Editorial: Demoing Decline

Needs more ladies though. (Imitanis, age 13)
The demo of Duke Nukem 3D shot the game to worldwide fame.

Many years ago, back when I was a wee laddie, the perceived wisdom of the age was to follow an apparently successful formula, and strike it rich. This formula was: offer a demo, and convert demo players into customers by having amazing demos. All that was needed was to get the demo into a large enough number of hands and have a large enough conversion rate. Simple! Print media help enormously with this by bundling as many demos as possible onto a single disc that came free with the magazines of the day. Going back further, and some demos could even be found in shops, sometimes with a minor fee charged by the retailer for taking up valuable retail space. Fast forward to today and we see that there are few demos available anymore.

Okay, so back in the day it would have been almost impossible to find gameplay footage on the internet, if one even had access to it that is. There was no social media for friends to share the latest screenshots with each other either, this was largely handled by traditional print media. And yes, after looking at wonderful screenshots for a few months, the game would inevitably wind up as a demo on the free disc. These demo gave away enough to reel in all the gamers that had been been following the game through development, you ended abruptly enough to leave them urgently wanting more. This is how hype was build long before game companies could place banner adds on everyone website willing to sell every inch of white space.

Demos still exist and probably always will, but they have become the exception rather than the rule. Even in the last few years, the decline has been rapid. Publishers seem to have settled on marketing and heavy, heavy promotion as an alternative – a surer way to drum up interest in and expectation for the game, and one that does so without the dread risk of a gamer discovering that, actually, they do not like this all that much. For some really big games, the norm even seems to be not releasing a demo until weeks or months after the full release, presumably to help drum up those few stragglers who somehow resisted the pervasive trailers and advertisements.

Blizzard always allow people to try their games through an open Beta
Open Beta, another form of the modern demo

Adverts and trailers do not always tell the truth, but so often they are all we get to go on until embargoes lift and launch-day reviews land. In a very fundamental way, such marketing lies about the experience awaiting us. The camera angles are rarely those found while playing, while the checkpoints and the choke points and the guy named CockLord12 and all the minor irritations bear no mention. It sells an idealised version of the game experience, and one that leans far too closely to the movie model – nothing at all to do with the act of playing a videogame. I could not buy a game based on promotion alone, and to be honest I probably would not buy it on reviews alone – I need to try it myself, see whether it lights up those strange pathways in my brain that entail not just passing enjoyment but complete fixation upon the experience at hand. I need a demo.

I and other staff on this site have written about Early Access games on Steam before. I will not go into the problems I have with this service here, but it could be said that these are the demos of our day – but why should we pay a premium for the pleasure? Many of these games have no ‘win’ conditions yet, or are feature incomplete – much like a demo, yet we are asked to part with our own cash upfront on the promise of receiving the full game some day in the future. A day that may not even come to pass. Just this month Valve had to drop Earth: Year 2066 from their Early Access service because the developer misled customers about content that was available in the current build. Thankfully, people are receiving refunds for their purchases, but how long will it be before someone creates a project with the sole purpose of doing a runner with all the cash that people pay for the development of the game?

The rise of the free to play model may turn more demo like in a way. The first hit is free, but cough up now if you want to play the rest. I would actually be okay with that model – it is when one has to seperately pay for features or an advantage that the F2P concept makes me ill at ease. Having a go, working out if it is for me, and paying to unlock the rest has forever seemed an eminently sensible way to market a game. Unless, of course, it is a game with a really boring beginning that is mostly tutorial and exposition, but that is a whole other kettle of silly design decisions.

Have you bought a game off of the strength of its demo? Would you like a free to play game where you paid for content, not features? What draws you towards buying games today? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Bring back the Beta, honestly.

    Most companies now RELEASE their betas, and they charge people for access to them. Buggy software at full cost? No thanks. Many games languish, then, without any fixes forthcoming. Or, with only the most serious issues addressed.

    How about instead, we see companies release betas to track down bugs and fix them before release. And, they can release polished demos, to entice people to buy the full product. Then, the people who actually put down the money for the full version get an experience worth the cost.

  2. It seems to me that most of the negative outcomes listed in that video are because the game and/or the demo is bad. Would I buy a bad game? Probably not, and like the video says, this is why sales are hurt.

    This is why we need to try games before we buy them though. I find gaming to be like reading a book, if I’m not hooked in the first chapter, I’m unlikely to finish the book and therefore not buy it. All a game needs is a demo with an interesting 30 minutes of play.

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