. I’m also very much in favour of episodic games that can count to three (hint, hint Lord Gaben). The rise of so-called “freemium” games, where the demo is literally the game itself, can also be attributed to this. They figure if you get the game for free then you’ll be more inclined to drop a dollar or two on some extra lives or pretty skins. It’s all fun and games until someone winds up spending over $100 on League of Legends. And I wouldn’t know anything about that. Ahem.
The game demo has humble origins, but these days seems out of favour. Perhaps they’re a relic of a time when gaming was much more of a niche activity, or perhaps the costs involved just became prohibitive, particularly in these days of blockbuster games with blockbuster budgets. If you’re looking for somewhere to cut corners, a demo of your game might well be at the top of the list.